Knowing more

I have very fond memories of growing up as a kid in Srirangam, a small, temple-town right next to Trichy (which itself was a small town back then) in the mid-80s.

It was a magical period – of our first TV (Solidaire), Saturday evening Spiderman on Doordarshan, going to the largest functioning Hindu temple in the entire world (Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple) almost every single day, taking curd rice and pickle in an aluminium tiffin carrier to school (Sri Ranga Matriculation school), reading Target magazine and waiting for every issue with bated breath, being obsessed with quizzing because of a quizzing club called Quizzociates (which I believe still exists!) and endless mischief and playing with friends.

We lived in a large 2-storeyed house (rented, of course), that belonged to someone from the TVS Group, and allowed my dad to indulge in his passion for gardening.

One evening, my dad was in the garden, tending to some plant, while I and my friend Chandar were looking at what he was doing. Chandar had probably learnt, as part of the quizzing interests, the capitals of some countries and he was showing off his knowledge. My dad wanted to test his skill and asked him to name the capital of Zaire (it was called Zaire till 1997, and is now called Democratic Republic of the Congo). He correctly said, ‘Kinshasa’.

I had no idea, obviously. And my dad, trying to tease me, said, “See, Chandar knows so much! Why can’t you learn such things, Karthik”.

That did it! I felt so ashamed that I decided that I’d learn every single country and its capital within the next one week. So I took out my dad’s atlas and the latest Manorama Year Book, started making a list of country names and their respective capital cities, in alphabetical order. Not content with the first version, I kept making newer versions of the list, and beautified each version as if I was in a competition!

In the next one week, I may have made about 6 different versions of the list, all hand-written, in assorted hand-writing, from sentence case to all capital letters! And because I made the list so many times, I had subconsciously memorized the capitals of most countries.

And because Chandar had outdid me with the capital of an African country, I became a mini-expert on African capitals! So, I could rattle capitals like Bujumbara (Burundi), Kampala (Uganda), Gabarone (Botswana), Dakar (Senegal) or Mogadishu (Somalia) even in my sleep… till today! 🙂

It took one mild barb from my dad in front of my friend to discover the desire to go into that topic! That’s probably the earliest instance from my life, that I remember, about wanting to go deep into a topic (usually obscure or esoteric!).

If I look back now, even without any specific barbs from anyone, that desire to delve deep into a topic has remained and defined my interest graph ever since. A really good example would be the interest in assembling Indian film songs that were copied from other (usually foreign) sources. As I have mentioned in my book too, the seed was from my dad (again!) who had a similar interest while he was doing his college in Calcutta (back then). But I took to the topic almost with a vengeance, collecting so many songs that eventually led me to build a website back in 1999 (now defunct, but still exists online).

My interest in social media platforms was similar too – it started in late 2000s and eventually led me to a career, and a book, and now my profession.

The interesting part is that all this knowledge is self-taught/self-learned. And the knowledge is not formal or structured either – not something with which I can write a university thesis. It’s just a relentless accumulation of information on a few specific themes and topics because I was simply deeply interested in them.

It doesn’t work for all topics, only those that deeply attracted me. So, while I know a little about a great many topics, I probably know a lot more about a handful of topics that deeply interested me. Right now, it is about advertising, brand use of social media, and overall use of communications by brands (media-agnostic).

Incidentally, almost all of us follow a variant of this at many points in our lives: when we hear the music of an artist for the first time, or see a movie of an actor for the first time, or read the novel/book of an author for the first time, and if we loved what we heard/saw/read, we tend to explore all the other titles of the same person! I have done this with a lot of music artists and many, many writers, the most recent being Blake Crouch.

I eventually figured that this habit has helped me all through my working career and still continues to do so!

In PR and advertising, one implied rule for the professionals is to know more about the clients’ products and services than the clients themselves. To do that, you have to read and listen to more and more about the clients’ businesses no matter how seemingly boring they may be. While gathering such knowledge, much of it may seem useless and pointless, but it most definitely helps make connections when needed!

It may have seemed like useless knowledge being accumulated, but over time I have realized that no knowledge is useless, really. Every piece of knowledge helps in terms of expanding our field of overall knowledge and the biggest benefit is the ability to make connections between two seemingly disparate pieces of topics/knowledge!

And that ‘making connections’ is what Steve Jobs described as ‘creativity’… about which I have written earlier too!

PS: A possible precursor to the Chandar-capitals episode could be from my days in Bhopal when I was an even little kid. Naseeb (the multi-starrer featuring Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha, Rishi Kapoor, Hema Malini, and Reena Roy) had just released and my friend Neetu, from the adjacent MIG flats, was talking about it with his friends. I walked in and, for some reason, told them that I have already seen the film. Unfortunately Neetu, even as he had not seen the film, knew a lot more about the film, and after questioning me about the film’s plot (where I completely blabbered some nonsense) exposed my lie in front of all those friends! I went home and made a humongous ruckus that I absolutely must be taken to see the film as soon as possible. My dad finally complied, I was taken to see the movie, I saw the movie like preparing for an exam, and for quite some time after that, I was a walking-talking encyclopedia on Naseeb 🙂

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