The Story Rules Podcast E3: Swanand Kelkar – Writing investment theses for a $3B+ portfolio (Transcript)

Swanand Kelkar
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E3: Swanand Kelkar – Writing investment theses for a $3B+ portfolio (Transcript)

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Intro hook:

“And the third thing that I realised is if you write something, it just clarifies your thinking. When you put pen to paper and you do it hand on your heart, and dig up data and try to make the argument robust why you’re buying or selling the stock. I think it just clarifies your thinking … there’s so many stocks which I did not invest in because I started writing the rationale”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak to Swanand Kelkar, a Managing Director at Morgan Stanley in India. 

Swanand wanted to become a journalist; his parents wanted him to do engineering. As a compromise he chose Commerce and became a CA. 

You might think that’s a terrible compromise for both – but it turned out to be a great one for the world of investing – and storytelling.

At Morgan Stanley, Swanand advises investments in funds with around 3-4 Billion dollars… but what is more impressive about him is his ability to write and to tell engaging data stories about the thinking that underlies those investment decisions.

In the episode, I speak to Swanand about his techniques to consume curated information, his reflection methodology and his writing process.

We also delve into some lessons to be learnt from the world of fiction writing. That’s right – Swanand also writes fiction. 

I especially found two things to be very impressive 

  1. his structured approach to curiosity and 
  2. his ability to use everyday English and relatable metaphors to describe complex topics.

Let’s dive in.

Hi Swanand, welcome to the Story Rules podcast.

Let me start with, your introduction. So, your you are managing director at Morgan Stanley in India. So, what do I tell my dad? What do you actually do? 

Swanand 02:06

Ha ha. Nice one. I think the same thing you can you can tell your five-year-old daughter as well. So, what I what I do is I invest in listed equities in India. Okay, so I think I invest in listed equities in India, seven words, right? So, the only the only couple of words that you might, or somebody who’s a more generalist might want to know is what is listed equities. It basically means shares which are listed on a stock exchange in India, right? So, I buy and sell those shares. So then if you would drill it down one level, do I do it for myself? Do I do it for somebody else? Yeah. The answer is I do it for somebody else. These are largely institutional clients. What you mean by institutional clients? They are not Ravishankar Iyer, they are not Swanand Kelkar (not individual clients) but they are firms. They are more like pension funds or they are more like sovereign wealth funds, etc. So, they are institutions who give money to Morgan Stanley to manage, some of which is invested in Indian equities. Those advisory work on which stocks to buy which stocks to sell when to buy them when to sell them. That is my primary day job.

Ravi 03:23

Fascinating. And do you have like, the size of the fund that you manage? Is it something that’s known? Or is it?

Swanand 3:30

Yeah, the number is fluid keeps going up and down, depending on how the market has moved, etc. but fair to assume that over the past 13 odd years that I’ve been at Morgan Stanley, that number has been somewhere between two and a half to $4 Billion at different points.

Ravi 3:43

Billion with a, ‘B’?

Swanand 3:45

Yeah, ‘B’ billion with a, ‘B’ and USD.

Ravi 3:50

That’s huge. So, at some level, you know, I mean, it’s Yeah, so you’ve been doing this for many years now. And you know, it’s it is probably normal, right. But for any person, any youngster or anybody listening to this, like, wow, you manage 3 billion plus dollars, that’s a lot of money. And just doing that itself must be such a time consuming and you know, intensive role. And, obviously, that is great, and you love what you do. But you’re not content with just doing that. You also have three, four other fascinating hats that you wear. And the other hats are what, you know, we’re going to be talking more about so one hat is definitely the writer hat. And we’re going to talk about that. And this, this curious experimenter hat. You know what happened last year that you know, you went on this brilliant, one year journey.

Swanand 4:42

Okay, so I’ll talk about the sabbatical, which I took, I’m just back from it. So, I went on yearlong sabbatical starting February 2020, which is exactly a year ago. And I came back last week, I joined work last week. So, it was like a one year when I was away from work. I had no access to any Morgan Stanley systems, I was not looking at markets, which is what I’ve been doing pretty much for the past 14-15 years. So that was the whole idea. The idea of taking the sabbatical was more to explore things that you couldn’t (explore), or you wanted to but couldn’t, because as they say, life happened. Both you and I have been part of the hypercompetitive Indian entrance exam taking frenzy, right. So, you take one exam after the other until, there is no time left for anything else; And then you get married and you have a house, then you buy a car, and you have a loan to service and, and just at the age of whatever I realized at the age of 40, that “Hey, what happened? I wanted to learn how to bowl the googly. What happened to that?” And I was like, “Why not learn now? I mean, I have fingers, I can still take a five-step run up. Why not do it now?”. So, the whole idea started there that this ‘Later’ box (things left to explore), which started filling up for me, at least from the age of 12, or 13, or whatever is to tell your parents typical Indian middle-class mentality that I want to do this X thing and which was not remotely related to academics. One says, later, there’s enough time for that later. Why don’t you focus on your 10th standard (exams) right now and then later, you do what you have to do. So that that later box kept bulging, right, that I put so many things in that ‘later’ (to be done later). That ‘later’ never arrived, so to speak. And at one point I just decided later is now, let’s kind of open that ‘later’ box and see what all is in there. And try and take this one year controlled, not open-ended thing, right?  “I will discover myself, I’ll take a backpack”. That’s not me. And a lot of people do that. Yeah. But I wanted to do it like in a very structured way that these are the five, seven, eight things that I wanted to do. How can I use these 12 months to kind of explore them a bit more deeply, rather than just a passing interest in some of these. So that is how the sabbatical happened.  

Ravi 07:26
Was there a trigger Swanand? Apart from turning 40; or was that the trigger?

Swanand 07:11

There wasn’t a trigger really, there was a there was an article that I read about a guy called Max Deutsch, it was in the Wall Street Journal. And what he was trying to do was he was trying to do 12 hard things in 12 months, so he wasn’t necessarily thinking about it from a sabbatical standpoint. So, he was like, I’m going to I’m a chess novice, I’m going to learn to play chess for a month and probably play with a grandmaster. So, he was trying to, like challenge himself to really hard things. (He would say) “Well, I learned to rap in, I learned to freestyle rap in a month”. So, he was challenging himself with those hard things. For me, it wasn’t that, but the structure appealed to me. So, I said three things. One is, I’m going to make a list of 12 things, I couldn’t do that, well, eventually, I ended up with seven or eight. These are 12 things I want to do, I’m going to pick a guru for each of them in advance, because I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. So, I want to learn with somebody who’s an expert in that in that area. And for everything that they do at the end of it, I’ll have some sort of a finale, some sort of a closure, or some sort of like this activity has ended good. You started at day zero, you were here, day 30. We’re here. And this is not to show anybody anything. But it just gives you a sense of closure, because you want to jump to the next activity. So that was how I structured it. And yeah, amazing ride. Great Adventure.

Ravi 08:32
it’s also very cool the way you did it, and almost like setting a template or a guideline for others who probably, you know, follow in your footsteps. I’m sure you’ll be getting if you’ve not already gotten a lot of calls,” Hey Swanand, ‘m planning to do (the challenge), can you please guide me on what should be the thing that I pick up?”. So I want to cycle back Swanand, you know, before we come to present day, which is you know, about your childhood? And you know, what were some of the influences, and especially let’s talk about the storytelling part, right? So, you know, just to give a context to other folks, not all people who are in the investment world who understand stocks, who know which stocks to pick, also know how to write that write in a way that actually laypeople can understand. And, you know, they may be able to write research reports, but that’s, you know, read by I think a small. So, you’ve been a regular contributor on Live Mint, for how many years now?


So I think we started in 2012. That’s almost eight and a half years.


And plus, you of course, write on LinkedIn and Medium. And so, you write and which is a rare combination, somebody who a guy who’s managing 3 billion who’s also writing Of course there are. There’s Warren Buffet writes really well. And there are other guys, but this is a great combination. And a lot of this, this combination of traits, the seeds were sown in childhood, right. So, can you take us back to that time? And you know, how are you as a kid? And what prompted some of these interests?

Swanand 9:59

Yeah, So, I really picked up writing in eighth-ninth standard. I mean, I used to write before, but it was like, very basic, rudimentary kind of stuff. But what I realized that I started writing better. The minute I started reading more and reading better, okay, so it had. So once my reading kind of widened, I realized that my writing improved, right. So that was one of the things which I felt is true even today. The more you read, the better you read, the better you write, it’s as simple as that. But I’ll go back to where this storytelling and all these fascinations where this fascination started from so. So, growing up, everybody in the house be it my mom, some of my aunts, they had a very rich repository of stories around our scriptures around the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. And everybody when the Mahabharata especially it’s so fascinating that there is a plot and then there is a subplot and then there is a sub sub plot and there is like there’s so many stories with so many iterations of the of the epic that have happened, that

Ravi 11:13

Did you actually read the book (Mahabharata), or did the people tell you the stories?,


No. Somebody told you the story. This was like this, or like five, six years old, so an aunt would tell me a story or mom would tell me a story. Just one small section. Not the entire epic, but maybe one small story from within that, I mean, that kind of became an evening ritual. She used to tell me one story from the epic and sometimes it would repeat as well. So, we didn’t have 365 stories for the year but, and that kind of became my look forward to moment for the day. I used to be like, “Oh, this will be nice story, somebody will tell me”, it was like maybe five minutes, seven minutes, I mean, not longer than that. And sometimes, that responsibility would fall on my dad. And he would be like, he would actually tell you the same story he used to tell me the Sita Haran story, which is Rama, Sita and Lakshman are in exile and Sita sees a golden deer sends Ram in pursuit. Everybody knows that story, right? But what he used to do differently every time is that he used to change the setting of the chase where Rama is chasing the deer. In the original story, it happens in a forest. But let’s say that day, we have seen Deewar movie right, which is the Amitabh Bachhan’s movie that changes to then happen on the docks of Bombay. So, it used to be the same story. But the chase, which is what I used to love, right? Ram chasing the golden deer. That is the whole high point of the thriller suspense, car chase


That’s a one line in the story. I mean, he used to build on top of that


Yeah, yeah, so he used to tell me in Marathi. So, the key line there was Haran pudhe Ram maage, which which used to mean that that the deer is ahead and Ram is in pursuit. And he used to repeat that Haran pudhe Ram maage, haran pudhe ram maage and he used to just make it like, such a thriller that. I still remember it and the setting of the chase used to change right sometimes it used to be my school playground. Sometimes it used to be to be on the terrace of our building, which is very improbable, and how can you have a chase on a terrace because it is such a small terrace. But he took those creative liberties and I kind of knew the story. I knew the ending, I knew everything that was going to happen, but as to be still fascinated on where this change will happen today. Right. So that was his so he asked us to tell that story. And it was amazingly funny.

Ravi 13:51
This is an observation which is coming in. Sorry, I’m you know, because he was actually using a very powerful storytelling technique, which is that and it’s not it’s actually it’s a live technique, right. So, we all want a balance of novelty and familiarity, in our stories in our products in life. So, if it is too boring, too familiar, we get bored “Areh, naya kya hai issme” (What’s new in this), but if it is too new, then fear sets in. So, there is, you know, fear of fear of something completely new. So, you need to have that balance. And you know, there’s this line I remember remember Chris Nolan, saying in an interview that, you know, it’s that balance between novelty and familiarity. That’s where the golden mean, essentially, that’s what he was doing. You know, it is familiar. So it’s the same story. It’s not something new, but the setting becomes new. And he was doing that really well. 

Swanand 14:41

So now that you mentioned it, I think it’s a very fascinating, I heard exactly the same thing from the CEO of McDonald’s. He used to say that we ensure that our menu has a combination of both there is familiarity, which is you have the Maharaja Mac out there. But every two three months will introduce an absolutely new dish right which is a rice-based thing or which they have done right now what is a different kind of a burger. And you have to maintain that balance you cannot give so your customer needs that familiarity where he comes at. He sees those Maharaja Mac is there, McAloo tikki is there. But hey, there is this new thing as well. So yeah, now that you mentioned it, his comments, kind of. So that’s the way of keeping the menu fresh, and yet not scaring people away who are probably the diehard McAloo Tikki eaters.

Ravi 15:28

So Mahabharata stories when you’re five or six years old, and then do you start reading at some point after this?

Swanand 15:35

Yeah, so as you can imagine, with my fascination for the chase, the genre of fiction that I picked up was detective stories. Right. So, I started with usual the Famous Five, Secret Seven, Hardy Boys. That is, that is how the whole thing started. And then I quickly graduated to Holmes and Perry Mason. And that kind of remains even till date. I mean, I would say 75-80% of my fiction reading even today is crime thrillers or detective fiction. I mean, I cannot. I mean, I do not have the patience to read a really floral long prose. 


Yeah, drama

Swanand 16:25

I mean that there are people who write that really well. And there are people who enjoy the genre, but I just (not my thing). So yeah, so that kind of stuff. So I also read, I mean, I think there’s a there are a couple of vernacular young adult detective stories. I mean, in Marathi, there is Faster Pheni. in Bengali there is of course, Feluda. And I read the I used to read the translations for both Feluda. And, Faster Pheni was obviously in Marathi so I used to read it in Marathi. And the others were obviously, obviously in English and the fiction genre that I started reading as a kid then was short stories. Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and not really as a kid, but I would say more like eighth ninth standard, right? O Henry. That’s the kind of when I started liking. So, in a way, the literary taste started developing one for short story as a genre and then for, if I’m reading a 200-300 page, it better be a detective crime thriller kind of book. So that is how the whole thing the story thing progressed.  I’ve written about it earlier, and what my teachers used to make us do in school is read newspapers, read the edit pages, etc, just understand sentence constructions to widen our vocabularies.

Ravi 17:45
I read that Swanand, and, you know, a lot of teachers say that to a lot of students, not many students end up actually doing it, you did it. And was it

Swanand 17:53
I think there’s a, sorry, there’s natural inclination to read, but what happened was, I felt in hindsight, it could have been, it could have been too much, too soon. In the sense, I had the vocabulary, and I had the sentence construction, and probably I could quote, Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe or somebody, somebody else. But I did not have the depth of ideas that I didn’t have content, because at the end of the day, we’re still a 13–14-year-old kid. So, you are given the instruments, but you are not given the content, so to speak, or you did not have the content that content can’t be given. But it was it good, it kind of perpetuated my reading habit… Because then I started reading a bit of newspapers actually also started a bit of interest into business, business maybe a bigger word, but more things, which are related to the economy a bit. So, I used to ask questions like “what is this (economic concept)?”. Because I’m reading that editorial in Times of India, which appears on the day after the budget. So, I started asking people that what is this mean? (The national budget) Why is this such a big deal? So that’s the kind of stuff I mean, maybe

Ravi 19:09

Is there somebody in your family who was into markets or into finance or anything sort of?


Yeah, so there was an uncle who was into markets and into finance. And I used to kind of ask him these questions. which are very rudimentary, I mean, these are like, just understanding what the whole thing is. So that’s where the whole thing started. Then I obviously opted for commerce, I kept reading on the side

Ravi 19:31

No, but why so this was a family decision. Normally, you know, kids go into a) science and then engineering so one, why commerce and then somebody had also written about you, you wanted to do get into writing and you know that that

Swanand 19:47

So, I scored really well in my 10th standard in English. And I got I got good marks and all that. And I also started contributing to the school. Whatever that small school journal. (I was) asked to write one or two pieces for that school journal, and one of the pieces I still remember I have it is why Moriarty is more impressive than Holmes. I was always fascinated to Moriarty fascinated towards him. So, I was kind of thing that he’s, I felt at that point in time that he’s painted like a typical villain in black, but to achieve what he has achieved, or at least what Arthur Conan Doyle tells us that he’s achieved must have taken a lot of hard work was my basic, simple premise. So he’s not he’s not a gully ka gunda roadside guy (goon) who is a worthy adversary to Holmes and probably he deserves a bigger story or whatever than he just appearing in some crime scene and challenging Holmes.

Ravi 20:50

Something like this is quite fascinating Swanand, because clearly there is no write up that you have read about talking something like this about Moriarty. So this is not an idea that has been seeded in your mind. Not through some writing. I’m sure. No elder has also told you this. So, this is coming through reflection.


Yeah, this is I’ve been fascinated by this character. And I’m feeling that why isn’t there more about Moriarty? Apart from the fact that they’re locked in this embrace when they fall down those huge falls and that’s the that’s how the first set of stories end. yeah, and why do why do we not know more about this fascinating guy. Apart from the fact that he sits at the centre of London’s crime web quote unquote, why do we not know more about him? So that is where that thing came from. And I almost felt like taking up his side that I mean, I am Moriarty’s advocate here and I am, can I want more paid space for this guy

Ravi 21:50

Wouldn’t you had some English prof or teacher notice this and said, “Hey, this is cool, you know, not too many kids a) end up reading some of this and b) think and write something like this. You should you should work on this”.

Swanand 22:05

Yeah, so there was there was an English teacher, she has been a big influence on me, Jennifer Gadgil. And I learnt with her for almost three years. And she was a huge influence not just about English, but about, about how to how to conduct yourself, I mean, how to submit assignments on time, I mean, and how to be clear in your writing how to leave margins on the side and not have 10 words in one line and three in the next and a have font sizes of 8 and 16 on the same page. So, she was really instrumental in all those things. I owe her a lot. Just her work ethic kind of reflected on me, right just to always be on time for classes always ready. It was quite evident that she’s taking a lot of interest in teaching us which was in a way rare for for a normal school, at that point in time. And that kind of reflected when if a boss is coming on time, I mean, in a modern work setting, and is 100% switched on while at work, it just sends out an unsaid message (to the employees) that you better (follow suit).  I’m still in touch with her. So, she’s one of the first influences. Yeah, so long story short, 10 standard good marks. I said, I want to take up journalism, because I have written two articles for the school magazine.

You make a strong case

So I wanted to take up journalism, and my parents then said “What will you do? I mean, have you seen a journalist? I mean, they have the beards, and they carry these bags around and can barely make ends meet. And why do you want to become a journalist? Do we know even a single successful journalist who you would aspire to be? “And at that point of time I didn’t really have an answer. I mean, I knew that I wanted to write I wanted to end the only thing that a 16 year old can correlate write and being employed was journalism. That’s how I’d arrived at that. I mean, if you want to write and be employed while writing you have to be (a) journalist. So that idea was shot down in three minutes. And then they said you have great marks; you have something to have done well in math. Just go to science and become an engineer. So I again put out my stubborn hat. I mean, I I became stubborn there and said “Okay, you’re not letting me take Arts. You want me to take science, we’ll do the 3rd thing”

Ravi 24:29

Really?! That’s how you picked up. That is amazing


Yeah, so that’s how I ended up going to commerce


neither you nor I win.

Swanand 24:41
Na tere na mera, so that’s how I went to commerce. The only other kind of a positive rationale for taking commerce was as I said, I started developing some sort of an interest in stuff related to money and business. Not typically markets, that that was a big word at that point of time, just money and how things work. And for one summer, I had become the accounting intern for my society to build like a 12-flat, very small society, so basically, what we had to do was we the society made any payment to anybody, you have to just make a receipt, give that receipt and maintain books of accounts. So that the treasurer of the society would look at it on a monthly basis. Basically, palming off work saying that these guys come to me. Yeah, cheap labour, almost free labour. And at the end of the month, he gave me a few Wada-Pavs and all that and that was that so we were done. But I kind of like that whole thing, right of being fastidious meticulous about being writing receipts keeping a photocopy, filing it in a file putting it up in the ledger writing taking that guide sign that I have received 10 rupees etc. So yeah, so that is how that thing took off. While I was in commerce, I think writing kind of took a backseat. I mean, I didn’t, I didn’t write much I also wasn’t reading a lot. I continued with reading some of the crime fiction kind of things. I picked up a Jeffrey Archer (novel) and that kind of stuff, but not much. And then once you started doing CA, we didn’t have too much time left to do anything else at all, so nothing much happened. In fact, even till B school, I was reading a bit, but we were writing the same WAC (a writing course) submissions that you and I were doing and apart from that, apart from that nothing much. And when I started investing, in fact, some of the names that you mentioned, Buffett, Howard Marks, these are great investment writers, right? They’re not only good investors themselves, but they also write about investing in very simple accessible terms. And there was something which was missing in India at that point in time. And I said, why not be why not just make this practitioners diary? Right, rather than there’s a lot of research going on in India and a lot of people on the ‘sell’ side, as we call it, on the equity research side who write a lot about market and investing. Yeah, but there is not much at least maybe 8-10 years ago, there’s not much written from the practitioner standpoint, right? Once I provocatively said that people listened to Harsha Bhogle about batting because Sachin can’t talk. And that is what exactly what was happening, what investing I felt that people were wrestling or there’s so much of sell side research out there because it was presented so well, and all those things (will give) credit there. But I would rather listen for practitioners, right? Even if it’s small, even if it’s like two pages, three pages, five, whatever. I wanted the practitioner’s insight. So, I would rate, maybe three pages written by Buffett over 300 pages written by some sell side analysts. So that is where it started.

Ravi 27:54

This is an important moment. So I want to deep dive in this because so let’s, you know, bring people over to 2002. You qualified CA in 2001 2002?

Ya 2002 qualified, 2003 we were together, in Ahmedabad

Together three to five we were in IMA (Ahmedabad). And so, you joined a job, which was into investing in 2005.

Yes, I joined Fidelity,

Fidelity and so till that time, you have not read much stuff by these guys who write about markets and stuff 

No. Absolutely not

And in any nonfiction stuff that you were into reading before that, like History? 

Swanand 28:33

Yeah. So I was, I was not very, I was very fascinated by history, per se. But I started reading about markets, because that’s something that I was keen on, as well. So, one of the first books I read about markets, and it’s kind of stayed with me is called Random Walk Down Wall Street, it’s by Burton Malkiel. And it’s just, it’s actually a history of markets. It’s about history of, it’s about history of booms and busts. And today, when you hear about the frenzy of Bitcoin, when somebody compares it to tulip bulbs, you know what, what you’re talking about, you’re talking, we’re probably 16th 17th century Holland, there was a similar mania about tulip bulbs, actual tulip bulbs, and, but Malkiel deals with those bubbles. And he kind of gives you that historical perspective of how the South Sea bubble happened and things like that. So, I started reading, reading more of more of those, rather than reading pure fiction. So, I started reading more about books written about the Peter Lynch was somebody that I think every budding investor was encouraged to read. So, ‘One up on Wall Street’ was something that I read while we were in while we were in B school,

 Ravi 29:47

Yeah, and some of these of course, write well, but now once you come and you start working in your job, then you’re reading a ton more of stuff, I think about markets and investing. And so, the majority is generated from the sell side writing?

Swanand 30:03

I would say not because one of the important things that at least I tried to do is not be in an echo chamber, right. So, if you read only, it’s a bit like clickbait. So, if you click a certain type of article or an article with a certain view embedded in it, social media will show you more articles of that, right? We know about that. So, I kind of try and read as eclectically. And as in a diverse way as I can, I don’t want to stick only to markets, I don’t want to stick only to sell side, I want to diversify so that I at least have a I have a balanced view of view of things, which is I actually started writing something known as I circulate a bit of my reading whatever I have read over the past week, I send it out to a few friends on Monday. And I call it Between Friends. And I kind of said this is what I read last week. The whole idea is to maintain some sort of a discipline into the reading. And if there is a pressure that on Monday, you have to send something to people, you might as well read at least for a couple of hours each day on the weekend. So, I try to diversify how I read. I also have learned the power of getting curated stuff. So, I have I have a network of friends who also read and who send me stuff that hey, I read this. This is interesting. And this is one line about it, which just has improved the quality of my reading rather than be just one a whim clicking on something on Twitter, right, and then that turning out to be not great. And so, I think if you just get a curated list for example your newsletter, which you send out every Saturday, I know that the quality of content will be good. I know that the writer would have put in an effort. So, there’s 100% read ratio on that.  So, I know I won’t be wasting time, nine times out of 10 if I open this, right, and that’s a good number for me. So, I think curation is very important. I think you need to develop that. Whatever, however it (curation) works, right? Let’s say you may be zero in on five authors who write who generally write (well) or this is true with even (film) directors, right? There are a few directors, I’ll go and watch their movie because I know it’s a sincere effort (of the director). The movie might do well, might not do well. It’s not like Sidney Sheldon, that you don’t know which books Sidney Sheldon had actually written and which he hasn’t. Although it might have a Sidney Sheldon on it.  (It might have) his name on it. So that has helped in improving the quality of the reading. The writing, as I said, started in 2012, with a kind of a monthly investment newsletter.

Ravi 32:39

So, 2005 to 2012, You had not started writing yet?


No. So I actually started managing monies I was an analyst to start with. Okay, all right. So, from 2005 till 2011, I was like I was an analyst, learning different sectors, learning the workings of the market


The Analyst typically, does the number crunching, and then pass on the research to the guys who actually sign and yeah okay-


The fund manager to the guys who make the decision to deploy the money. So I was kind of an analyst working the numbers, meeting companies, doing corporate calls, making excel spreadsheets, models, meeting. So that was the kind of thing that was happening, very important (for me), that grounding was important, but it’s only in 2011-12 only I actually started managing money in the sense. I started making the decisions, of where to put the money, how much to put, etc. And it’s a whole different ballgame than being an analyst. If you’re an analyst, you just say, “Okay, on a spreadsheet, this looks okay, whatever and this is my recommendation, buy, sell, hold, don’t sell whatever”. But when you’re actually putting money out, I mean, it takes a different dimension altogether. It’s like, it’s like playing cricket in simulation, and then actually facing James Anderson, so that is the that was the shift. And then I said, the other thought, which came to mind when we started writing was a lot of sports, people have the advantage of an Action Replay. And you can, you can see your own action, you can see what you did when the ball was doing this, or you can see what you did when typical serve was in a certain way, we don’t have it as investors. So why not just create this repository of my current thinking, so that you can actually go back to it and, and see (in hindsight)- it sort of becomes an Action Replay that, in such a situation for a certain sector for a certain stock? These are my thoughts at that point in time, and especially if things have gone wrong, I think it becomes a good document to revisit. How were you thinking at that point in time, so why are you not playing the in-swinging ball well. So, when you have that Action Replay with you, it becomes it becomes useful. So that was the other objective of

Ravi 34:49

I love that practice because so few of us do it. We take decisions and then we don’t revisit them at all. We like how what goes well, we pat ourselves what doesn’t go well, like okay, that didn’t go well. That’s it. So, to write down and I remember you writing that even the calls you don’t take not to invest in a sector, those too you write down and then you track and then markets, at least give you a chance to see whether you are right or wrong. So that interesting,

Swanand 35:18

Absolutely, absolutely So actually, sorry, I just want to finish that. So the writing started with those two or three broad thoughts that
1) one there is not being written by the practitioner (expertise in investments).
2) Second is why not have a repository of action, replays (analysing investments).
3) And the third, which I realized that if you write something, it just clarifies your thinking. When you put pen to paper and you do it hand on your heart, and dig up data and try to make the argument robust while you’re buying or selling the stock. I think it just clarifies your thinking there’s so many stocks which had did not invest in because I started writing the rationale.



Swanand    36:00

What happens is you come out of (a meeting with) let’s say a very charismatic CEO, who presents to you or a charismatic founder, who’s made a great deck and who’s like-is a great speaker. And you come out with sort of a warm fuzzy feeling that you’re just wanting to invest, finding reasons to invest. So, you have to let that thing cool off and the best way to do that is kind of sit down and write. The only thing is you have to do it hand on your heart. You cannot play a predetermined shot there you cannot do write having already decided to do buy, then it’s then it’s just filing (your thoughts, not true reflection),   


Confirmation bias creeps in   


Just Yeah. So I think, I think if you’re just feeling that I want to buy now I think that is give it 24 hours first was like just let it cool. And then try and write and then try and dig up some numbers and then maybe speak to somebody and ask yourself questions. So yeah, so that has three things put together, which are where the writing started then started putting that up in Mint. And that’s how the whole journey started.   

Ravi        37:02

So, this is something that, you know, I think a lot of leaders can learn about on and because I see a lot of good practitioners, right? And I mean, you’re talking about investments, but whether it’s technology or whether it’s sales marketing, who are great at what they do, but either tell themselves that no, I’m not writer. Or, you know, I have not read when I was young or whatever, that you need a writer when you are young, or you know, how can you build the skill?       

Swanand   37:30
No, so I agree lot of people come to me, especially in the investment side. And they say that we are numbers, people. We think in Excel, we work in Excel, don’t make us write stories. And to them, I say that you don’t need to be Ernest Hemingway to do this, right? You’re not writing to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Whatever you’re thinking, yeah, just put it on a piece of paper. And the only person who needs to understand it is you. At least to start with, right. And because then it becomes sort of, as I said, it becomes a repository of your thinking, over a time period. And sometimes I read some of my rationale stock rationale that I’ve written 10 years ago, and I’m laughing, I mean, the things that I was bothered about, were so trivial, and you didn’t really have to pay any attention. And the big elephant in the room is totally missed out. In the, when you look at it with the benefit of hindsight. So yeah, so I would encourage everybody who’s making decisions, and big decisions to maybe right now (you have to write) it’s three bullet points. I mean, it’s, it’s not ‘War and Peace’, it’s three bullet points that you just need to write over. This is why I was thinking this is a decision under uncertainty, this is what I decided, and this was the reason I finished and don’t show it to anybody, don’t send it to anybody. When I send my rationales to a few other people to this make them robust, so that they can add in their perspective. And that’s not (required) …and just keep it keep it to yourself. This is something which I found to be very useful.   

Ravi   38:59

So now I want to get into your actual writing process, the whole thinking and writing process, right? So, you talked about the reading part, which is curation is the is a cornerstone of how you read. So, can you actually get into some of the sources of you know, what do you how do you make sure that you get a curated list? And what are some of the sources?   

Swanand   39:16

Sure. So on the topic of reading a couple of other things that I will say is, I have a three paragraph rule, I think I had tweeted about it sometime earlier, which is that when you’re reading, let’s say an op-ed, a magazine article or research report, or whatever you’re reading, if the thing doesn’t grip you in the first three paragraphs, in terms of what is being talked about, and how the next structure that’s going to follow how does it look like if it doesn’t hold your attention within the first three paragraphs, Stop reading   


Would you do that for a book also. Because   

So, if it’s a fiction book, I don’t care if it’s Yeah, if it’s a fiction, I mean, I have read fiction books like starting on page 232. Because you just reading it for how well Yeah, exactly. How can we just maybe a phrase a little bit for just the English languages how well the thing has come about but if let’s say I’m reading a nonfiction book, the first thing that I do is look for a TED talk look for a podcast by that author.   


Oh great idea, that’s a smart idea   

So that if that (The Ted Talk) interests you that spending that half hour one hour has enough has generated enough interest inside you then I think it’s worth spending another eight nine hours reading the whole book, right? Then there are so many now nonfiction books, which are actually blogs.  (Books) Which could actually be 2000-word blogs, right? I mean, rather than writing whatever, 60,000-word book. So, I think the first thing I’m reading the three paragraph isn’t gripping, it doesn’t go by I just leave it. We have a library system in our office, even digital as well as if you’re reading something physically that anything which will like and anything, which you think has stuff that are just interested you send it to a common mailbox, all of us as investors together and then we have this lady who is a librarian amongst other things, and she just files it in different places. So, I broadly know that okay, I have written I mean, Ravi had written this email where he explained the concept of MECE. (Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive)    


somewhere filed in your mind. Yeah,   


it’s filed in my head, but I don’t have to bear the pressure of physically having to retrieve it later. Right. I attached myself to know that Ravi has written about MECE that much I reconnect. Right so then I go to this digital library of hers and I tell her Ravishankar Iyer MECE find it and she will find it   




So, this system we have been kind of having for the past 8-10 years, we’ve just created a …so if with age and with failing memory if I if I stopped even the recollecting Ravishankar and MECE then I’m done. But I thus far at least I remember that I when I read something somewhere, it seven, eight years ago, I might just pick something up. So, I think and all that feeds into feeds into the writing process as well that you have picked up some scrap some fragment while reading something and it’s kind of just stuck and you just leave it and some of the fiction books and not all of the nonfiction books, not all of them. I have actually summarized them myself.   


Oh, wow. That’s tough.   


Yeah, but I may have probably done it for 10 books which I, which I which I felt that end to end they were full of insights. Maybe Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow is one of them.   


That’s a tough read. it’s not an easy read.   


Yeah, it’s exactly. So, I actually read it over two and a half, three months. And I kept underlining, underlining, underlining. And then I felt a sense of incompleteness at the end of it that I’ve read this great book, which at different points in time, gave me aha moments, but have I put them together anyway. So then I actually sat down one afternoon and actually wrote it pen and paper. And, and that document is filed somewhere.   


I want some tactical advice on this, Swanand, because, you know, many of us probably wanted to do this. But how do you find the time to do something because I’m sure in a job consumes a lot of your time.   


As I said, I don’t do this for all books, I do it for just exceptional books, which I feel are at actually dense and have a lot of insights in there. So, there’s an unrelated book, which I read recently called, it says Why Buddhism is True. It has got nothing to do with investing nothing to do your money market. But I just thought that it’s a deeply insightful book. And I just need to just need to collect all the insights from there into a single page, how to find time is a different, different …When I’d written about it, and I think I took one single thing is Exclusions. So, I think the one if you asked me to give you a one-word answer to that is Exclusions   


digital minimalism, that post that you wrote, that was very yeah right yeah     


Exactly. That’s the one I was talking about. How can you cut things? If you want to cut things, you have to be very clear what you want. Because if you want to be multiple things, at the same time, you won’t be able to exclude I mean, I think we are at an age where I think our as Naval Ravikant puts it, our exploration stage is pretty much over. We are now in an exploitation stage. I mean, we have realized, okay, I tried this, I tried this, I tried this. But these are the three or four things that I’m going to focus on maybe two or three things. And now I’m just going to go deeper, deeper, deeper and create expertise. In some of these, I think exclusion is very, is I think, is crucial to these two to free up time. And I think you can think about devices and whatever works for you for us, this Digital Library has been a boon. I mean, whenever we thought of that idea, I mean, that scraps put together. And that actually helps your writing. As I said, originally, the more you read, the more you write, the more you the deeper you read, the better you write.       

Ravi   45:25  
So reading is great. For me, the next step that comes, you know, before you actually put down pen to paper, or you know, you sit on the keyboard is the reflection and the thinking, right, so do you have any processes or steps that you do for that anything structured? How do you go about that?   

Swanand 45:41

So, let’s say I’m writing a nonfiction piece. Now I’m saying nonfiction because I wrote a few short stories in the past 12 months, but bulk of what I’ve written is nonfiction. What I do is what I call this myself is a thought puke. I know it’s not a great imagery to invoke. But you take a plain sheet of paper, and you write down everything you know about that subject or even if you don’t know about that subject on that piece of paper. Not all of it will be relevant to your eventual writing, you will clean out a lot of it. But it will, it will be the start of creating a structure to how you’re writing.   


Do you do this on Word? Or on actual paper, pen and paper?   


Sometimes I’ve done it in on the phone.   


Okay, that doesn’t matter for you,   


Not for me. But if I’m let’s say, I would ideally, if you, if you asked me, How do I want to (go about writing) so the process of writing happens like this, there’s some idea which is formed in your head, then you start tapping either into your digital resources, or you start seeking out stuff around that idea in terms of what you read, kind of collected in one place. And you let that idea marinate, let it marinate. And then one day, you just have this thought that okay, this idea came to me, this is the information that I have collected around it, this is what I know, this is what I need to know further. So that also becomes your to-do list for the next two, three days. And then at the end of it, you say okay, this is the structure that I want to write this for instance the article that you mentioned about which was about the increase in household debt to consumer. So, the whole idea actually started on a commute back home when I when I saw outside a mobile phone shop, it said 0% down payment 0% interest.   

Ravi     47:37

I love the way you actually started that article. And yeah, you know, at some level of thinking, are you always one part of your mind is on the lookout for stories like this? You know.   

Swanand   47:51

I don’t know. I really don’t know. But the thing struck me because just the day prior, we had gone to this old kirana store, which is run by a 70-year-old, where they had a thing written aaj nagad kal udhar. Which you and I have seen everywhere. And 0% downpayment 0% interest (in the phone shop) but basically meaning take Udhar (borrow money). Yeah. Right? That is what it meant. And that kind of hit me. I mean, how is this? Why is this? Why is this happening? So that’s, that’s where the whole the whole thing started? I mean, then I started thinking about household debt. I mean, has it really gone up? Because this is (an) anecdotal thing, right? I am seeing one board somewhere in one corner of Bombay, and which is what I also always like to say, and I think there’s a frame, there’s a term that you used as well, that the plural of anecdote is not data, right? So, a lot of people end up I mean, and especially it happens in the markets that people try to weave anecdotal data into big pictures to say, “Hey, you know, what, over the weekend, I went to a restaurant, it was empty. consumption is not happening… Or hey, it was like chock a block full, and I think we are just in for a 10-year bull market”. That is something that I wanted to avoid saying, okay, I’ve seen something here, is that really a trend? Let’s look at a big picture broad data, as much as we can. Then we looked at the household debt to GDP numbers, how they are panned out. The next question to ask is, why is this happening? Why now? I mean, what are the conditions? Why are we falling in place? So we looked at a few demand side drivers, we looked at a few supply side drivers, you mean why are people now much more amenable to take in debts which they want? So there is obviously one element of a generational shift to attitude. But there are other elements where you now have assets where the ownership is now proven to be 100% yours, especially things like houses. Right now, there is, most places will digitize records in terms of house ownership, etc. And once you have a very clear linking of a person and an asset, which is beyond any sort of legal dispute, it instantly makes it collateralizable. And that’s how you can then easily take a loan and if land holdings were to be digitized across the country very reliably, it will just open up open up assets which can be lent against. So that was one thing which on the demand side, we realize on the supply side, we realized that something like a CIBIL has come through and that gives you a better credit rating, credit history and which makes the banks more amenable to lending. So yeah, so that was how it started progressing. And I asked myself, is this experience unique to India doesn’t happen everywhere in the world. Then we looked at emerging market numbers on household debt to GDP for other countries, how they progress at certain per capita incomes etc. We also found differences between product level penetrations versus two wheelers in Indonesia are 70% financed in India, their financial year 25-30%. So why is that? So, I think if you have those, all those things in one place? I think it just helps you ask sharper questions. So, if you remember we had Professor Jain, who used to teach us marketing.

Ravi 51:07
I was not a student, but yeah, heard legendary stories about him


Yeah, legendary stories. so his favorite question in any case disucssion, was ‘So?’ So, you may come very deep inside, you think,it is an insightful point. And he used to almost bark “So?” … and I used to be like, “So, nothing really”. How does it take the discussion forward, that’s what the ‘So’ meant. So then, when making these presentations or writing stuff, I mean, I have caught myself asking myself ‘so’ so many times. Either a ‘so?’ or a ‘why?’. Why are you saying this? How does it take the narrative forward? So yeah, so I think that has been the process of, at the moment, let’s say I would have two or three pieces which are marinating, which are there in the back of my head, I know, I need to collect more data. And you and some of the some of the ideas you need to discard because the data doesn’t support it, you’re just seeing something, but it’s not a nationwide phenomena.

Ravi 52:10

I’m going to definitely share that article in the show notes later. Because it for me, when I read it, I read it when it was published. I was fascinated, you know, I’ve been pushing one of my ideas has been to write a post on that article that you know, what all of the storytelling techniques used in that. And because as you rightly said, you know, it starts with that normal casual observation, and then the depth of data and the depth and width of data that you’ve used to, you know, make that point that it’s fascinating. So, in that reflection phase itself, do you end up making a plan for saying, “Hey, I’m going to find A,B,C,D,E,F,G (all the facts relevant to the writing) and then start finding each of those pieces?”Or you say, “Okay, let me start with a and b. Then once you get that, okay, now, logical next, let’s meet let me look at C and D, and so on”.

Swanand 52:57

No, I, at least what works for me that tried to write the piece with everything ready




so, the actual writing for me, for 1000-word piece has rarely taken more than two hours.


Wow. Mmm. it’s like you get all the ingredients in the kitchen. And then you make the dish.


Yeah, it’s like Pav-Bhaji everything you keep ready, the actual Pav-Bhaji? Is made in 30 mins. Yeah. But that’s what works for me that a lot of people who I know write two paragraphs and then think, then they write two more and

Ravi 53:26

So, you know, maybe my question got misinterpreted, I didn’t say AB in terms of writing but AB in terms of your research plan. So, in the research plan part, do you make a plan for getting all the elements are you start with something and then you will keep writing?

Swanand 53:40

So, I start writing with what I think is a complete document, or with complete research. But sometimes once you have written that piece, you feel that is a very big ‘why’ pending. Yeah, you haven’t you haven’t tied this loop or this just seems to be a hanging thing. Now, do you want to knowingly go ahead that, okay, this is a big loop, but I have a deadline, whatever I need to just give it or you want to spend some more time researching. So, one of the things that that that article was I actually wanted to study how debt, consumer credit led debt bubbles can end badly an example was Korea, where credit card debts ballooned, and consumer, if I remember right, consumer debt to GDP kind of went to 100%. But I didn’t have enough time to study the Korean precedent. And I had enough data to say that whatever we know, and this was written in 2017, or whatever we know, thus far seems that the asset quality on the retail side seems fine. But with unlimited time, I would have probably delved into that example a bit more. But I didn’t, I didn’t. I mean, at the end of it, this is not my primary job, right? It has to fit

Ravi 54;54

Of course, which is what makes it amazing that you know, to get that extra time, and, you know, storytelling techniques that you inadvertently were using 

I talk about data stories, that it basically follows a set of questions. in journalism, they call it the five W’s and one H, which is, you know, what, who did what, when, where, why? So, I use a different set for data storytelling, which is you start with what happened. And you start with that big key metric, right? Consumer debt in India as a percentage of GDP is increasing. And then you start digging, so Okay, it’s increased, how much it increased by so much. When did it happen? In the last year. Where is it happening? Which part which pockets? And then you say, okay, it’s happening more in the younger demographics in this in two wheelers or in with this other asset classes. And then the most critical Why? Why is it happening? That’s a slightly related question to the why, which is ‘why not’ is that exactly that actually pulled it back and it’s happening despite that, and so you’ve explored everything. And then the last one is what next and which is the ‘so what’ – what Prof AK Jain says right, so yeah, it’s very comprehensive covering all of that. And I think just having been in the market so far, your ability to see what something is missing is also growing right? And now it’s at a very high, so you should be in your own pieces, you are able to know that, hey, I’ve covered a lot, but still this piece is missing.

Swanand  56:25

Absolutely. And I give most of my pieces to my wife at the draft stage. She’s a chartered accountant, but she’s not connected to the markets in any way or the or the economy. And I have to ask for her feedback. (I ask her) So which are the lines which are grating which are kind of clunky, which are like which you lost your attention by the end of the sentence? What is it that is very dense, which is not very clearly explained to you, because you and I assume things to be common knowledge, right, that everybody knows what CIBIL has done. So maybe for CIBIL I’ve just written one sentence, but she’s like Who’s CIBIL, I said not ‘Who’s CIBIL’…I said ‘what CIBIL?’


Yeah yeah, I know so this is classic curse of knowledge. Right. So we don’t know what we what the other person. Yeah. So.

Swanand 57:14

So I think I run it by her and she normally points to things that “ye samajh me nahi aaya” (I didn’t understand this part). And I think that is typically right. I mean, when people when I have kind of overridden her suggestion and gone ahead with it, those are the sentences which people have said that it’s too clunky. The other thing which happens when you’re writing is that you as you said, it’s a curse of knowledge, right? You know, so much that you want to put it all out there, I mean, it sort of becomes a sort of becomes a vanity project more than you’re more than telling a story that I know so much about is I’m going to tell you everything that I know. Or my vocabulary is 100,000 words, I’m going to show you, 99 (thousand) of them.

Ravi 57:57

So one great thing Swanand that you’re able to put into this writing is that clear structure, which you know, it gives that comfort to the audience that you’ve covered everything. What then makes it engaging, what that makes it interesting is that you infuse it with a lot of your personal takes, right? So, I absolutely loved that family incident that you brought into that story. And you know, how do you do this? deliberately? Or, you know, it just comes while you’re writing?

Swanand 58:24

So as I said, when this piece was marinating in my head, ‘phone pe Loan, Loan pe Phone’ as the two shops. Yeah, so two shops that I had seen 0% Interest 0% down payment, and coincidentally, there was this birthday party, which was happening and had this been just a normal birthday party and had that incident happened, I wouldn’t have been in attention to it. But since this was marinating in back of my head and that is why is this 16-year-old asking forget asking, and how does she even know about an add on card? She was very specific. She didn’t ask for credit cards, yes, but add on credit. Which means that she knows somebody else’s paying. So I think that’s how it kind of clicked. And I said, Oh, so it was marinating in the back of your head. And sometimes you’re just you find an incident, which is something that is happening very naturally, or candidly as instagrammers call it. And sometimes you have the ability to take this vantage point. And you see that oh, this is not as normally happening. Or this is not as normal in a certain different vantage point or a certain different circumstance. And this happens a lot with the with the youngsters. And so, for instance, one of my nephew’s whenever he is looking up for something you and I would google, he goes to Instagram. Because he’s pictorially inclined than verbally inclined, like you and me. So especially if it’s a place I didn’t discuss in the restaurant, we are going to look at reviews, then we look at four-star five star whatever he goes through Insta(gram) looks at the picture that is like the dish of the dishes of the ambience of the people, what is it looking like etc? And he thinks that is so normal? I mean, why are and I was like do you always do this, we go to Instagram look up things we will do. So yeah, these things. He says yeah, where else do you go. So yeah, these things keep happening. And they just hit you when you see it from a different vantage point,

Ravi 1:00:21

I love that, it’s a gift to keep observing and then you know, use some of this into our stories, because we all have many such observations through the day. Using them makes it you know, so much more real and concrete. I love that. And so, you use to I don’t know whether you use this deliberately again, or, you know, does it happen by your own way, which is a call-back or a refer back. So,comedy uses us a lot which is they will talk about X in our stand-up routine. And then after 10 or 15 minutes they will refer back to it (that X reference). And it works it works you will find it almost an every you know sitcom, almost every stand-up comedy show. And in this piece so you you know somewhere in the middle you talk about your niece who asked for a credit card, and then you get back into the story and then there’s data and debt and two wheelers and all of that in the end, you just ended with one line and no, she did not get that card. So, it is just such a nice and warm and I think personal and human way to end. Again, is that deliberate or do you-

Swanand 1:01:28

So, no, I mean, till you told me, I didn’t even know this was a technique. This, again came from a sense of completeness, you’re just trying to look for at the end. I said, if I’m a normal reader, right, who, okay who’s interested about what’s happening to consumer debt to GDP in the country, but has also some human element to that reading that he wants to know is that 16-year-old get it (the credit card)? Because that’s what we started it right. And she is asking for it. The old people are shocked. And it’s her birthday. And if you look at from one standpoint, it’s like a 16-year-old asking for a gift on her birthday. What happened to that?


Yeah. Curiosity, you keep the curiosity of audience


what happened to that?


forget the data. Tell me what happened then


Exactly. So, I thought, more for completeness standpoint, I wanted to end that with that line that okay. Unfortunately, she didn’t get (the card).

Ravi 01:02:20

That’s, that’s cool. I think that’s also a great learning, I think just a lot of this, we don’t really learn as theory, right? You just probably read it somewhere and it absorbed and you have you know, us by osmosis, you absorb these lessons, and then you just, you know, applying that and it also kind of goes back to the you know, topic of good reading kind of, you know, you become good writers. I want to now take you know, in your writing process. You talk about the sabbatical experience with writing, you know that that one month that you spent, especially your time with Manjula. And of course, you know, before we come to that, is there something else about the writing process that I have not asked what you want to share that that that’s interesting?

Swanand 1:02:58

No not really, when I think the other thing which you should do when you are writing is that ensure that there is some external pressure on you to write. So, I’m sure everybody understands this, and the deadline is a great thing to great thing to push you into action. I mean, we know this better than anybody else. The maximum maximum productivity is two hours before submission. So, I think you should put unless you’re like disciplined at the three sigma plus level, right? I think you should just ensure that you commit to somebody that I will give you 1000-word column by next Saturday. And I like this line, right? Done is better than perfect. Once in a while, once in a while you will write a column even which you know, that maybe I could have done better. Maybe I could have, but do it! Don’t wait for that one magnum opus (signature work) to come out, expend long amounts of time doing that thing. Right. I will be frank and honest enough to admit that some of the columns that I have written, maybe I could have spent seven or eight more hours on there, right? Just looking at making them more robust or whatever. But it’s okay, there was a deadline. I mean, I just said, this is one of the things that I do this is not my main job, but done is better than perfect. So just give it (submit it) So that was about writing and I come to the sabbatical experience. I wanted to explore the fiction writing part of it. I’ve never written fiction, so to speak,

Ravi 1:04:32

may ask why, you know, because you had not written fiction. So you didn’t want to go deeper into nonfiction itself.

Swanand 1:04:39

So, I thought that if I’m to write nonfiction, I think I’ll write it comfortably now in a space that I understand. I think that that something which does not need a further exploration in a very big way, I mean, yeah, of course, you can improve, everybody can improve. Short stories as a genre always interested me. Let me correct myself, I was not looking to learn writing fiction in general, but I was just learning to write how to write short stories. That’s a genre that I like in fiction, which I’ve kind of read a lot of and said, “Can you write a nice short, will you be able to write a nice short story”. I actually really wanted to explore that, can you write a short story, which kind of engages which keeps you there for 2500 words. And one of the challenges which I felt, even as a consumer, I have been a consumer of the written word, especially when it comes to fiction for 99.9% of the time. And what I felt is that is that the entire space might be losing out very quickly to the audio-visual media, right? I mean, the writing, writing fiction versus watching fiction, I think eight people out of 10 would prefer watching fiction, right and that number is only increasing. So, how do you one in this keep the attention there of the reader and when I used to read fiction and one of the reasons which I did not have patience with a lot of fiction thing is the one question that is to ask is “ye point pe kab aayega (when will it come to the point)”. I’m not saying it in a derogatory way. But maybe my ability to appreciate things might not be great, but you are just going on about, I mean, it’s beautifully written and all that but then, at the end of it, take the plot forward. But take the take the story for reading the story about I mean, just as an aside, I was reading one crime fiction novel, which is set up in rural England, probably in the 60s, where the people were like, 12, independent houses. And the murder has happened. And obviously, it’s one of the 12 houses where it’s like standalone houses. And the author had a deep interest in gardening and botany, it seemed like, right, so every time 20% of the book is about gardens, so every time she enters the house, or anytime a character or the detective enters the house, she describes the garden, I used to go through the magnolias and the roses. And they also add, I would have merrily skipped all the garden work but I always kept fearing that the event,

Ravi 1:07:24
There will be some plot (detail we miss), oh my god, yeah. 

Swanand 01:31:12

The plot reveal will have something to do with the garden. And if I miss the damn thing, this whole reading this book will be will come to naught. So I kind of ploughed through the gardens. And at the end of the project, it was a great plot. It was you couldn’t guess it. It was a tight plot, but unfortunately had nothing to do with gardens. So So had you taken the botany out, it would have been at least 20% 30% lighter and much more so much more enjoyable. So that was a grouse that I had with fiction writers is “ye log point pe kab aayenge”. So one was a challenge. In fact, both were challenges,
1) can you hold attention in an in an era of audio-visual stimulation?
2)And second, can you write it crisp enough that you give enough which is important to take the plot forward? But at the same time, don’t make it so ornamental that you lose, lose it


Yeah, losing, you need to have some red herrings there, but not (irrelevant details)


Exactly. And one thing, which I realized that I would say is my biggest realization through this one month of learning that every reader has an extremely creative imagination. And you don’t need to dish out every detail in your fiction writing. To give you an example, if I say it was a winter evening in Delhi, yeah. You have imagined a winter evening in Delhi. Okay, I have imagined I’ve imagined a winter evening in Delhi, we might have imagined it differently. No problem. Yeah, it’s like 100 people imagine it differently. But if the snow and the grey skies play no role in the plot, just ignore them. No, you have set the setting. Why do you want to write about the pine trees and how the snow is falling on the ground? You have imagined the winter evening in Delhi. That good? Great, that’s the movie in your head. That’s fine. As long as you imagine that I’m good with it.

Ravi 1:09:21

I’m surprised about this one Swanand because I don’t know maybe that sometimes this advice pieces change. But the other storytelling technique that people talk about is show don’t tell. So, when for example, when Malcolm Gladwell describes a person, you know, he will vividly describe him visually. It won’t just be he was an old guy, you know, whatever, tall, greying hair, rim, whatever spectacles and this and that. So does that contradict? Or is there some way to connect these two together? You know, the detail is important.


So I think if it’s something to do with the central plot or the central character, (you should) deepen. But if it is just something which is going to happen that evening, which has nothing to do with the evening per se. It’s my botany grouse (unnecessary details). Right. Okay, cut the botany out. I mean, if you


if there’s nothing to the plot and the story,


Yeah. So once in a while you end up just, I mean, you just fall in love with your own writing. And one of the things that writers are told is kill your darlings. Once in a while you have fallen in love with a sentence or phrase, or something, which is kind of which sticks out but no place in the whole thing. But it just kept it because you’re fallen in love with it. Do you want to do this chart out? That is such a beautiful chart? Yeah, but it doesn’t take the narrative forward. It doesn’t.


Oh that happens so often Yeah,


Exactly. Because you have seen it. Was this something there’s some emotional attachment to that chart or that sentence or


That analysis? Yeah, we put in our time and effort. So yeah,

Swanand 1:11:03

and that’s where a coach helps, right. That’s where somebody like, um, Manjula, who was helping me, so she kept nudging me. There are a few darlings in the short stories is this is a loose end; you will need to close it somehow; she didn’t say cut it out. And also keep saying this is a loose end, this is a loose end. And then I eventually realized that

Ravi 1:11:23

interesting word to use. So that I mean, there are I’m sure so many loose ends that we sprinkle in our presentations and reports, without any care.

Swanand 1:11:35

So I think it makes presentation reports what happens, and this is again, an evolution for myself is, when you start making some sort of a presentation or an analytical report, you make it as if you’re standing in a court of law, right? (You try) that you have to prove every point that is out there, that that is your starting assumption. So, you want to be extremely precise with your words, you have to be extremely precise with the data. So, if you’re writing about, let’s say, a piece, and you mentioned Indian GDP in brackets, USD, every time Yeah, that there are certain things that can be assumed. Right, you are not, you’re not fighting a court case or not filing a legal document. You can you can be a bit easy on what all you put out on charts, and assume some of it is understood, obviously have backup data, that doesn’t mean you become sloppy with your work. It doesn’t mean you become lazy with what you put out there. But I think you can make a reasonable assumption that we’re talking about GDP in a piece that is all about India, it is the Indian GDP. It is not it is not something else. So, I think I think that is something that I have learned, right? And because if you put too many things not just makes the piece clunky, or if you make the presentation really clunky, and you can have an appendix, right, for instance, household debt to GDP is going up. Right, and you have a chart which shows your household debt to GDP is going up. Right, you are convinced on this first level of data is conviction. It’s done. But if then somebody asked me, you know, but at a net level, it might not be going up or at a gross level it might not be going up or something of that sort. You have that data in appendix that is have it handy somewhere. But don’t clutter the main thing with all those, all those protestations or all those ‘Objection Mi-Lords’, which you have heard in your own head, okay, it’s okay. You can have the data somewhere you have thought about it, you have the baton, make the


Just because one guy in a meeting of five people might be that random, detail-oriented guy who is going to derail everything with that random question. Don’t make the story for him.

Yeah, exactly. Don’t play your next inning for the troller in the last Twitter post, right? So somebody told you, “Hey, are you got out playing an outside edge”, and then you do like, the only “I’m gonna get out whichever way I want, but I won’t get an outside edge”, right? So you’re basically trying to prove it to that one guy, among 5000 who’s basically said, so I think, make the presentation or the writing for the median audience, right? There will be one detail nut out there who’s gonna, who’s gonna ask you something, think about it, keep it in your back pocket. But what it does is it makes the whole thing very clunky, that if you just put it in the main slide deck, it just takes the might take the attention away from a clean, simple, elegant message, which you can otherwise-.

Ravi 1:14:23

And it’s fascinating thing that is similar. Or this these ideas have parallels in fiction and nonfiction and even in fiction you let the audience imagine


Yeah, what is not critical to the plot. Yeah, right. If that if that is having snow on that winter evening is critical to the plot because you are going to show a footstep there which is the detective isn’t going to let go, it’s going to see then talk about the snow.


Okay, this line that I remember, I don’t know if you’ve heard this set, you know, I don’t know some directors have said no. If there is a gun.


It’s Tolstoy (could be referring to Chekov)


Oh Sorry over the mantelpiece it better be


Better be murder. Somebody will get shot right. If the gun is introduced in the yeah, if the gun is introduced in the plot somebody should get shot


Someone should get shot. Otherwise don’t talk about that gun


yeah, that’s what I’m saying that if it’s critical to the plot,

Ravi 1:15:14

So that was one big learning what were some other big insights for you

Swanand 1:15:19

So, I used to use my wife as a sounding board for these (feedback on writing). Once I used to write these short stories, I’ve asked her does it create an AV (audio visual) in your head? Can you write an audio visual? Are you able to imagine this as a, let’s say, a Netflix shot or whatever? And she says, “okay, these are the places where my imagination kind of stopped working”. I started focusing too much on the words, right? So once you focus on the word and the imagination stops, that means you’re failing as a fiction writer. At least I feel I feel that when I’m competing, as I said, that was the starting point I’m competing with (audio visual medium). So, I am creating that visual for you. directly. I’m creating that movie for you through the written word in your head, and wherever that process gets obstructed, is where I feel that I may have not done well as a writer. That became my sort of litmus test to just ask her “Where did the movie stop? Where did you start focus where did you stop seeing things”

Ravi 1:16:28

I mentioned the short story that you that you did end up writing ‘Khushru’s Canteen’, right? And so, I have worked in some of the areas that that were a part of it (the setting) probably that helped. But still, I think it was so visual for me that I will share the link in the show notes. Where I worked in Ballard Estate, some of these, you know, cute little hotels, National Hindu. And so, I could I could, you know, I could see that guy sitting there and the Parsi gentlemen, and then you know, I could see where he is going near the, you know, the law place and that small gully. And of course, you might may not have been the actual place, but it was it was happening in front of my eyes.

Swanand 01:17:10
So as long as it created a movie for you, I think I did well. as long as well created a visual for you


in the nonfiction world, in the work world, is there any parallel to this AV (creating audio visuals) advice?


Well, I Ah, so if you think about the piece about that we wrote about consumer debt? Yeah. Oh, did you stop or go back anywhere while you were reading it? Was there a lot of back and forth? Or did it so seamlessly? Like a stream?

Ravi 1:17:46

Yeah, it did not very little back and forth, because it was. So, the other, you know, technique and storytelling we talk about is that our brains are very strong prediction. machines, right. So they keep predicting, okay, oh, this is answered. Now. I wish this was the question that would be answered next. And I know, and you basically, you are predicting what my mind would ask. Or in some cases, where my mind is a little unsure, you would make sure that hey, you should be asking this. And here’s the answer to that. And so, I think that flow was very strong.


I think that’s the parallel (between fiction and nonfiction) that where the whole thing flows seamlessly. Where you don’t have to go back and forth. And yet at the end of it, you feel that MECE contentment, yeah, and you have given out a Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive story. I think that’s the success of a PPT, or that’s the success of anything that you have written that one, you have told something which he or she probably might not have heard/thought of that is I think a big victory, right? And secondly, you could carry the flow of thought, without major objections, or major speed breakers on the way, not just objections and maybe objections you can have, you can disagree with the whole, the whole premise. But at least on the first go, you understood what is being what is the hypothesis, what are the data for support/ against support, etc?

Ravi 1:19:15
That’s a great one. And it’s incredibly difficult to do, but as they say, hard writing makes for easy reading, right? And I’m sure that that effort that was put into that piece, I think it comes out so No, that’s great. I think there’s so many great insights Swanand both from you know, your own experiences for writing. And, you know, some of these sabbatical experiences, from the other sabbatical experiences, was there any one that you know, you’d like to talk about, which was, you know, was very striking for you?

Swanand 1:19:46

Yeah, so I mean, probably the concluding piece that I will write in a month’s time is going to be about the learnings from the sabbatical. But ideally, one thing right the one thing which is kind of will become a life lesson sort I hope it’s a life lesson for me is that no matter how much you’re interested in anything that you’re doing I mean and all the things that I did, I was interested in doing them and I liked doing them and I had some sort of (connection to it). I had done some of it in the past. There is nothing new that you are trying to learn where you will take to it like fish to water there will always be a phase especially at the beginning where you will think that this is not for me. This is extremely difficult, you will feel uncomfortable you will be very clumsy, things won’t be happening because you have let’s say picked up leg-break bowling looking at Shane Warne. You have been like “Watch Shane Warne bowl those six different balls in a single over. That’s what I’m gonna do”, right? You have watched all the videos out there by Richie Benaud that he went on YouTube etc. And then you start bowling leg break in the nets and you can’t bloody land the ball forget the six variations and you are like the and I know this is not for me. So, you have come there from a place of interest. You have come there from something that you have liked, and yet you are not doing and that will invariably happen. Invariably. I mean, I’m a very passionate cook and you start chopping onions, and you said, this is not for me. So, I think you’ll have that phase of discomfort, call it anxiety, whatever you want, at the beginning of anything that you started starting, and you’ll just ride it out. And my two-sentence mantra for my inner dialogue or writing it out is, I will produce myself to the class or to the activity or whatever it is. And having produced myself there, I’ll give it 100% that’s it. I will just keep telling you these two things that I saw when I was like learning to cook in some of those afternoon classes to be for three hours, they were hard, they were not easy, although it seems like cooking, ye kya hai, khana hi toh banana hai (what’s the big deal, we only have to make food). But standing in the hot kitchen and doing something which you’ve not done at all, but I said, Okay, 2pm every other day, I’m going to be there. And I am going to give it my best. Nai hua nahi hua (If it doesn’t’ happen it doesn’t happen). Yoga also the same thing. I mean, that the schedule is gruelling starts at 6am and goes on till 9:30pm set one thing after the other. And you have to just find that thing that, so there is nothing which you are going to be like, Oh, you know what I did yoga one year ago and I went to this ashram and I loved it from day one. Not gonna happen. Anything new that you are trying there will be this discomfort there will be this you will look clumsy, you will look you will be embarrassed in fact, why is this 41-year-old guy here, bowling full tosses? And you’re like, wait, should I even continue? I mean, what’s the point? Why am I doing it? But I think you just push through that feeling and not care too much about the imaginary thoughts of others. Nobody gives a damn, right? I mean, you’re balling full tosses.  Nobody’s cares. But you have imagined that this guy must be now judging me that even at the age of 41 this guy is balling full tosses. We’re just right to the these are some of the learning that anything new you try. We want to be very awkward, very clumsy. There’s no natural. There are very, very few naturals. Roger Federer just picks up a racket and starts hitting for hands like, didn’t happen that way. When it was his first forehand (shot) he was extremely clumsy and awkward, whatever. And so I think that was a big. That was a big learning. When I actually went to the nets for the first time thinking that I will ball a ripping leg break of googly and a flipper. I know what to do because I watched the Richie Benaud video. I know how to grip the seam and I know how to release the ball. And, it was hilarious. So yeah.

Ravi 1:23:46

That a great one, great one Swanand. Thanks. I like to, you know, wrap up with a few of your favourites here. So, in terms of books, podcasts, or people really who have influenced you the most when it comes to this skill, this skill of writing and thinking reading storytelling.


So, one of one of the teachers who kind of put me on this path was in school, right? Jennifer teacher, so she, she kind of encouraged writing, she just encouraged me to write for the school magazine, because it was not going to get me any points. I’ll be, more than influenced, I’ll be thankful to her that she kind of opened the door for this. So, this was great. In terms of writing, there are a lot of people. So, when it comes to my field about investing, I have this sort of whitelist. Right, there are people whose writings, I read almost 100%, Well, then whatever they write, I will. Once in a while, you might come out with something which you are not, but I want to go there with a hit rate of 100%, then whatever this guy writes, you either follow them on Twitter, or whatever. I also look as I said, curation is a

Ravi 01:24:57

Who are these guys on the whitelist? I’m very curious. Sorry.


I will read the Howard Marks most times, I’ll read Morgan Housel, most times, there are certain economists based in the US etc. I mean they write technical stuff, but they kind of make it very accessible for you to read, read what’s being written in a very simple, easy way. And I think that’s the important thing, right? I mean, Siddhartha Mukherjee writing about, let’s say, medicine, right? Or Dr. Gawande, writing about medicine makes it accessible to even like somebody like me who has noknowledge. I mean, after basic anatomy, we did nothing. I think that’s the whole success of whole success of writing

Ravi 1:25:50

Who are these economists because these are very useful Swanand because a lot of no mean lay people would not even be knowing who are these guys who write so well.


So there’s an economist David Zervos, who I read. He writes, maybe 500 words a week. Not more than that. But it’s you might agree, disagree. That’s a separate, that’s a separate discussion altogether. But as 500 words pass the test of smooth reading start to end almost every time.


Hadn’t heard of the name, amazing.

Swanand 1:26:26

Yeah, so I like I like reading like reading Zerwas he there are, there are many actually now that you asked me, my boss Ruchir Sharma writes

Ravi 1:26:38

Oh, Ruchir is incredible Oh, I didn’t know you report it to Ruchir Sharma

Swanand 1:26:41

Ruchir Sharma is my boss. So some of my I mean I have looked up to him in terms of how to write. And he’s made some of the most difficult economic concepts etc made very accessible. Even in his writings, The New York Times or now, at FT (Financial TImes) Some of these guys that I have, I’ve kind of looked up to when, when writing.

Also, there are some people who use charts really well, I feel. And they might no, not so much about the written word. But again, there are people more on the on the on the sell side or their fellow investors. But the one thing about charts, which I realize is the rule of thumb, which I like is that a chart will not have more than two variables x axis and y axis. There are sometimes two y axis, which have got different scales. There is a RHS and LHS, then sometimes there’s the size of the bubble, which is the third variable, then there is sometimes the colour which is the fourth very variable. So, I will say rather put four different charts no, I mean, what’s the mean, this is not the 36-photo camera roll, right? 36 Khatam ho jayega. (Camera roll will get exhausted) Exactly I think, with the charts, which is the same thing, right? I mean, in one glance, you should be able to know that this is on the x axis, this is on the y axis, this is the scale. And this is what I’m trying to say. Unless it is absolutely necessary. Don’t put a third variable I mean; this is what I this is what I feel. This is one of the cases, there are people, professional institutional investors and equity research analysts who don’t label axis. What is what is 12345? It’s dollar, billion rupees trillion. What is it? Yeah, so I think even and you know, this better than anybody else that telling a story through charts is also a skill, I feel that people tend to tend to put in so many things in there

For instance, another thing that kind of gets my grouses or gets my goat is, (irritates me) when you’re talking about the last three months, or the next three months about a certain variable, right? Let’s say the price of gold. And you put a chart (starting) from 1994. Right, which means that you have to zoom to 12x to come to the last point, which is being talked about. Now, this chart is probably a legacy or a handover from an earlier report, in which case it has been from 1994. But try and marry the text in the chat, right? If you talk about the next three months, blow up the next three months (zoom in on what’s relevant). And if you want to put a long-term record separately, there is no limit on there’s no limit on the number of charts that you can put it also even I think a lot attention doesn’t get paid to. I think even in that piece (debt piece) actually had spent a lot of time fitting the charts also seamlessly into the piece. Right? You don’t want the reader to jar anywhere, but you say something, and you can quickly see the chart, and say, yeah, right, that’s one thing, and then you move on

Ravi 1:29:50
So well said, there’s a five second rule when it comes to charts, I think Vinod Khosla  (suggests it) it’s kind of you know, within five seconds, you should understand it, pick it up and then move. The stories in the writing the chart is just giving you visual evidence at what I said. Here is evidence now let’s move on.


Absolutely. And actually, a good chart also saves words, I feel that if you have put out a good chart that I can say 100-50 words, which would otherwise just be just be an informational thing, right? You have a chart there, it’s (adequately) described, go on. The other thing, which comes to curation and eclectic reading, I mean, the best $25 that I spend every year is on a website called the browser.


Oh, it is by the Economist, ex-editor who, who started on Substack


No so I think I mean, I don’t know it might be that but it’s called the Browser. And what they do is they curate maybe four or five pieces every day, from diverse publications and from diverse areas of interest coming from history, architecture, philosophy, investing markets. So, I think it just given that 80-90% of my reading, when I am working on sabbatical is around markets and investing. I think that just gives me a very welcome break from that. And if you read just one article, it actually helps you connect dots across streams and across disciplines. I just go to the Browser maybe once every two three days and see if there is anything which piques my interest there. So yeah, so I said, I will say the best $25 I spend every

Ravi 1:31:39

Any books that you’d recommend?


I recently read a book which was created which I can find it is called ‘The guide to smart thinking’. And what it has done is it has summarized in three pages, about 50 odd books or maybe 70 books, which are in this genre (Smart Thinking) it is by a guy called James M. Russell. And it’s just like three, three-page summary of just reading out. ‘Whatever you think, think the opposite’ Paul Arden, ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ Murakami, ‘Predictably irrational’ Dan Ariely ‘Your brain at work’. David rock, ‘The shallows’, Nicholas Carr, ‘Art of thinking, clearly’, Dobbeli. So what it does, it’s kind of a tasting menu.

 (This is) curation. This is an intelligent, reasonably intelligent guy has read 70 books for you summarize them for you. It’s like a tasting menu just piques your interest. So I probably made a list of 10 books from it. And in that sense, I’m then sorted for the year. I don’t need to. I don’t don’t need to read if I manage to manage to kind of ya, so this became my list from those 70, if you see this

And that was Swanand Kelkar – billion-dollar investor, who also happens to be a mean writer. 

My favourite part though was the story about his dad telling him those Ramayana incidents with all that drama and imagination.

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