A good question, asked right, can get to the heart of the matter and elicit the most evocative, controversial or inspiring answers. Or, as Krista Tippett of the podcast On Being says, “answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet”. In Thought Economics: Conversations with the Remarkable People Shaping our Century, Vikas Shah essentially asks good questions, and prompts answers that run the range of poignant to provocative from the who’s-who of the world.
For close to 15 years, British-Indian entrepreneur and philanthropist Shah has been speaking to a range of public figures—from Nobel prize winners, business leaders, politicians and writers to artists, sportspersons, economists and spiritual leaders—and posting the thought-provoking, long-format interviews on his website. He’s now compiled the best of those interviews—as a pandemic project, as he informs us in the introduction—into a book. Shah’s interviews began as a means to satisfy his own curiosity about how the world works, and it’s morphed into conversations about economy, conflict, culture, technology and what it means to be alive.
In the seven sections—identity, culture, leadership, entrepreneurship, discrimination and injustice, conflict, and democracy—the views that come through are varied, sometimes even conflicting, and leaves a reader much to ponder on. Shah lets the answers sit, offering no opinion, judgement or context. He introduces the sections, and then lets the answers do the work. Some of the questions are most elemental to being human—what does it mean to have a life well lived, why do we write, do we need a world without borders—while others go deeper into aspects of adversity, identity, power, business and leadership. The questions seem simple but there’s nothing simplistic about the answers that bring out vitality of thought on everything from justice and love to fear and human rights.
It’s not just domain experts who hold forth—chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, for instance, talks about democracy being taken for granted by generations, leading to the rise of populist leaders. F1 champion Nico Rosberg connects lessons learnt on the grid to leadership in the business world. TV show host and adventurer Bear Grylls describes the way his team understands his unspoken fears before a logic-defying stunt, and can calm him with just a hand on the shoulder. Entrepreneurs and business leaders, like Sheryl Sandberg, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Richard Branson, Mark Cuban and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, stay firmly within their worlds of business, though it’s refreshing to hear musician will.i.am and designer Donna Karan talk about creativity in entrepreneurship.
This isn’t a book to read at one sitting, instead it’s one to dip into at will, pick and choose the questions and answers to read, and try to make sense of the world around us at a time when everything seems quite unstable. It’s open and honest conversations, which bring forth a range of opinions, that will ultimately help us understand one another better “rather than simply skim-reading enough to troll each other on Twitter,” as Shah writes in his introduction. And maybe, we’ll learn to ask better questions and listen generously.
A guide to a better you at work, home and life.