The Extra Mile

We used to have a tradition of speeches in the morning assembly at the High School I studied in. Our Principal used to often chip in with a nice story and message after a student’s speech and other announcements. I remember listening to one about the ‘extra mile’ and wondering about the concept.

As a student, the concept of the ‘extra mile’ was not one that was obvious simply because most of what you ‘should’ do is well defined. And, more often than not in the Indian system, what you ‘should’ do often includes what you can and cannot do.

Image by Chris Heaton

It’s been 7 years now and I found myself thinking about it last night. I remembered a quote that said ‘excellence begins on the extra mile.’ Smart, and true.

I realized yesterday that we make ‘extra mile’ choices in practically everything we do in our lives – whether at work, at play or in our relationships. We either don’t meet expectations, struggle to meet expectations or simply make it a habit to repeatedly exceed expectations. And, all of the latter, happens on that proverbial extra mile. We are what we repeatedly do. We are what we repeatedly choose to do.

The extra mile isn’t proverbial management jargon. What we choose to do above and beyond what we are expected to do is where the magic lies..

(For magic, think expression on Mom’s face on having flowers delivered to her doorstep as a surprise!)

Seeking Diverse Experiences

I’ve seen 2 things happen when seeking, and finding, diverse experiences.

Firstly, there is an much higher sense of appreciation. It is only after learning tennis for a while did I truly understand the genius in Roger Federer. You have got to have done it, or attempted to do it to know what it takes. The more such experiences and the more appreciation we have for people out there – learning, attempting things and doing things.

Secondly, there is a MUCH higher tolerance for failure. I was helping out at a restaurant on the evening of one of the busiest days in the year the other day and the experience taught me so much. There was a long queue of impatient folk, some of whom were getting understandably irritated and I vividly remember mentally switching sides and wondering how I would behave and also gaining an insight on what needed to be done to deal with the situation. A few years ago, it took only a week of work at McDonalds to change my perspective about McDonalds..

Image by Keith Williamson

It’s the same with every new thing I’ve attempted over the years – writing a book, working with an IT friend on an iPhone app, learning the guitar, writing a daily learning blog. All these activities have given me a ton of new perspective.

I’ve come to the conclusion that while diverse experiences likely add value in many ways (making you a more interesting person, for instance), the biggest way they change us is that they make us more tolerant, more humane and with a bigger ability to empathize.

In short, they teach us what it really takes to be human.

That’s some return on investment..

Work Hacks Wednesdays: Structuring Thought

We are over to the last post in the ‘Structuring’ series and fittingly, the last post is about structuring thought as it’s probably the hardest of them all. Since thinking is inherently so personal, it would be naive to attempt to apply a frame/standard method. Instead, I thought I’d share 3 principles that I find useful from time to time.

Find your thinking style. We all have different thinking styles. Some think by visualizing, others think by drawing, yet some others think on paper and folks like me think by talking. It helps understanding what our native thinking style is. I find it extremely high value to have a ‘sparring partner’ to bounce off my thoughts and then, structure them. I know of people who need a white board and yet some others who just need a bit of quiet time. Find your style.

Image Source

Think first, organize later. Ideas never come beautifully organized. If you are in a discussion that needs bright ideas, just let loose and put all ideas down. Organize them later. Worrying about organization hampers thinking.. That’s why the best ideas come in encouraging, positive environments. Failing is a critical part of thinking and idea generation.

Practice Writing. One of the best posts I have read in this regard is ‘Writing vs Speaking’ by Paul Graham. I hope you click through and read the post for I will say no more.

What helps you structure your thoughts?

Task Labels For Getting Important Tasks Done

I often have a large list of tasks on the weekend and this list can get pretty daunting because I tend to leave most of them for one day (typically Sunday). Often, it leads to a massive inertia to get started and I start with the simplest task, regardless of importance. As a result, I used to often land up with a problem where I’d spend most of Sunday getting not-so-important tasks done and spend the last 3-4 hours in frenetic get-things-done mode.

I used to inadvertently group tasks every once in a while but never saw any big reward until three weeks ago. I began grouping tasks into categories and began labelling them. So, the new list looked like this.


My lizard brain has been unable to ignore the ‘Potentially Life Changing’ label. After about 4 weeks of procrastination on a ‘potentially life changing’ task, I’ve now managed to get to it and spend significant time on it 3 weeks in a row.


Subhashini Balasubramanian, Artist – Real Leader Interview 25

Dhanya: Subhashini is a wonderful artist and a great person to be with! She was the neighbour of a good friend and he made introductions. She has taught Art at National University of Singapore through our visual arts club NUS ArtVibe. From then we have been in touch and I am a fan of her work. I look up to her just because she has taken up art as a profession! I hope to be inspired by her in a couple of months while making career decisions!
About Subhashini
Born in Chennai India, Subhashini’s initial training in Art started very early under the guidance of her father Maniam Selven – an accomplished illustrator in India. She furthered her interests by acquiring a Bachelor’s degree in Fine arts – Drawing and painting from Stella Maris College, Madras University (1997)  and Master’s degree in Contemporary practice (2009) from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore and University of Huddersfield, UK. She is the recipient of ‘Metal Award’ for her work Raga Shivaranjani and a special award for dedicated Practice in 2009 from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore. She currently lives and practices art in Singapore. She has exhibited her works in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, UK & India.
Dhanya: Hi Subhashini, thank you for agreeing to do this interview! Can you share a little bit of your story with us?  Where did you grow up, when did you come to Singapore?
Subhashini: I was born in Chennai. My father is a very popular magazine illustrator, Maniam Selvan. I did not realize the influence something like that had on my life.  Even until 10th 11thstandard in high school, I did not realize the gifts I had.
I always thought I would become a doctor. I took up science subjects at school in view of pursuing that. When I was in 12th though, my mother encouraged me to get into Fine Arts. She explained how it would be very difficult to establish a name. In my case, my grandfather and father have already done that. Hence it would easy for me to pick it up form there.
That’s how I joined Fine Arts and Painting in Stella Maris, Chennai. I realized it was logical. My sister and I grew up together. She always came up with very nice artwork. In my head she was the one meant for that, not me. Only after my mother’s thoughts had I decided to give it a shot.
I prepared for my college application and got through. It is very difficult to grow up with powerful people around you. People expect a lot from you! That sort of made me go into my shell and I would be reluctant to show my work to people. Even college, professors would be curious about my work because of my father. I would be very scared of not keeping up to the standard.
I got married and moved to Malaysia after college. I did not take up art because of my lack of confidence. I had a child and I went back to Chennai for a while. I was more interested in graphics design than in traditional art then.
My husband shifted to Singapore and I got the opportunity to work with the Temple of Fine Arts here. I was doing a lot of graphic design and designing publicity materials for them. The Founder of Temple of Fine Arts, Swami Shantanand Saraswathi inspired me to come out with my works and clear the doubt I had around it. He helped me grow in a way!
Our Tabla teacher Nawaz Mirajkar had an idea of having a concert where someone would paint the scene as the concert progresses. It was part of a monthly fundraising performance called Mela. It was a Santhoor performance in January 2003. Swamiji asked me to take up the job and that was my very first break after very long time. I did go on stage and paint. I did this for a couple of other dance performances in KL as well. I went to Perth and repeated the attempt for a couple of performances there. The whole tour was inspired by M F Hussain’s painting of a popular Huindustani Performer. I would not say it was a great success or that it was my best work. It was a starting point! That day was kind of a re-birth after my undergraduate.
In 2006 I joined Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore for a Masters in Contemporary Practice. In the mean time, I went back to basics and reconnected with everything. My husband has been very supportive during my Masters here. He has helped me whenever I was down and encouraged a lot of my progress!
Studying here away from my father was different. Every time I drew something I would show it to my father for his feedback. The education here in Singapore helped look into myself to see what I am most excited about. I think the distance from home gave more freedom to find my identity and my own ground level!
In that respect the last ten years have been a good time for learning away from my father’s shadow. Once, my grandfather’s, my father’s, my sister’s and my works were put together and we exhibited the three-generation’s works in Chennai! It was an interesting learning to exhibit then.
My work was around contemporary belief and my research was about paintings inspired by music. Art was developed a lot around Carnatic music in the early stages. They were inspired by the 16th century Ragamala times. They personified ragas and painted them as figures. I am also a Carnatic singer. Even though there is a lot of research around this idea, being a singer I wanted to express what I best understood about the art.
It was my own journey towards contemporary art. My father and grandfather were illustrators. Only something figurative was art to me. And that’s why learning about modern art was a very different path. It was a lot of struggle to learn about abstract art and trying to understand and connect to it.
Dhanya: What is your take on the Art Scenes in Chennai and Singapore?
Subhashini: I have not spent much time in Chennai to talk about the Art Scene there, apart from my education. When I left Chennai and came to Singapore – in those 10 years I realised a lot had changed with respect to art. Internet made such a difference to the pace of development of art.
In my under-graduation we learnt the basic painting mediums and we studied great masters. We copied great masters. It was a very academic way of painting. We never went into modern art. From this scene I cut straight to my masters where I met students who indulged only in contemporary art. They did cover a bit of renaissance but it was more of abstract art than history. Such a contrast was very challenging for me! And I am still learning.
Renaissance 2.0 after the 1990s has created a lot more of local artists. I am very much impressed by the effort the Singapore Government is putting into bringing up local talents here. They are creating a great environment for the local artists by bringing in international art events and inspiring people. That helps them connect with the western art scene and around the world.
Dhanya: How are you practicing art now? Any plans for the immediate future?
Subhashini: I try to exhibit once in a while. It was much easier when I was with NAFA. We would have a lot of people coming in and of course the support from the school it self was encouraging. It is even more challenging because I have to do it myself. Last year, I exhibited my work in the Gallery of Gnani Arts. The year before I exhibited in the International Art Expo in Malaysia.
I am still working on what I am. I am exploring various topics other than my research. Being a woman I find it difficult to keep in touch with my passion aside from the other responsibilities as a mother and wife. I still try to exhibit twice in two years.
There was an exhibition in Chennai by Anandha Vikatan at Lalit Kala Academy. I donated a painting for the cause there. I am working on another show now. That keeps me going. Until my kids are independent I wont have as much time to practice art. Till then though I will have one string attached to my art!
Dhanya: Have there been any mentor figures through all this?
Subhashini: There have been so many people I would say! Starting from my mother, my father and my husband. Swamiji from the Temple of Fine Arts is a huge inspiration. Dr Shashidharan was the art director for Temple of Fine Arts who was a source of inspiration. They have all helped me do what I do.
Once I started at NAFA I met great people. A fellow graduate from LASALLE, my lecturers and there are so many people. When you are totally lost somebody gives you a direction/spark! Only at the end of the journey you realize how that particular thing made you do something.
Dhanya: Are there any hurdles that stood out? Do you have any stories?
Subhashini: The first event I mentioned was a huge hurdle for me. It was not my best painting, but I did do it. I also realized it turned out to be my grandfather’s birthday. It was the same day 26th of January. It was a wake up call of sorts. I decided it was meant to be. I took that as my challenge!
Dhanya: When I tell somebody that I like art, I find a lot of criticism about its simplicity and nothingness. I feel many share this opinion that any other hobby, say singing. Have you ever come across this?
Subhashini: I think that was the struggle I was talking about. Even when I was studying modern artists I came across works I could not relate to. I would start appreciating it only when I get it. I would also think like that. There is however an entire reason why someone does what they do. That changes the whole meaning of art. These days when you have to be good in art, there are many ways to express yourself. You can create installations, you can write. Those are art as well. The way in which you express yourself becomes the art.
I realized that you could never judge anyone’s work. It is their way of expressing their emotions. It’s not the end of the journey. It is like a fingerprint. It is just yours.
Dhanya: For all the people who are reading this what is your message?
Subhashini: I would say that if you are really interested in what you do, you should never worry about what other people say. You should gain the strength to carry on. I know it is hard. If you are really passionate, you should be at it. Minimum of 10 minutes everyday is also good. That will give you the best results. And when you feel the reward in any small way it would make you happy!
Life can get stressful. If you have a passion to turn to, it will keep you going! My friend Mr Vijay Kumar, is in the shipping business. While that is his job, his passion is Indian sculptures. He talks about sculptures on his blog and inspires people around the world. I think that is what passion can do!
Thank you Subhashini, for that! Art is indeed a fingerprint – to each his own. We hope you have a great time painting! We will keep at our passions too. What else is the purpose of Real Leaders, eh?
Real Leaders Team,
Dhanya, EB and your truly..

Designing My Life i.e. my R15 System

I’ve alluded to my R15 system many a time on this blog. The last time I did this was on Closing Days and I received two requests for more details on this. While I am not sure I can do justice to the awesome-ness of the system, I thought I would give it a shot.

First, the Why?
I was in my 4th and final year as a university student and had just spent 3 incredible years in a start up learning from some amazing folks, an experience that had me come face to face with myself in ways I had never imagine. I knew then that the biggest cause for many of my failures was a lack of discipline.

I knew what I ‘needed’ to do – read more, exercise more, write more etc but I just wasn’t doing enough of it. And ‘to know and not to do is not to know.’. This needed to change.

The Inspiration(s)

3 separate events inspired me to do this. It’s a very geeky collection but if you have been a regular, I trust you know what to expect.. :-)

– I watched a wiser friend put together a basic form of this system (let’s call it v1). He would target 5 key tasks in a day, 25 in a week and report his score at the end of the day. Every missed task meant he lost $10 to me. I was intrigued..

– I had ‘studied’ Covey’s 7 Habits book a few months earlier and it was (and has remained) a very influential book. I was inspired to develop a system that helped me put ‘First Things First’. I started with Covey’s weekly planner and that particular tool didn’t work for me.

– I had recently read another great book – ‘You Don’t Have To Be Born Brilliant’ by John Mcgrath that spoke of designing simple systems to ‘design’ our lives and probably most importantly, ensuring you had a coach to help you monitor your progress. All great athletes had coaches to help them with discipline, after all.

PS: I fondly call it the ‘R15’ system. :-) This was because this wiser friend called it that since it was 15 mins at the end of the day with Rohan.

How It Began

The system began as a very simple checklist. I had 5 things to do in a day and I received a point each for doing them. I think the initial list was a mix of 2 hours for my Final Year Project, 30 minutes of book reading, 20 minutes of exercise 3 times a week. writing home 3 times a week and a few other things I deemed important.

I asked a close friend to be my coach and I would meet him every Sunday to discuss my previous week and plan for my next one. For every task I missed, I paid him $1. (That used to HURT as a university student as I remember paying $13 a few weeks in.)

Building the Game – Boundaries, Rules and Scorecards

I began to see the fruits of this system very quickly and the ability to ‘make and keep commitments’ to myself was one that energized me like never before. Just the thought that I could tell myself ‘I promised myself that I’d read 30 minutes every day.. and I did’ was one that gave me no doubt I was onto something very special.

Now, this was also beginning to become lots of fun. I am a very competitive person and seeing this avenue to compete with myself energized me like no others. I wanted to beat my own scores – this was turning out to be a game than needed boundaries, rules and scorecards. I was helped in this process by people and books and I thought I’d share some of the key points of evolution.

Principles and Learnings

Never be rule maker and player at the same time. This principle resulted in a simple rule. If I felt the need for a change in rule, I was only allowed to do it on Sunday. I could not change rules while playing the game between Monday-Friday. Waiting till the weekend always gave me fresh perspective.

– Encompass all activities – production and production capability building. I realized I had 3 kinds of activities – Production (e.g. work), Production Capability Building (e.g. Blogging, Reading, Exercise, Staying in touch with family etc that helped my productivity) and Chill (i.e. everything else! :-)). If I wanted to truly measure my day and progress, I needed to encompass everything useful I did in a day.

Set clear boundaries and close days. This matters a lot! I close my days by sending an email to my coach with a score for the day.

Plan the next day, and week. Again, critical. Every time I slip on this, I regret it!

Align your to do list with your values. I realized, when reading about Prioritized Daily Task Lists that my priorities needed to be aligned with my schedule. E.g. If ‘Family’ was a value, I better have staying in touch / spending time tasks on my list.

Keep one to do list for all tasks and print it out! An insight that helped a lot is to keep one to do list for all tasks – work and personal. This is incredibly helpful as it ensures that you spend your breaks checking off other items that contribute to the whole picture. And printing the list and checking the boxes helps for me.

Use ‘sticks’ but only for short periods. I used to use ‘sticks’ like giving myself a -2 if I missed book reading. I still use ‘sticks’ but only for short periods to get me moving. If ‘sticks’ don’t work for 2 weeks in a row, the problem is different and it’s worthwhile solving the real problem..


A lot of these rules have changed and evolved over the years but the basic principles still hold true. Roughly, 45 minutes of productive work = 1 point. And depending on the value of the task, the number of points naturally goes up.

For example, some rules I have in place as things stand now are –

– 30 mins of book reading = 2 points: Every subsequent 30 minutes after is 1 point
– 20 mins of exercise = 1.5 points: Semantics but matters as it’s easiest mentally to get 20 minutes of gym done in a day
– ‘a-day’ tasks = 0.5 points: These are small tasks I do every day during breaks, travel etc that help. Catching up on news, blogs, The Economist etc come under this category
– Morning Routine = 1.5: Involves +1 for blogging and +0.5 for clearing email and NOT doing it first thing in the morning, a recent addition

.. and so on. I could explain the rationale behind every one of these but you have to remember that these have evolved over more than 120 weeks of the R15 system. When it started, it was all about doing 5 things I needed done every day.

Practical Stuff

Practically, this means having a template for a ‘day’ on OneNote that I edit. I work on this every Sunday when I plan my week and make edits as I see fit. I also change the plan for the next day as necessary before closing my day.

A sample day’s ‘to do’ list looks like this –


(The Weekend points are based on all useful good stuff done on weekends eg: Calling family, working on projects, playing football, socializing with friends etc. I’ve found this to be a nice ‘quick win’ when I start a day knowing I’ve notched some points up on the board.)

As you can see, the system has become fairly all encompassing and it’s one that undergoes a lot of change. For instance, I am currently operating on a simpler ‘Focus List’ that has drilled down the list to some bare minimum as I need all the time I have on hand for a couple of critical projects.

I’ve often had people wonder if this means you never have free time. On the contrary, I’ve found that being organized only allows for lots of guilt-free free time. But hey, it’s also a question of believing in the concept of organization.. this is only for the believers.

Update (Thanks to Yipeng)

Yipeng (in the comments) had a very good question – what software do I use?

I am a huge fan of Microsoft OneNote and that’s what I use. I have all my files on Dropbox and I have sync’d across my Personal and Work laptops so it’s all seamless (for the most part).

Vulnerability and a Few Thoughts to Wrap Up

I have thought about sharing this system many a time on this blog and a simple idea has stopped me – the thought of ‘feeling totally vulnerable.’ In many ways, this system is what I use to run my life. In the past 2 and half years of doing this, I have gone from a person who struggled with discipline and organization to one capable of both. Probably, most importantly, I have gone from someone who struggled with putting the concept of integrity in action i.e. making and keeping commitments to someone who is a LOT better at it.

But, in many ways, sharing this has meant putting myself out there. And while I think I’ve done a lot more of that than I’ve been comfortable with in the process of sharing learnings here and always been thankful for it, this does make feel ‘naked’. :-) But, the thought of saying ‘No’ to 2 reader requests meant putting these feelings aside..

Many friends have seen, and know of, this system. I’ve had all sorts of reactions to it over the years- from ‘Dude.. you need to take a chill pill’ to ‘Why do you complicate life? Everything you need to do should be common sense’ to ‘Wow’. It’s hard to explain a system as complex like this in a few sentences and I guess this post finally does that (or at least I hope it does).

I guess the bottom line is that this works for me. It is indeed different strokes for different folks and I’ve learnt to embrace and accept my own weirdness. More importantly, I’ve seen a few people try it and have seen it work for them too. And I thought I would share it in the hope that you might be able to build a system for yourself that might help you manage yourself better (if you have such struggles, of course..). 

And in case you decide to walk down this path, I have just two pieces of advice

Start with something VERY simple and iterate, a lot. For example, start with reading or exercising and a few other basic tasks and add layers (or not)

Find a coach. Just ask a best friend to be your ‘coach’. Nothing much expected. Share your progress, talk about it and slowly build the discipline to think through and solve these problems with yourself 

And finally, there’s a story that I heard the other day that sums this system up better than anything else.

Abraham Maslow liked to say that in any given moment we have a choice: Will we step forward into growth (+1) or back into safety (-1)?

Thus, moment by moment, we make a choice and we shape our destiny. Let’s say the alarm goes off tomorrow morning. Do we step forward and do the thing we said we’d do? (Exercise, jog etc) or do we step back into safety and pull the covers over our head?

That’s a +1 decision right there. A few strong positive steps forward at the start of a day can have a magical effect on the overall score of our days. And we always have the choice to take that step forward.

That’s really what the R15 system has me do, every day. It pushes me to take the step forward.. whether I like it or not. And that helps me, a lot.

I hope it helps you too.

On Repeating What You Hear

This week’s (early) book learning is from ‘Influence’ by Robert Cialdini.

A group of researchers ran an experiment on tips received by service staff in a restaurant.

The study revealed the following –

– The practice that received lowest tips was passively saying ‘okay’ (as this led the customer to wonder if the cheeseburger would arrive at the table re-incarnated as a chicken salad)

– The tips received were medium if they managed to paraphrase, nod and be pleasant

– The best practice, however, was found to be repeating orders word by word as their customers verbalized it. No paraphrasing or nodding needed. Repeating word-by-word increased their tip size by a whopping 70%!

So, repeating what you hear as you verbalize it is what makes people feel ‘listened to’. The best listeners are known to verbalize the problems exactly as the person opposite states to them. Now we know why!

Image by Alan Fryer

On a call with a client that was about agreeing on a small action, I could sense his dissatisfaction when I verbalized what he was saying in my own words. A few minutes later, I tried saying it exactly as he was saying.. And he immediately gave me a ‘go’!

I think I would have gone through the process much quicker had I written about this a few months ago.. (haha)

Here’s to listening well by repeating what we hear this week!

Pay It Forward

I’ve been fortunate to have some truly wonderful people who have made a massive difference in my life.

I am probably most thankful to a friend who did more than anyone else has done in this regard, in many ways. While he has definitely played a very positive role all through, he was the one who opened the doors to these worlds at two crucial junctures.

I have had a conversation with this friend more than once wondering aloud as to how I’d ever be able to pay him back. His response on all occasions has been ‘Pay it forward’.

I’ve hopefully done a bit of that over these years. And it’s a piece of advice I always keep close to my heart. It is a reminder.. of many things worth remembering from time to time.

And most importantly, it is, perhaps, a nice reminder of what this life is really about..

Everybody is a Reporter

Everybody is a Reporter today. Of course, just being a reporter doesn’t necessitate that the quality of reporters has gone up. But, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and the like, there is a lot of reporting going on.

A hundred years ago, if a company committed fraud, all it had to do was make sure the news never got to 10 major news publications. Now, all it can do is send it’s Media Relations team to do some crisis management. It’s transparent. It’s different. (Better is a point of view)

The consequence if you are planning on/are doing important work and leading, is that you better have your own soapbox. Ensure there is a place where you can make your stand and views clear. Besides, in a very noisy space filled with messages from every Tom, Dick and Harry, you want your voice to be very clear and audible to those who want to listen to you.

Image by Grant

Take the time, and effort. It’s the only way forward. Media and marketing will never go away. At the end of the day, it’s not about who you know but who knows you.

PS: Even with all this effort, it will probably take you roughly 10 years to become an overnight sensation.

Work Hacks Wednesdays: Structuring Projects

I tend to look at every little assignment as a project of sorts. So, every big project has a whole bunch of small projects.

And when a project doesn’t get done in a way that satisfy the ‘giver’ of the project or the ‘doer’ of the project, most of the time, the issue is one of structure. Infusing structure in a project is fairly straightforward – ask the 4Ws and H questions.

Why are we doing this? i.e. Purpose, Reason

What outputs are we expected to deliver? i.e. Deliverables, Scope

By When are we expected to do this? i.e. Timeline

Who will be the stakeholders? i.e. Team, sponsors

How are we planning to do it? i.e. Method, Plan

The reason most projects are structured wrong is that there hardly ever seems time to clarify most of these questions at the start of the project. This is a period when we are driven by adrenaline at the thought of the change we are hoping to bring. Questions around scope and timeline may be answered but the purpose, the deliverables and the stakeholder engagement is hardly ever done properly because this stuff takes time.

When we don’t spend the time upfront, it inevitably comes back to bite us and requires us to spend much more time aligning everyone involved and clarifying purpose.

Ever wondered why so many projects end up in the back burner? Now you know..