How Are You Going To Learn If There Are No Teachers?


Friday, 9.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Doctor Who: You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself! (from Tooth and Claw in Season 2) – Russell T. Davies

There are two things that I’m thinking about today – and they are sort of related.

The first thing has to do with knowledge – where it is, how to get it and who can help you.

And the second is what that help is worth.

The reason for this is that I’d like to find someone who is an expert on a particular research methodology – someone that can help guide me as I try and learn more about it.

The problem is we’d all like to learn from the best in the field- but what if that isn’t possible – you can’t afford them, they’ve retired or moved on?

In such a situation I’m always reminded of a story my grandmother used to tell.

It was about a boy – a poor one who wanted to be an archer.

His name was Eklavya and he wanted to learn from the best teacher in the land – Drona – the one who taught the royal family.

But he was too poor and Drona refused to take him on.

Eklavya was undaunted. He went into the forest and built a clay statue of Drona and practised in front of it – treating the statue as his teacher – as his guru.

And he became good – so good in fact that when Drona and the royal princes came across him practising they realised that he was better than them.

Things didn’t turn out too well for him, but before we get to that…

There is a concept in India called gurudakshina.

Teachers, or gurus, didn’t charge fees for lessons.

Instead, once students had finished learning they gave their teachers a gift – something that showed how they valued what they had received.

A pre-historic pay what you want pricing strategy, if you will.

It was a strong concept back then and Drona, when he realised that Eklavya was going to be better than the princes he tutored, was torn.

Should he be proud of the young archer? Or worried for the future of the kingdom when a poor peasant could be better than the royals?

Eklavya stood before Drona and asked him to ask for anything as gurudakshina – he saw him as his guru even though all he had done was practice in front of a statue.

Drona asked for Eklavya’s right thumb – and the boy severed it and gave it to him – ending his archery dreams.

I did say it didn’t end well…

Now there are more layers of story to this – but for that you need to read the epic.

The point is this – knowledge has no value when it is secret.

If you know something – then until people know what you know they can’t tell if it’s worth anything.

So knowledge is not an asset – not in the sense that you have to control it and use it carefully in case it wears out.

If it’s good people will value it – and value you.

In addition, when you put your knowledge out into the world you lose nothing.

You don’t know less – you haven’t had something stolen from you.

Unless you have a different point of view – one that sees knowledge as a business and something you can make money from.

Which, to be fair, is the foundation of the entire modern education system and the exploding number of courses out there.

Or you could read a book.

The educational business model that looks most appealing, however, is probably one that is closer to the gurudakshina concept.

The online MOOC provider Coursera, for example, lets you audit many courses. You can do the whole course for free – only paying if you want a certificate at the end.

If you’re in the knowledge business – and we all are to some extent – that’s an approach that might be worth adapating and adopting and seeing what that does for you.


Karthik Suresh

How To Tackle Really Big Problems – Like The Future Of Humanity


Thursday, 9.31pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You are either part of the solution or part of the problem. – Eldridge Cleaver

The UN Sustainable Development Goals have been coming up a lot in conversations – so what are they and why should you care about them?

You could start by reading the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its 91 clauses and nearly 15,000 words, but what if you want a quick summary?

un-sdg-official.png Source: UN in collaboration with Project Everyone

The graphic above lists 17 goals – a todo list for world leaders to do some really big things and improve the situation on the planet.

Looking at that list, however, do you understand what they’re trying to do?

I struggled a bit – the 17 items seem sort of related and sort of not.

But 17 items is just too many to have in your head and think about.

So I thought it might help to group them and look at them again – which looks like this:


When you do that, you start to see relationships between the goals.

Some have to do with basic needs – like having money, food and energy.

Others have to do with opportunity – like having an education decent work and being treated the same.

We’d like to live in good societies – peaceful ones, with safe cities and responsible industries.

And we need to look after the planet – to preserve the life on land and sea.

And this results in higher level, simpler view that looks like this:


Writing out the points as a sentence:

We need to work together to meet humanity’s basic needs, enable people to contribute, create decent societies and preserve the planet.

Which, quite frankly, is everyone’s job – not just for world leaders.

So there you go – nearly 15,000 words reduced to 21.

Now you can’t argue that that you don’t know what the plan is to save the world.

So the next question is what are we going to do to help?



Karthik Suresh

Solving Problems Versus Improving Situations


Wednesday, 5.10pm

Sheffield, U.K.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. – H. L. Mencken

One of the things about real-world problems is that there is often no way of knowing if you are solving them or making things worse.

A lot of people talk about problems being wicked.

That sounds good – better than complex or difficult – wicked is more about messy, complicated uncertain situations.

But it isn’t clear – what is it that makes a problem wicked?

If you want an academic discussion you might like Guy Peter’s analysis here but I was wondering if we could pick out a few types of problems to consider and see if they might be called wicked.

The effects of feedback

The first type is one that you’ll see quite often, once you’re aware of what’s going on.

For example, you need to invest in sales and marketing to grow your business.

In many businesses that’s not something that will result in immediate sales.

What it does is raise costs straight away.

Increased costs mean profits go down.

The powers that be order costs to be cut which then results in a reduction in the sales and marketing budget.

This process ends up going from left to right and back again, linking two activities that cannot be done at the same time – investing in sales and marketing and cutting sales and marketing costs.

So what this does is set up an underlying tension in the business – an oscillation as the business bounces from investment to cost-cutting and back again – with no real solution or continuity.

Incompatible objectives

When you go to an elite university you will have a choice: social life, sports and grades.

Pick any two.

You can stay out all night partying and do last minute cramming, ending up with great memories and a good degree but you’re not going to get out to the playing field early every morning as well.

If you’re training hard the alcohol, fast food and indulgences are out.

It’s gym and the books for you.

The thing is you can do any two well – but if you try and do all three you’ll probably fail at all of them, or at least not do very well.

And this kind of thing carries on.

Time, cost and quality, for example.

If you increase or decrease one you’ll normally affect the others/

If you increase quality, you’ll probably spend more in time and money.

If you cut costs, quality is going to be affected.

These objectives cannot all be met – and that means when you work on one you’ll affect the others – and not in a good way.

Irreconcilable differences

This comes down to people – how they think and how they act.

There are so many situations where the differences are so big that there seems no possible way to reconcile them.

Take every conflict situation out there, between ideologies such as capitalism and communism, between religious views, conflicting opinions on everything from co-sleeping to gay marriage – there are people for and against who will never see things from another person’s point of view.

Tragedy of the commons

And then you have situations where although we should collectively act in one way the incentives are such that we make things worse by acting selfishly.

For example, if you farmed along with other people on common land, ideally you would make sure that everyone’s animals could feed.

For you, however, the more you feed your stock the more you benefit.

For many of us the way we live – the amount of packaging we use, the number of times we replace clothes, the amount of food we throw away – is unsustainable.

We know that – but we do it anyway.

It’s not evil – maybe it’s selfish but that’s the way things are.

What can we do about wicked problems?

For a start, we need to stop thinking about finding solutions.

There isn’t going to be a point where we can step back and say we’re done.

Maybe it’s thinking about things being dynamic rather than static.

It’s hard to spin a ball on your finger and keep it spinning – but maybe that’s the image to keep in mind.

You’re trying to reach a compromise, an accommodation, an improvement, something people can live with.

All weak sounding words – much less appealing than solving, winning, resolving.

But more realistic and achievable in the real world.

Something that keeps everything still spinning.


Karthik Suresh

How Should You Judge Yourself At Any Point In Time?


Tuesday 8.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me… – Utah Phillips

Have you ever wondered, as the years slip by, if you are doing well?

Doing well compared to others, compared to the dreams you had, or where you feel you should be at this point in your life?

If you were a river, how wide should you be right now?

Let’s imagine someone who knew from the beginning they wanted to be rich – and they had a number in mind – a big one.

What happens once they reach that number?

Do they stop and start doing something else – horticulture, perhaps?

Or do they set a new, higher number and go after that?

Is chasing a number a good way to live?

Most of us don’t really know – because we haven’t hit those kinds of numbers.

We are where we area right now.

And we’ll be doing better than some and worse than some.

But, if you’re reading this, the chances are that you’re one of the luckier people out there.

But that should cause you to wonder how you got there.

We like to think we start with nothing – we’re a tiny trickle, a barely visible stream at the start of a journey.

And, over time, we are joined by tributaries – the waters that help us grow – waters carrying education, careers, partners, children.

If we look at where we once were, we might be pleased to see the extra bulk we’re carrying around.

Or we might wonder whether life was simpler as a small stream rather than this unstoppable dash for the sea.

Or maybe we count up the tributaries so far and wonder how many more will join us before we reach the end.

There are two things to notice here.

One is that we don’t wake up one day and find that we’ve turned from a stream into a river.

It takes time and distance.

The second is that what builds us is not what we started with but what new tributaries we add.

And that’s why standing in one place and looking at what you are is perhaps not the best thing to do.

A better thing might be to be grateful – grateful to the people who put you where you are – if you were lucky enough to have parents and grandparents or carers who, by the way they lived their lives, enabled you to live yours.

Or maybe you did start entirely on your own – and have clawed and fought your way to where you are.

Then you should probably look forward – and do the things that need to be done.

It seems to me that if you look back – you should look with gratitude.

If you look forward – you should look with hope.

But wherever you are – whether at the start or the end, whether little or large, you should judge yourself kindly.

And count yourself lucky to be here.


Karthik Suresh

How To Figure Out Who You Really Are


Sunday, 7.34pm

Sheffield, U.K.

You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do. – Henry Ford

Choosing what you do with your time is one of the most important decisions you will ever make.

Yet many of us are required to make key choices early in life – from the point at which we choose what to study in school to the opportunities we come across when first looking for work.

How many of us started a job that was supposed to last a few weeks and then found ourselves at the same organisation a decade later?

What advice would you give your younger self, knowing what you now know?

This is a hard question to answer, for me anyway, because we don’t know what could have happened if we had made different choices.

One of the early contributors to career development theory was John Holland, an American psychologist and Professor of Sociology.

He came up with the idea that what you do is an expression of who you are – and came up with six types of personality – a formulation called Holland’s Hexagon.

These six types have the following characteristics:

  • Realistic people like to get things done.
  • Investigative types like to think and watch and understand stuff – working alone rather than in groups.
  • Artistic personalities are creative, inventive and more emotional than the others.
  • Social people are helpful and want to build supportive, caring relationships.
  • Enterprising types want to persuade and lead, be in charge and win.
  • Conventional types look for structure and order and want to do things the right way.

You aren’t, however, just one of the types – instead you’re probably a combination with three or so types that you could list in rank order.

For example, you might be primarily an investigative type, who likes getting things done and persuading people, who also likes creative activities.

The main application of Holland’s work has been in career development advice – once you select from the types and get an ordering that describes your preferences – you can then look for careers and jobs that match that list.

The idea is that there is a job that will work for every combination.

You just have to find the match.

The other way of looking at this model is to look at what you do right now – what you’ve been doing for the last month or year and see if your preferences describe your activity.

The chances are good that if you’ve been in work for a while what you do lines up with who you are.

If not, that’s probably why you’re not that happy at work.

Or, on the other hand, you don’t mind the work at all.

In fact, you enjoy it – but it’s the other things about the job that get you down.

The workload, the micro-management, the bullying, the pressure… perhaps a host of other factors.

The appeal of Holland’s model is its simplicity – you can relate to the divisions easily and have a quick view on how you might describe yourself using it.

What the model doesn’t take into account is important too – things like power dynamics, culture, the availability of resources, politics, and personal rapport with colleagues.

In the end, knowing who you are is a start.

A good one.

But very quickly you realise that what matters is who everyone else is and what game they’re playing.

So that requires us to develop the ability to constantly rebuild ourselves over time – to constantly learn and watch and observe.

Because the world is changing – like it always has done.

Our ability to prosper in that changing world will depend on how we see ourselves in it – how we create meaning and purpose and value for ourselves and others.

That means you need to be ready to recreate who you are, to match the needs of what is around you.

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