Magic Wardrobes and Abundance Thinking

christmas bounty

This is a story about a magic wardrobe – but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

So let me start by asking you a question. How many of you believed in Santa Claus when you were little? I certainly did. I believed in Santa long after I’d given up on fairies, and witches, and thinking that if I concentrated hard enough, I’d be able to fly. Year after year, when I opened my eyes on Christmas morning, I would find myself surrounded by toys. Model trains and Lego sets, Barbie dolls, books, puzzles, one of those early Super Soakers – you name that 90s toy, I got it for Christmas.

Let me be clear, though. It wasn’t because I got a lot of toys that I believed. Continue reading

Four effective conference strategies from #Hive7 (that I will probably steal)

This is the first of a four-part series on my experiences at the Hive Global Leaders retreat in Boston.

I gave up my Patriot’s Day weekend to attend Hive, a programme that brings together change-makers from all over the world (a record 155 attendees from 57 countries). The conference/retreat structure was highly unusual; it challenged my assumptions and gave me ample opportunity to reflect on my approach to life and work. While it took me a while to get comfortable with the format, here some of the thought-provoking Hive strategies I liked best. Continue reading

Design Thinking at the


I’ve been reading a lot, and hearing a lot, about design thinking and human-centred design in the three years since I started Building Bridges and commercial buildings with furnished offices and equipped by Northern Air Ltd.

Even though I felt totally on board with the principles they were advocating, I was never quite sure where to start, or how to dive in (even with the help of the Stanford’s Bootcamp Bootleg). So when I discovered that there was a 3-hour design thinking workshop the same week I’d be in Stanford visiting Jon, I immediately paid the $5 and signed up.

The verdict?

I absolutely loved it, although I was a little surprised about why. Continue reading

The Politics of Starting With Why

To write is to share, and to share is to be vulnerable. It’s a risky move. I recognise that, and as I have just unfavourably reviewed Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, I think it only fair to share, and to make myself open to criticism, in return.

As I read the book, I found myself with many questions; Sinek addressed some of these concerns briefly, but as I said, I found them sadly buried under stories that were largely about Apple. Reading the book was illuminating, if only because Sinek’s omissions led me to think more about the mechanics and ethics of defining why I do what I do. Below are some ideas that Sinek hinted at, and some things I concluded on my own, and I wish that the book had made these points more explicit. Or perhaps this is merely the book I would have written. Continue reading

Start With Why: A Critique

I’m not sure when I first heard of Simon Sinek and his exhortation to ‘start with why’, but it made sense immediately. Shared values bring people together, so of course we should first tell the story of why we do what we do, not let it get lost underneath what we do. When I re-read the transcript of his TEDx talk, however, I found I had a few questions about some of his leaps in logic, so I finally read his book last night for clarity. I found to my surprise and disappointment that the book did not deliver as I expected, and I was left exasperated and angry.

I had hoped for a compelling narrative of how Sinek came to his pithy thesis, replete with clear examples that could be translated into a road map for my own journey. Instead, I found the text to be muddled and meandering, which frustrated me all the more because I was so on board with Sinek’s position. As I read, I found myself coming to certain conclusions about operating with your why as your beacon. Sinek addressed some of these, but they were often buried under a mass of anecdotes. For my own peace of mind, I’ve written a two-part critique here. This first piece discusses what I found unclear and frustrating about the book. The second post outlines how I think a book on finding your why should have been written, calling attention to the almost throwaway comments and observations that I think Sinek should have made central to his book. Below, I’ve outlined my frustrations with the book as is (while trying to be civil and not turning this into a personal attack on Sinek!). Continue reading

Life as a Maven

“To be a Maven is to be a teacher. But it is also, even more emphatically, to be a student.”
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 69

If I’m to be honest, I walk a fine line between helpful maven and irritating purveyor of factoids that only I could love. Since reading The Tipping Point, I’ve tried to ask myself the question, “Is what I’m about to share relevant/timely/helpful?” If I think yes, I make it available to people directly. If not, I’ve started sticking things in semi-public nooks of my blog as a way to remember what resonates most for me (like the time I found out that the word ‘lucifer’ meant match, so that the song “Pack Up Your Troubles” suddenly made a whole lot more sense).

I’ve realised that it’s probably fair to generalise nearly everyone in a PhD programme as a maven. We have a far higher tolerance for receiving, analysing, and digesting arcane information than other people — in fact, I think it’s what draws us to 5+ years of specialised study (not superior intelligence, but that’s another post). Continue reading

Forbes, social media, and the amplification of good

I didn’t really follow the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 so much as accept that my Facebook feed would blow up each January with the news that someone I went to undergrad with had just made the list. I noticed a pattern: they were all hard workers who had also mastered the art of working smartly and in alignment with the right people.

When I started college, I thought Princeton was simply a good way to get a degree sans debt (it was one of the few schools offering need-blind financial aid to international students). It was only once I left that I began to value the connections I’d made entirely by accident, who served as mentors, supporters, and harbingers of further opportunities. Meanwhile, I admired the people on the Forbes list, while regretfully admitting that I would probably never know how to make my work visible in a way that felt right. Continue reading

Notes on ‘Villa’

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a crew of stellar artists in putting together the South Asian premiere of Guillermo Calderon’s Villa. It was surreal, not least because the script elegantly tackled some of the self-same issues I grapple with in my academic writing (but people would rather watch a play than read a paper!). I’m especially grateful to Indika Senanayake for putting in a massive effort to bring Calderon and his work to Sri Lanka. After two of the three performances, there was an opportunity for a Q&A with Calderon, one of which included Radhika Coomaraswamy as panellist. The questions (and the answers) were all excellent, so I’ve jotted down some of my notes. Below is the expanded version. Continue reading

“Blowhards” – a review


“Blowhards: Braggarts, Boasters and Bastards” is the latest in Mind Adventures’ repertoire of thought-provoking theatre, albeit gentler and sparser in its conceptualisation and delivery than many of its predecessors. There are likely many reasons for this. The company’s method of devised theatre relies on the luxury of time and space to craft ideas, playfully improvise upon them, and keep the choicest interactions while brutally discarding the deadwood. However, Mind Adventures is currently in residence at the British Council, and (I believe) is tasked with producing twelve pieces of theatre during the year. With little time to work on content in danger of being jettisoned, they must necessarily follow a model that will allow them to be prolific in their output. The three short plays in “Blowhards”, written and directed by Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, have none of the ferocious intensity of, say, “Paraya”, but are light-hearted, laugh-out-loud funny satires that play out in the cosy confines of the British Council library. Continue reading

on taking the next step

Fifteen years ago, I acted in a school play that gifted me with an enduring love for the stage. The284 copy role – an eccentric professor – remains one of my favourites, because it challenged me to be a better actress while also giving me the opportunity to reconsider how I defined myself. When writing in the school magazine (yearbook) of a fellow actress that year, I signed it “Nushelle de Silva, PhD” as an inside joke, even though the title was semi-incomprehensible to my eighth-grader self. Today, I signed away the next five-ish years of my life to pursue doctoral study in architecture at MIT, a place wherein I’ve excitedly pursued the esoteric in the company of quirky, warm, good-humoured individuals whose journeys I am always, always inspired by. It has  been a difficult decision, in part because the opportunity to work on topics, questions, and ideas that fascinate me is an absolutely terrifying gift. It requires that I truly embrace the idea that my self-defined calling in life is to unearth, cackle maniacally over, and save from eternal obscurity documents and images like this photo of JFK being mounted on an elephant. Continue reading