“Thank you Vishal!” Esha squealed and hugged me.
“Wow!” I said. I was happy to get hugged by a pretty girl, but also somewhat embarrassed because we were in public. “I didn’t know a Dairy Milk would make you so happy.”
“I love this chocolate. It brings back fond memories,” she said.
“Do share,” I beckoned.
“During my MBA days, our professor for entrepreneurship gave us red flags, as in, real paper red flags. If a student raised them during the professor’s lecture, he would stop. The student would then explain why she raised the flag — whether she had a doubt, or she wanted to share a personal experience, or present an alternate perspective and so on.
“Our professor introduced this concept in the first lecture itself. For the first month, each student who justified raising the flag got a chocolate. Soon, getting a chocolate from him became a competition for us because he made us question our own perspectives. It meant we had thought of something sensible. He was a brilliant professor.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” I said.
“It was! It made me start thinking for myself, a trait I’ve carried from college into real life.”
“I’d love to get in touch with him,” I said.
“Why? So you can bore him with your cross-questions?” Esha said teasingly. (or, I hope she did.)
“Yeah. I want to know why he did it.”
“Oh, you and your ‘whys’. Do you know how boring you are?”
“Well, you didn’t find your professor boring. And I bet he posed many more questions than me,” I said.
Esha agreed to let me meet him on the condition that she would accompany me. She hadn’t met her professor since long. She also reasoned that she’d be able to stop me if I became too inquisitive. I would’ve preferred meeting the professor without her. (But don’t tell Esha I said that.)
Two weeks later, we met her professor over lunch. We got the introductions and pleasantries out of the way. Esha chatted with him about her work. Then he turned to me. He seemed interested, and asked me questions. When I got the chance, I connected one of the answers to his ‘red-flag’ technique. From there began my questions.
“Why the red-flag?”
“I got the idea from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. When teaching at Stanford Business School, he issued each student an 8.5” X 11” red sheet of paper, with the instructions that the class would stop when any student raised their hand with a red flag. They could raise it to challenge a CEO guest, present an analysis, share a personal experience, ask a question, respond to a fellow student, disagree with him, and more.
“But they could use it just once in a quarter,” he continued. “I opened the floodgates for students to raise the flag as many times as they wanted, as long as they could justify it.”
“Why did you reward students who raised a flag with chocolates?” I asked.
“In our culture, students learn to not question people with authority. The side-effect is a bunch of robots who cannot think for themselves.
“The chocolates were just for the first month. They encouraged students to participate in the discussion, and think before they did. For every new class, I buy 100 chocolates. The students don’t enjoy the chocolates as much as they enjoy the feeling of contributing meaningfully to a discussion.”
Esha nodded vigorously.
“How does it go?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s the same story every year,” he laughed. “Students are circumspect. In the first lecture, only Hermione Granger-like students raise the red flag. The others are like mice. They hide behind their desks. Sometimes I eat a chocolate in front of the class and say, ‘You don’t know what you’re losing out on by not raising the flag’.
“Slowly, students get in the groove. By the end of the third lecture, I see an average of ten flags raised per class. That’s when they’ve got into the habit. They don’t need chocolates after that.”
“So you spend 2500 bucks on chocolates in each college, each year?” I asked.
“I don’t spend 2500 bucks, Vishal. I invest it,” he said.
Clouds formed over my brain. Thankfully, he noticed and explained further.
“I value feedback. I can get it at the end of the semester in a feedback form. But the batch won’t benefit. And if I’m boring, students will stop paying attention. They’ll lose out as much as me.”
I was stunned. “But you were the ex-VP of a globally renowned corporation,” I said. “How can you be boring?”
“Don’t look at me from your level, Vishal,” the professor said. “What comes easily to you might be difficult for many others. I might use jargon, or go into unnecessary details, or enforce my thinking upon the students; the possibilities are endless. I need real-time feedback to keep myself on track.
“The red flag helps tremendously in that. I remember one student raising the red flag during a lecture to say, ‘Sir, I don’t understand a thing of what you’re saying today’.”
“What!” Esha exclaimed. “How dumb could the student have been!”
“Don’t jump the gun, Esha,” the professor smiled. “When I reflected on my lecture that day, I realized I had cluttered many concepts in one topic. I’m sure other students got confused too. But I’m grateful for feedback this student gave. It helped me refine my content and connect with students better.
“Darwin Smith, the CEO of Kimberley-Clarke, said he never stopped being qualified for the job. I never want to stop being qualified for my work, whatever it may be. I’m always a learner. I keep telling myself I know nothing.”
“That’s admirable,” I said. “It’s brave of you to acknowledge this during times when most people claim to know everything.”
“Hmmm,” he mused. “When I reflect, I can separate the wheat from the chaff. I identify what I must work on and what I can ignore. It helps me improve. If I don’t improve every six months, I feel incomplete.”
“What made you want to solicit feedback,” I asked. “I mean, there are other ways to improve yourself. Why do something that makes you appear vulnerable in public?”
Esha nodded. For once, she agreed with me. Those days are as rare as the solar eclipse.
“Often, we get trapped in our own heads,” the professor said. “Feedback is essential. At that moment, it might feel like a slap. To avoid that uncomfortable feeling, we surround ourselves with people who tell us what we want to hear. We engage with people who let us play victim or applaud our intellect. We also run from people who show us the mirror or who call a spade a spade. The result? We become rigid.
“But Richard Feynman’s rule was not to fool ourselves, and he rightly believed that the self is the easiest entity to fool. When we surround ourselves with those who add fuel to fire — those who encourage us to fool ourselves — we stagnate.
“I read a lot. But only reading and talking can quickly throw me into the trap of monologue. So, I used the inversion mental model.”
“I’ve heard of it,” I said, wanting to sound smart. Esha rolled her eyes.
“Yes, it’s a mental model. It’s when, instead of looking at ways to succeed, you examine what can go wrong. You invert the problem. You don’t ask yourself how you can succeed. Rather, you ask yourself, how you can fail. Then you avoid doing it.
“When I became a professor, I thought, ‘How can the students find me boring?’ The list I came up with included points like:
- Use jargon
- Complicate the curriculum
- Stick to the textbook and use no anecdotes
- Make it a monologue and not care to check their level of understanding
“The solution for all these was to get students equally invested in the discussions. I could address all issues with one keystone habit — real-time feedback.”
“So, you used the inversion model, identified a keystone habit and used real-time feedback to address all your challenges,” I summed up. “Wow!”
We finished our lunch. The professor was gracious enough to let me pay the bill when I insisted thrice. As we parted, he said, “It was fun. We must catch up again.”
“Likewise, sir,” I smiled. Esha beamed.
“Such a genius, yet so humble,” I said as we drove.
“See?” she gloated.
“Whatever,” I said. Esha punched my arm.
We often shut ourselves to anything which makes us feel uncomfortable. We prefer hearing our own voice, and pondering only over what we did well. But the person who anticipates a difficult situation is better prepared to handle it.
Feedback and inversion are linked. They bring up unpleasant facts. When unpleasant truths surface, you have two choices. You can blame others for whatever happens. Or you can focus on what’s in your control, and improve it. If you follow the latter, what’s outside your locus of control, eventually improves too.
Both actions also keep complacency at bay. Inverting a situation helps you look at it from a different angle. Genuine feedback helps you identify and work on your shortcomings. They help you sharpen your saw, and become a better lumberjack. Else, you’ll continue sawing trees with a blunt blade, and become slower with each passing day.
But your work doesn’t end at collecting facts. All the world’s knowledge is useless unless you know what to do with it. Analyze the information you receive, and your next step. Dig deep into your memory bank and what you’ve read to discover the way forward.
It’s okay if you miss a step, or if you slip. Learn lessons from your experiences, to become better today than you were yesterday.
You cannot learn what you think you already know. Stay a student. You can learn from everyone, no matter how important or seemingly insignificant they are. Keep learning. Keep growing, emotionally and intellectually.