Episode 306 – In/Action with Jinny Uppal

Jinny UppalIn a world that screams ‘Just Do It!’, inaction has a bad reputation. 

But sometimes, strategic inaction is exactly what the situation demands – and much more productive in the long run than the rush to do something, anything.

In this week’s conversation I talk to Jinny Uppal about how she learned this for herself, and about writing, publishing, crowdfunding and curiosity.  

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Jinny’s site: https://www.jinnyuppal.com/

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Alison Jones: Now, Jinny Uppal is no stranger to driving contrary and innovative thinking. Her twenty plus years of experience driving transformational growth by challenging existing norms in business is key to her success working with Fortune 500 telecom, e-commerce and retail companies. As a business and tech growth strategist, board advisor, and thought leader, she continues to pave innovative paths to progress and success.

And her new book is called In/Action: Rethinking the path to results. And I say In Action advisedly, because it’s In/Action isn’t it, Jinny? And maybe we should start this by talking about that.

Jinny Uppal: It is. It is. Well, it’s wonderful to be here. Alison, thank you for having me.

Alison Jones: It’s great to have you here. So tell us about that title and the In slash Action. Where did it come from and what was the sort of the idea for the book?

Jinny Uppal: A lot of authors when they start writing a book don’t pick a title because very often you don’t know what you are, you think you know what you’re going to write about, but it can evolve.

Alison Jones: You have a working title don’t you, but you know, not the one.

Jinny Uppal: I had a working title and my working title was The Power of Inaction, which sounded very catchy and very crisp and nice, you know, three words.

What happened is within a month or two of my starting to write the book, I realized that the book isn’t actually about inaction per se, the book really, my intention in writing the book, was if we want to drive results our default mode of operation is to take action and a lot of action. And the more ambitious we are, the more you want to take action.

I myself subscribed to the I am action oriented mantra, just do it. And the book really started as an exploration and curiosity on, is it really the tangible moments of action that drive results? Or is it those moments of thoughtful pauses, inactions, which I have had in my own life? I don’t like those moments of inaction because it looks like I’m not doing anything productive, but that’s where creative ideas and inspired thought is born. And what comes out of that is inspired action.

So when the time came to finalize the title, I got feedback from my audience and people who had been following me and really the best, it’s like I wanted to say both like the title is whatever you want to make of it.

You can call it inaction or you can call it in space action. So I put a slash in between. So it wasn’t just a play on words, it is truly a representation of the book. It’s about moments of inaction that lead to inspired action.

Alison Jones: And it’s such an interesting concept. I loved the way that you gave personal examples of times when you have taken action disastrously in your personal life, but also historical moments where what looked like inaction, what looked like an inability to make a decision, was actually really strategic. And I don’t know if maybe you want to give, I thought the military example that you gave was really interesting.

Jinny Uppal: The book starts with a story from the French invasion of Russia when Napoleon was headed to Russia, it was one of the last big things for him to conquer. And normally back then the warfare strategy was if somebody is coming your way, you either arrest them on their way, you counter attack, or at least you defend.

So he was headed to Moscow and General Kutuzov was the head of the Russian army at that time. Everybody expected him to do something about it. You either put people out there to catch Napoleon on his way, or at least you get ready for defending Moscow. General Kutuzov instead chose to retreat. He left Moscow. He asked for the city to be evacuated. He asked actually for the city to be burned and Napoleon shows up in Moscow to a burned city in October of that year, cold, there’s nobody to surrender. So he can’t even call it a win. It’s almost like a weird situation that Kutuzov created and Napoleon cannot clearly call it a win.

And he knows he’s got to go back to France because cold in Russia is not a place where he can survive. And it’s only when he was headed back, that’s when Kutuzov attacked, Kutuzov took action. In the beginning, he was criticized because he was not taking action. He seemed to be literally sitting on his bum doing nothing.

So the retreat helped him preserve the lives of his soldiers. Napoleon kept marching, he kept getting weaker. The weather did its job and hypothermia set in and he lost a lot of lives. So that story I thought was fascinating.

Alison Jones: It’s particularly fascinating the way you tell it again, what I didn’t pick up the first time which is the opinion piece. People criticized him. People thought he was failing somehow. And I think that drives action for so many of us so much of the time, we want to be seen to be doing, as much as anything, don’t we?

Jinny Uppal: The more you are in a leadership role or in a role of responsibility, you could even be a parent. Being a parent is a leadership role. Being a manager is a leadership role. The expectation of action very often comes from around us. The norm. This is how it’s done. And very often we drink the Kool-Aid, like if I don’t take action, I might fail.

So it comes from outside, but then we integrate it into our psyche. It takes something for a person to, in spite of everybody else expecting you to do something, to say with confidence ‘No, I’m not. This is not the right time or this is not the right action’.

Alison Jones: And that word is key, isn’t it, confidence. It takes enormous confidence not to act. And I really was struck by the paradox of that, because it’s not what we think. We think about being frozen in inaction. But to, as you say, strategically, take that decision was really interesting.

Jinny Uppal: Exactly, I think you picked up on that well. I use the phrase strategic inaction to differentiate from the inaction that comes from fear and being strategic means it’s a choice.

 Not that you are helpless.

Alison Jones: Well, you say that, but a lot of us have had enforced inaction, haven’t we, over the last couple of years, how has the pandemic played into your thinking here?

Jinny Uppal: The interesting observation as I look back is when the pandemic first started, I found myself without a conventional job and a conventional work-life and structure, which made me very uncomfortable because I didn’t have enough to do. My default was of course find something to do. And I did to some extent like do something because if my, you know, thoughts like I will become stagnant in my career or I will be out of it. Like all those thoughts came and I did a few things. I started working with startups. But I also could not jump into the job market because I’m in retail and I didn’t think that was the right time.

So it was this conflict between do something, anything, to hang in there, be more clear and be more thoughtful.

The biggest irony of the situation Alison is, I never meant to write a book. It was never on my list of things to do ever before I die. Look what came out of this period of downtime, which I hesitatingly embraced. It was like fight, but I embraced the downtime and look what I did. I wrote a book like something I never meant to do.

So Covid has imposed a downtime, which I think in some cases people have embraced, in some cases they have struggled. Some people just want to rush back out. Even when the lockdowns ended, people just rushed back out, started socializing and exhausting themselves. So these are interesting things to observe in ourselves.

How okay are we in a downtime?

Alison Jones: It’s interesting. I don’t think every, I know what you mean and I have seen that, I think lots of people just going, thank goodness. We can go on holiday. We can go back to normal. I’ve also seen a lot of people and I felt it in myself, reconsider what we want to pick up again.

And having discovered the space perhaps being more reluctant to surrender it.

You use the phrase about action bias as well, that we naturally have an action bias. And I’m really interested as to how, in a sense what’s a healthy way to manage that as a human. So knowing that you have it is one thing, it’s useful, but it can be dangerous.

So, you know when you have a psychological bias and your cognitive bias and suddenly you see it, what do you do with that? Now that people understand they have an action bias and that’s not always the best thing. Are there any kind of mental tricks that you can use to test whether it’s right to act or not?

Jinny Uppal: Right. That’s a great question. I want to just clarify action bias is a fairly well-defined bias and it means the tendency to take action when it is unnecessary or counterproductive. Some researchers have used the term irrational action, but irrational sounds pretty dramatic. So in my book, I say, it’s action that is not needed, or it’s counterproductive. It’s a behavioral tendency. It is not a mental illness. It is not a disorder.

The first thing I would say is don’t underestimate the power of awareness. When you’re aware, when you know this tendency in yourself, trust that you will auto-correct. First step, trust that, second in terms of tricks here’s what happens, when I find myself in this moment of like edgy, being worked up, I’ve got to take action. I have found I cannot rationally talk myself out of.

If I was speaking to somebody maybe they will coach me, but in life we have these moments when we are on our own. So the question is, how do I know whether this urgent need to act is coming from a, you know, confidence that this is the right thing to do versus an irrational. You cannot tell.

The best signal I have found to know that I am about to be impatient or take irrational action is physical signals in the body. And I find this not only in myself, but people I interviewed with. There is something in your body that will change, that will tell you you’re being edgy or you’re being impatient. For some people, a Dutch entrepreneur I interviewed, he said in a meeting when things are going wrong, there’s healthy tension friction, there’s unhealthy tension friction.

And he says my body constricts. And that’s when he knows it’s time to take a break. It’s time to step away.

Alison Jones: So it’s not just awareness of your thoughts, it’s awareness of your body and the signals that it’s giving you as well.

Jinny Uppal: I think you might not even be aware of your thoughts or you might believe the thoughts are justified. The body signals are so tangible. In this moment you need a tangible, hard signal and physical signals are tangible, hard, they are pretty black and white. In my case, I will feel the buzzing in my head.

It’s pretty… there’s nothing to rationalize about it, you know? I don’t have to talk myself into saying the head is buzzing. Head is buzzing, I’ve got to stop.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. You said you didn’t mean to write a book? Tell us how it happened.

Jinny Uppal: It was a bit of an incremental set of steps. I had done a public speaking course with the intention of training myself for my next job. I did have a vision for my life. I do have a vision for my life and I thought, you know, this will be good, public speaking. Storytelling was a skill that I thought I didn’t have enough of.

I wrote a speech as an academic exercise because of the training. And I sent it to a friend of mine and this friend of mine, he’s in the performing arts world. And I said, give me feedback. It’ll be interesting to get your perspective. And he calls me and says, Jinny why isn’t this a book? My first reaction, Alison, in that state of mind is, where did this come from? What is wrong with you? Like, you’re completely off track. Let me bring you back on track because of course I’m not going to write a book. I am not a storyteller. I am not a writer. A book is a distraction. I have things to do. It was interesting for me to reflect afterwards, Alison, on why did I react so passionately against an idea?

If it had been a simple, straightforward suggestion, I didn’t want to do, for example, you asked me for a third helping of dessert and I’ll say I’m full. I don’t want it. But it was a moment, again it was a moment of strategic inaction where I stopped and asked myself, why am I so passionately against writing a book as something in me got scared.

I decided to do due diligence research into what does it take to write a book because I didn’t know any authors at that time. And I kept telling myself, I will not write the book. I’m just doing research so that I can make an informed no. The thing about research is the more you learn about something, the more accessible and approachable it becomes. That the fear, whatever fear I might have had, even in saying no, I leveraged strategic inaction where my no wasn’t final until I do more research.

And sure enough, I meet a couple of people, one is the head of publishing for the publisher I have and the head of a book writing program, and I spoke to them and it just became possible. I was like, oh, I’d love to be a part of this. Like it was, my yes was very organic. I wasn’t trying to force myself, I wasn’t doing the, you know, leap and the net will appear or just do it.

And the whole process took a few weeks of research and I decided to write a book and I signed up for the program and I did publish the book.

Alison Jones: And what did you discover about yourself as you wrote?

Jinny Uppal: One general observation, which is gratifying, is that all the opinions I had about what I cannot do, what I am not. I’m a business person. I have this identity that I’m a technologist. I’m a business person. I’m practical. I’m black and white. Writing a book is a very creative process, even a non-fiction book.

And I realized there is no such thing as I can’t. Of course I can. A lot of it is training. I used to have this notion that books are like this creative, you know, divine intervention happened to the author, or, you know, they were like a very alien group of people who are somehow very cool. And I’m not, I’m just down to earth practical.

It was very good to break up all those stories and images that I created about myself. It makes me laugh now, like all the things I’ve told myself I can’t do. Of course you can, and you can do anything. I can do anything. You can do anything.

Alison Jones: And I love that, the thing that the research just making it appear possible and then finding the right people. And then as you say, taking it step by step. One thing that really fascinated me as well was that you crowdfunded the book, which a couple of our authors have done as well.

And I think it’s really, it’s not an easy route to publication, but just tell us, you know, why did you choose that? And also, how was it, what did you discover about that?

Jinny Uppal: Yes, that was a fascinating journey. The book writing program that I was a part of, the founder his name is Eric Custer. He’s actually a professor at Georgetown University. They have a certain mindset. The mindset is the creator as the owner mindset. So the author is, you’re not just writing a book, you are launching a business, you’re launching a product. You’re the owner of a business.

So author-preneur is a thing now, right? It’s a word that is used. So you have to think about your book as a business. So the question, so there are a couple of ideas that Eric and his team recommended, one was start building your audience while you’re writing the book, which was completely counter-intuitive

Alison Jones: Yes

Jinny Uppal: Right. I come from a business world where you don’t start talking about things unless you have a pretty reasonable product to talk about. At least you have a beta version.

I did talk about it, but the moment I started writing, it’s so bizarre, it made me very uncomfortable. So it required me stepping out of my comfort zone, where I might look stupid talking about a book that is I don’t know where this is going.

The benefit of building your audience, starting to build your audience early on, is that they are with you in the journey. Crowdfunding was a step in that strategy of building your audience early on. My publisher has a particular model of pre-orders, which is actually a crowdfunding campaign. Once again, I felt very awkward because I felt it is not appropriate for me to ask people to give me money to write a book. It felt all wrong.

One is I can afford to pay for the book. I should be able to, I should pull my weight. And the other is it’s, I’ve really got to be sure it’s a good book, right? It’s got to be worthy of them putting their money down. What converted me into signing up for this crowd funding model. This way of doing things is that when people put money into something, they have skin in the game.

I wanted a community. I actually wanted this to be as much of a crowdsourcing project as possible, not just crowdfunding. I’m not writing the book. I don’t want to write a book in isolation because I’m writing the book about behaviors and behaviors are a human tendency. If I go off in a cave and write on my own, I might be disconnected from the reality of what’s out there.

So crowdfunding actually was more of a crowdsourcing initiative. I want people to come along for the journey and they did, it was very successful to my surprise. In the beginning, of course, people signed up because they knew me. But then before I knew it, I started doing book talks and people who didn’t know me at all were participating.

And that was a huge signal to me Alison, that this book is worthy. The topic is worthy. It’s already resonating.

Alison Jones: I imagine it’s also, when you run out of energy, it’s wonderful to be able to borrow other people’s energy, isn’t it, and their enthusiasm and your accountability to them.

That’s one of the great things about being supported by people as you write a book.

Jinny Uppal: Writing a book can feel like a very thankless process and emotionally it can be exhausting. It can be abstract. You don’t know what’s coming out of it. The support you get from people can become almost like a I’m hanging in there because there are people out there who are in some ways validating the work I’m doing.

 It actually made me so much more committed to not just writing a book, but writing a good book, a good, good quality book. So it was both ways, we were feeding off of each other’s energies and then people started thanking me for making them part of my journey. And I was like, really, like you’re thanking me. I’m thanking you.

Alison Jones: It’s funny, isn’t it? That there’s something about a book still that gets people excited and engaged and enthusiastic. I don’t know any other form that just gives it quite that sense of significance. And you’re right. It is interesting.

And I think often, you know, authors will be reluctant to reach out to people to ask them for advice or get them involved or ask them for support.

And in almost every case, people are just delighted to be asked and really keen to be part of the journey.

Jinny Uppal: You couldn’t be more right. And I will tell you, Alison, I didn’t know this before I went through the journey. I was exactly that person who would be awkward, just not comfortable with sharing something that is so incomplete, part of it is you don’t want to look stupid.

Alison Jones: Yes

Jinny Uppal: and I realized, but I won’t, I won’t be stupid because other people will make sure I not being stupid.

Alison Jones: And that’s when having the right support around you really comes in as well, doesn’t it? Because you’re not doing it in a vacuum, you’re getting good feedback and you’re getting advice. And so, Yes, brilliant.

Jinny Uppal: Yes, yes.

Alison Jones: I always ask people for their best piece of advice for somebody who’s just starting out on this journey. So Jinny, if somebody’s just starting out, they’re listening to you now and they’ve been taking notes frantically, what is the one thing that you’d want to tell them?

Jinny Uppal: I will give the advice I was given, pick a topic you deeply deeply care about. You may call it passion. You may call it love. You’ve got to really dig the topic. And I say that because in the book journey, there will be many reasons to give up. Unless you have a real drive or curiosity or love, you’ll have reason to give up and walk away from it.

So it is a drive, the curiosity, the passion, whatever you want to call it, that will keep you going. So make sure you have that for that topic.

Alison Jones: And it’s interesting that you say curiosity, which is one of my core values, and I think it’s such an important mindset when you start off on a book writing journey. Because I think often people assume you write what you know, and you write about your expertise, but actually going into it wanting to uncover more, having an idea about the topic, but wanting to discover more, wanting to discover what the people think about it, how it played out over here, what it looks like over in that culture.

That’s the thing that really keeps you going, isn’t it. And actually makes for a much richer book, rather than just tipping out on paper, everything you know that’s in your head.

Jinny Uppal: That is another myth that got busted. I believed the same, that authors are like these gods on that subject. And you know, their word is the ultimate. During my book writing journey, I happened to attend several private talks with, you know, the more famous authors like Simon Sinek and Dan Pink directly or indirectly they all said the same thing. The book started with a question or a curiosity.

They became experts by the end of it. And the book writing journey is very long. So you’re going to research the heck out of it. So you may become an expert, but even then, even at the end, now that I’ve finished writing this book, it is still an intrigue for me. It’s an intriguing subject. It’s like an ongoing topic for me.

It’s build this awareness that there’s no feeding on itself. You’re right, you don’t have to be an expert. In fact, it’s better if you’re not, because you might think you know too much, you’ll not be humble enough to ask. So let it be a curiosity, a drive and it’ll serve you very well in the journey.

Alison Jones: That’s a fantastic tip. Thank you. And I also always ask someone to recommend a business book, now clearly you can’t recommend In/Action, that’s not allowed. What other book would recommend that people pick up and read? What’s impacted you?

Jinny Uppal: Right. I’m starting to, I feel like the lines between business and even social psychology, like they’re all starting to blur. And I, the book that helped me during my writing journey was Adam Grant’s Think Again

Alison Jones: Yes, wonderful. Yes.

Jinny Uppal: Yes, and you know, the topic itself, the subject itself is think again. And my book In/Action: Rethinking the path to results is about rethinking what drives success is it action or inaction?

So I think that was a good book and I like Adam Grant, I like his style.

Alison Jones: Yes, he writes beautifully, doesn’t he? And you’re right, it’s such a powerful, you sort of want to press it into the hands of every world leader, don’t you?

Jinny Uppal: Correct. Sure, that will be good.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Great recommendation and Jinny if people want to find out more about you, more about the book, more about what you do in the world. Where should they go?

Jinny Uppal: I would love to hear from people, whether they disagree or agree with the topic. And the best way to contact me is, you know, on LinkedIn or DM me on Twitter. I’m easy to find Jinny Uppal JINNYUPPAL. And my website is jinnyuppal.com and the book is available to buy on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online outlets.

Alison Jones: Perfect. Well, I will put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, along with the transcript of our conversation. And thank you Jinny, just fantastic insights. Great to hear your story, but also you’ve really made me think about the topic. And what more can you ask? Thank you.

Jinny Uppal: Thank you so much for having me.

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