47. Tanmay Vora: Inspiration through illustration

Sue Stockdale talks to Tanmay Vora, Founder at QAspire Consulting about how he developed his skill in creating visual notes, through his curiosity and interest in learning. He illustrates and shares great ideas in the form of sketchnotes that combine the topics of leadership, learning and change.

Tanmay Vora is a senior business leader with two decades of diverse global experience, author of three international books and illustrator of best-selling books. At QAspire Consulting, he helps individuals, teams and organizations deliver high-performance through process consulting, visual facilitation, leadership development, strategic capability building and coaching interventions. He is passionate bout leveraging visual thinking for learning, innovation and change. He illustrates and shares great ideas worth sharing in form of sketchnotes and offers graphical recording services to events, authors and organizations worldwide. He also teaches the magic of visual thinking through interactive workshops.





Connect with Tanmay at his website.

Twitter www.twitter.com/tnvora

Facebook www.facebook.com/tnvora

Instagram www.instagram.com/tnvora

LinkedIn: https://linkedin.com/in/tnvora

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Key quotes in this podcast:

[05.56] “I sat down with a piece of paper and a pen, and I said, what do I already have as an inventory of skills? I wrote down the skills on a piece of paper and circled them around. And then almost magically. I saw those two circles coming together and forming a small intersection. The two words that I wrote was technology and writing. And I say that, what if I bring these two circles together and see where it intersects?”

[07:31] “How do you climb a mountain?  I would say that don’t try to climb it straight in a linear fashion, but try to sort of crisscross your way on the top of the mountain“.

[10.51] “I think that lot of people equate learning with outcomes and they say that if I learn this, what am I going to get in return?

[12.40] “Inspiration is like a seed that grows inside of you, but not without soil and not without the sunlight. The analogy that I often use is that if inspiration is the seed, then we need sunlight”.

[14.28] “So I feel that being prepared, being consistent and showing up in your pursuit every single day, irrespective of whether you’re inspired or not, I think gets the inspiration going.

[17.48] “I try to sort of circumvent the risk of judgment, by saying that if this is going to help a lot of people, I can’t go wrong‘.

[20.03] ‘Wisdom happens when we take a step back and start reflecting on what we’ve done”.

[24.21] “My pursuit is to take people back into that stage of their life when they were fearless in making the mark on a piece of paper. This is I think the core of why I do what I do.”

Read the transcription for this episode on accesstoinspiration.org and connect with us on social media: 

Tanmay Vora transcription – Inspiration through illustration 

Sue: [00:00:00] Hi it’s Sue Stockdale and welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can gain inspiration from people who may be unalike you.  We hope their are stories and insights enable you to transcend your day to day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. Now, if you like the saying that a picture is a thousand words, then you’ll find today’s guest fascinating Tanmay Vora is founder of QAspire  Consulting. He illustrates and shares great ideas in the form of sketch notes that combine the topics of leadership, learning and change. He is also a senior business leader. And he will explain to us how self-directed learning, helped him to create a successful career. Welcome to the podcast

Tanmay: [00:01:00] thank you for having me here too. I’m really thrilled to have this conversation.

Sue: [00:01:05] I must say that sometimes our listener likes to know how I find our guests. And you came to me not, I must say, because of knowing you personally, but of knowing your illustrations. I saw one, you wrote in an article. I think it was about influencing leadership. And I’ve shared it with a number of my clients. And many of them came back to me and said how useful it was, how practical and insightful it was. So I thought, well, if they’re finding it useful, I must find  out who has created those wonderful illustrations. And it led me to you, which I’m delighted about. So please tell me, how did you get started with illustrating?

Tanmay: [00:01:39] Well, it’s a long story. I’ll try to cut it a little short, but without losing the essence. So I have been blogging since 2006 when I was a new manager. And I’ve been writing about leadership learning and change all the time. And in the initial part of my journey, it was more about documenting my own lessons. But as I went through the process, I realized that what I write is consumed by tens and thousands of people across the globe. And very soon I started looking at my blogging as an intersection of my own need to learn, versus my need to share it with others in a meaningful way.

And the moment I realized that I’ve been experimenting with different forms of writing and expressing, I written a hundred word articles and a hundred word stories. I’ve written a tweet book. That was my first book in 2009 was in form of a tweet books. It was a collection of tweets on a certain topic. And so that pursuit of simplifying the lessons and insights and as we went from 2009, to 2021, the information explosion has happened. The content explosion has happened in this so much of noise that I wanted to sort of distill the signals away from noise. And in 2015, thanks to one of my friends  he does a lot of scribbling and I came across this and having some background in drawing and architecture I thought I must give this a shot. And I decided that I will [00:03:00] illustrate ideas on leadership, learning and change, which, which is essentially my domain and create a small intersection where I create a category of one where I do a lot of illustrations that are consumed by a lot of people across the globe.

And that’s how I started sketching, but I didn’t have this clear idea that I will be doing this with such a focused manner. I think what happens is there’s a lot of trial and error. So I created the first one. I shared it out. A couple of people said that it was really, really good. And I said, if just draft is so good, why don’t I elevate my game?And so I brought some new sketch pens and a new writing pen and stuff like that. Eventually these visual notes started getting viral and then I realized that I must now really make it a meaningful. And again, that intersection came into play in terms of my need to share versus my need to learn myself. And that’s how I now do the sketch notes on iPad with apple pencil. So I’ve now focused on that usability aspect as well, which probably I didn’t focus on earlier in the game. So it’s been a lessons learned along the way, and I plough that those lessons back into what I do and that’s how the differences made step-by-step,

Sue: [00:04:07] Its fascinating to hear that process of iteration that you’re keeping improving what you’re doing and having watched your TEDx talk around self directed learning. It also made me realize that perhaps your interest in learning started way back when you were younger. And I wonder if you can just give us a sense of how your interest in learning developed from a young person?

Tanmay: [00:04:30] You know, after passing my schooling, with very average grades, I spent almost one year trying to figure out what I want to do next. And a lot of people say I wasted that year, but I would like to think now in the hindsight that I invested that year, I dabbled into a lot of disciplines because I was reasonably good at drawing. I got admission into architecture. Didn’t like it as a profession. So I moved into industrial chemistry, spent a few months there. Didn’t like it moved into civil engineering, thinking that I can leverage my drawings there again. I didn’t like it. And at the end of the year, I was back to square one with nowhere to go, but I was equipped a lot of understanding of what I really don’t like to do. And that I think was a powerful motivator.

I find it zeroed in on computer  applications as an area that I really want to focus on. So there’s a lot of application of logic when write computer programs and writing came naturally to me, my father is a writer and he’s written twenty-five one act plays for the Mac in time for All- India radio and stuff like that.  So he’s been a prolific reader and writer, and I was always surrounded by books and literary sort of work. So writing came in naturally to me. And it so happened that in year 2001, when the.com bubble burst and September 11 attacks happened in the US and we lost all our clients. And I was laid off. I almost struggled for a year trying to figure out what to do next, because there were no jobs in the market. And I didn’t know how to find one. At that point in a silent moment, I sat down with a piece of paper and a pen, and I [00:06:00] said, what do I already have as an inventory of skills? I wrote down the skills on a piece of paper and circled them around. And then almost magically. I saw those two circles coming together and forming a small intersection. The two words that I wrote was technology and writing. And I say that, what if I bring these two circles together and see where it intersects? And I found an intersection in technical writing, and that became my way of getting back into the corporate life. And I’ve never looked back after that. So I realized the importance of playing at the intersections very early in my career.

Fortunately, when I didn’t have too many liabilities and responsibilities, I was able to sort of experiment with these things. Yeah. That was my first use of Venn diagram as well, by the way since  I started when diagrams in mathematics in school. But this was the first time that I meaningfully applied a Venn diagram into my own career context and found something really, really meaningful. So dabbling into multiple pursuits then started to happen. Now there’s need for. Doing what I really, really like, versus the dislike for not doing anything that I don’t like. I found that strong preference in myself and therefore my trajectory of career looks like this, that I started my career. As a teacher, I used to teach technology and I got into computer programming, then got into technical writing.

Then I got into project level quality management from there. I went into consulting, selling, traveled across the globe, selling, you know, services and solutions to the customers. From there, I got into enterprise quality role. And from there I got into organization leadership roles. So if somebody says, how do you climb a mountain? I would say that don’t try to climb it straight in a linear fashion, but try to sort of crisscross your way on the top of the mountain. And that’s exactly what worked for me. Then I started blogging in 2006. And again, I was writing about quality from a process perspective, and I realized that just having process doesn’t ensure quality.  You need to have people, you know, culture, you know, leadership. So again, I found an intersection between. The quality we deliver to customers and how we internally create a culture of excellence. So that was, again, an intersection that led to my blog, blog led to a lot of opportunities for speaking gigs, books, leadership, and all of those things.

The key thing that worked for me is the realization that the absolute areas are really crowded. If you look at people in HR that are. So many people who are working in HR, if you look at quality, there are so many people who are far more expert on quality than I am. But if you look at that small intersection there, how do you build a people centered culture to deliver quality?  Then I think that’s an intersection where few people are playing. All my initiatives have been at the intersections of two different disciplines, where they intersect and obviously my strong likes and dislikes for what I want to do, what difference I want to see in the world because of my work. Has led to this thing that I have not settled into a role and say, okay, now I’m going to do this for a lifetime.

In my previous stint, I was the country managing director for a large Finnish organization having a center in India. In India, I was managing about 700 people at its peak. And I thought this was something I will do for my lifetime. And after a couple of years, I [00:09:00] realized that this is not what I want to do all my life.  And then, so I got back and now I started my own consulting practice and stuff like that. So I think I have a certain timeframe when I get bored with the status quo. The moment I get comfortable with something is the moment I get uncomfortable with it. I also don’t like to be labeled as one thing. You know, some people say that Tanmay Vora is a illustrator or is a business leader only, or is just doing a job, whatever I don’t like to be labeled.  And I think that multi-disciplinary polymathic generalism is what I pursue. I try to dabble into multiple disciplines and try to engage myself into metacognition with respect to how does these disciplines give me insights that are portable across different disciplines and so on. So that’s really the kind of work that I do in it instead of directed learning.

Sue: [00:09:46] Hi, it’s me again. I hope you’re enjoying what Tanmay has to say, and to make sure that you keep up to date with all the news from us, why not sign up for our newsletter? You can do so by going to our website, access to inspiration.org and at the foot of the homepage, you’ll find the link there. You’ll also be able to read transcriptions of all the podcasts on the website. And while you’re there, please take a moment to leave us some feedback about what you think about the podcasts. We’d love to hear from you. Now, back to Tanmay.  You’re reminding me of one of my jobs way back at the start of my career when I was in quality management and their model was a Venn diagram of three circles, intersecting people, processes and commitment.  And that was what we were trying to sell into the organization. It also strikes me as you’re speaking Tanmay   something, it seems to be important for you about curiosity and following your areas of interest, perhaps getting away from those areas of disinterest. Would you say that curiosity is an important part of what drives you?

Tanmay: [00:10:49] Absolutely curiosity is important. And I think that lot of people equate learning with outcomes and they say that if I learn this, what am I going to get in return? And so the ROI of learning is always on the back of my mind. And in fact, lot of people try to learn things with ROI in mind. That’s probably a misplaced way to learn in my view because I think that the best learning, the most inventive form of learning the most innovative form of learning does not happen when you look at ROI because the moment there is an ROI established for any learning initiative is when that learning has probably become a commodity. The emergent learning, learning in emerging from all this happens through  trial and error. trial and error is not possible without curiosity, without genuine inspiration, without a need, to just dabble into something for the sake of it, not knowing the outcome, being very comfortable with the messiness of that whole process.

I think all of these things are important, but curiosity sits at the heart of it because without being genuinely curious, it’s really very hard to take that first important step in dabbling into it. And by the way, having alternative pursuits means that you are not completely dependent on what you’re learning now. You [00:12:00] already have something else going. So when I learned sketchnotes,  I was having the senior corporate role, even if I failed at learning sketch, notes even if I failed at learning how to speak. Well, the stakes were really, really low because I already had something else that was working for me. And the best time to learn something else is when something else is working for you. And not when you’re in the dire need to learn to survive.

Sue: [00:12:20] As you’re talking, you used the word inspiration Tanmay. . And of course, you know, the title for this podcast is access to inspiration. I’m wondering what inspires you or who inspires you?

Tanmay: [00:12:31] I think the best form of inspiration is the one that comes from within. However, for inspiration from within to stem, we need to create the right culture and ecosystem. So inspiration is like a seed that grows inside of you, but not without soil and not without the sunlight. The analogy that I often use is that if inspiration is the seed, then we need sunlight. Sunlight is harsh sometimes.

And so the external challenge is when the inspiration is happening, when it’s applied to an external context, a problem that we are trying to solve. So problems that we solve, the challenges that we face is the sunlight. We also need fertile soil and manure. And I think that the soil in which the seed really grows is community. It’s learning with others. No essential learning happens in isolation and therefore an end, especially in a connected world, we are doing a drawing. If you’re not engaging with the community. What I think inspires me is the fact that I’m a part of a community that is a bunch of really generous, knowledgeable kind people who are sharing what they learn along the way I take what I learned from them and apply it into my context.

Fortunately, I had always had a playground of corporate roles, but I could apply these lessons and see what comes back to me uniquely as my own lessons on my own learning. And then I have an intrinsic need to share those lessons with others. So it creates a fertile soil for inspiration to happen. And there are times when inspiration doesn’t come.  And I also feel that inspiration comes to those were prepared. And many years ago, I heard Steven Pressfield say that the muse and inspiration is always around you. But it does not come to you like that. It is an invisible force somewhere up there. It’s it sees if you’re ready and if you’re prepared for the muse to strike to you. And then, so what he said is that when he is lacking inspiration, he doesn’t sulk he doesn’t sit in a corner of room. What he does is he gets up, gets in the morning, gets ready, sits and faces that blank screen, ready to engage with it. And then the inspiration comes and say, yes, this guy is not ready. Let me. Let me do it. So I feel that being prepared, being consistent and showing up in your pursuit every single day, irrespective of whether you’re inspired or not, I think gets the inspiration going. That’s just a little bit of a thinking that I have around inspiration.

Sue: [00:14:41] Well, it’s really useful to hear that it’s creating the habit of being prepared to be inspired. If you’re sitting there with a blank screen, so to speak Tanmay, and you’re thinking about what to create as your next visual note where does your inspiration come from then? Do you just have that practice of then waiting for something to appear?

Tanmay: [00:14:59] What [00:15:00] I do is that it’s a very detailed process that I use. I constantly engage with meaningful sources of information and insight. And when I encounter them, I first bookmark them. I don’t skim to the information, but I bookmark them and take a few notes into my one note on my writing pad or whatever. I revisit that topic and I create an inventory of ideas that I feel are complex.

And ideas that I feel need to be shared widely and broadly enough. And mostly I try to visualize ideas that are not tactical in nature. So things like five things to do to engage your employees. That’s not the kind of content that I would like to engage in. I like to engage in ideas that are sort of timeless like Peter Drucker’s managing oneself for example, is timeless. And, you know, it will help my own kids when they grow up. If they read my visual notes, they’re going to read and they will benefit from which I look for the shelf life of ideas. And I feed a backlog of ideas that I want to visualize. Now, what this helps me with is that when I have an intent to create as a visual note and I sit there, I don’t have to struggle for what to sketch.

I don’t have to scout for ideas. I have a backlog of ideas and based on my intuition on that particular day, I would pick any one of them. And I know that it’s something that I have chosen. So then there is no question of choosing one over the other. I can just choose any one of them and start visualizing. And this also sort of is a very immersive way of learning new things because when you are first taking notes and then you’re making sketch notes, what happens is it becomes a part of your subconscious mind and therefore you are almost internalizing that idea without the needing to write or read a book when you need to.  A lot of people prepare for things when they need it. They will go read the book. And then prepare take notes. In my case, because note taking is a constant process. I don’t need to call for inspiration. It’s already there. I just need to align myself. So the challenge is not to find an idea, but the challenge is to align myself in a way that I can best represent that idea in a way that helps me. And then, then helps others.

Sue: [00:17:05] You’re just picking up on what was going through my mind. Tanmay around us about your readiness. One of the things I often observe with people who want to try something new, for example, Tanmay, creating a podcast or drawing a sketch. And I think it could be is that they apply judgment. They think, well, who am I to do that? Or nobody will read it or nobody will listen to it. How do you manage that judge, if it is such a thing inside your head, how do you make sure that you are open and prepared?

Tanmay: [00:17:36] Well, I think that I don’t fear judgment that much because part and parcel of working out loud in public is that you’re going to get some criticism all the time. However, I try to sort of circumvent the risk of judgment. With the substance saying that if this is going to help a lot of people, I can’t go wrong. So I keep my focus on how this will [00:18:00] help. A lot of people. And because any artist or any pursuit is not meant for everybody. And I learned this lesson the hard way from Sam Gordon, who happens to be one of my heroes as well, that you don’t play for everybody. Because if you’re trying to do everything for everybody, then you are probably doing nothing for. Nobody and that sort of thing. So I try to look at the person or who are those people that I’m doing this for. And there are some sketch notes that are specifically meant for coaches and consultants. There are some sketch notes that are meant for people who are new managers.

So having that lens, very clear lens of why I’m doing this particular sketchnote is very, very important. And now I’m in the process of creating sketchnote packages. Man. I would say that in here are 50 sketch notes that can be used by coaches and consultants. Here are the schedules for a new manager, you know, your sketch notes for an executive.  So there are a lot of different slicing and dicing that now I can do with my sketchnote. But the idea is that this be useful to someone. And if it is, then I just go with it without worrying about the judgment part of it.

Sue: [00:19:01] So you have a higher belief that it will be a value to somebody when you create for a bigger audience.

Tanmay: [00:19:06] Absolutely.

Sue: [00:19:07] That makes sense. It strikes me also to me that you, I’ve got a lot of wisdom in your life and you’re bringing that wisdom and your insight to the intersection of your ideas and the learnings that you’re gaining. I’m wondering, first of all, even if you would agree with me that you share wisdom and if you do then where do you think wisdom comes from?

Tanmay: [00:19:29] I would like to say that I share my wisdom, but more than my own wisdom, I also curate wisdom from different sources. People who inspire me, I sort of, it is my way of paying them back in some form or the other. How would I feel that in a connected world, wisdom is a product  of   what you learn, how you apply, what you learn and the communities that you learn and share with.

Wisdom doesn’t happen in isolation and wisdom doesn’t come easy. I think we are too busy in applying our knowledge, but what we need is that wisdom happens when we take a step back and start reflecting on what we’ve done and what I see in organizations today in teams today, and even in individuals today is that they are almost like on a treadmill of execution. They just execute, execute, execute, but they don’t step back and say, Hey. Wait a moment. What are we doing? Why are we doing what we’re doing? How can we improve it? How did we do, when did we miss out? What can be optimized? Why should we stop doing? These are all important questions to ask and people don’t ask.

So I think that what we learn from what we apply and then reflecting upon it and creating it in a way informed that we can share with the world. We say, Hey, I did this large transformation project. This is how we went about it. And these are eight things that I’ve learned. These are my own lessons coming from my own context and in my own application. So it’s more of internalizing the ideas that you consume from outside by applying them into your context. I think that is where wisdom really developed in my personal case. Uh, you know, blogging [00:21:00] writing has always kept me in touch with latest thinking of my role, enabled me to apply what I learned. And I think processing these experiences, reflecting upon it in a quiet moment is what gives me clarity on what matters the most. And you might call it wisdom. You might call it insight. You might call it lessons. But I think it’s just a combination of lot of different things that happens together.

Sue: [00:21:21] Your words are music to my ears. Tanmay, because as a coach, I think that space for reflection is what the clients I work with really value is just having that conversation in a moment to reflect and think what and why are they doing what they’re doing as you then look at the intersection of the three things that you’re paying attention to leadership, learning, and change. What do you think is going to be emerging? From a global perspective when you put those three things together, going forwards.

Tanmay: [00:21:49] I think that what is very important from a leadership learning and change perspective is that these three things are extremely interdependent with each other. There is no leadership if there’s no change, if there’s no change, there is no learning and there is no leadership without learning. So in a way, they are extremely interconnected and interdependent. But what lies at the intersection of these three things, leadership, learning, and change is people and everything that enables people to shift to a better mindset.

Anything that enables people to do what they’re doing in a better way. Anything that elevates the problems that people are facing is all going to matter a lot in the world that we’re going into. I think we need to connect with our people in a deeper level. And I think it’s harder in a virtual world to connect with people.  But I think that engaging with people in one-to-one formats, frequent check-ins building that sense of belongingness in the organization, exposing your own vulnerabilities as a leader so that, you know, that’s how connection will really happen. I think it’s really important. The other couple of pieces is a collaboration, really breaking down the silos and enabling people to really come together.

And think about the larger context and purpose rather than playing within the departmental boundaries and all this calls for systems thinking I’ve been a huge fan of Peter Senge’s work on organizational learning. And I think looking at the whole, rather than trying to optimize the parts of the whole game, I think those are some of the very important things from a leadership perspective, from a learning perspective and from a change perspective, I think it’s very, very important.

Sue: [00:23:24] Many of those things, if not all the things you’ve talked about there, Tanmay, are  topics that really excite me and I see the direction that leadership needs to go into the future. So my final question to you is around the use of pictures as opposed to detailed text. I’m wondering then do you think that that plays into your areas of interest and why do you think the visual is becoming even more to the fore these days?

Tanmay: [00:23:48] Well, I think the technology is only accelerating the visual ways of thinking. However, I would like to think that we were born as visual thinkers. We are born as visual creatures. [00:24:00] And then we’ve been programmed out of our visual thinking with orientation, a lot of textual material in the school. And then the colleges, we would process pages and pages of text, right long answers.

However, before we started writing a, B and C, we created scribbles. If you give a pencil to a two year old, he or she is going to just draw first and not write first, my pursuit is to take people back into that stage of their life. Well, they were fearless in making the mark on a piece of paper. This is I think the core of why I do what I do.  How did that our brain, and now after having spent four or five years doing visuals, I’ve realized that I’ve understood the science behind the visual. And the science is that our brain is a visual processing powerhouse. We process visual information about 60,000 times foster than the textual information.  And that is why if you go to the airport to the standard signages, and you know that this is an exit sign, you know, that this has been washroom than located. And so brain instantly sees something and says, yes, this is what and decides in a fraction of second based on a visual. Interestingly visual processing of visuals in our brain happens in the same area that also processes emotions, which is why when you’re watching a movie and there is a very emotional moment that goes in there.

A lot of people have tears in their eyes. That’s because there’s something visual in front of them that moves their emotions. I think visual thinking has always been there. In fact, human beings, 50, 60,000 years back when they did not have pen and paper, they used to draw on stones. They would basically carve out stones to communicate what they wanted to communicate.  So in a way, drawing and thinking have been associated with each other very tightly since the evolution of human beings. It’s only now that because we are in the middle of information, explosion that this starts to matter all the more.

Sue: [00:25:51] Well, it’s wonderful that we’ve gone full circle and are coming back to the simplicity of the visual to really stimulate our thinking. And it certainly stimulated my thinking today. Tanmay having a conversation with you. If people want to find out more about the work that you do, and of course, to see some of those visuals that you create, how might they be able to do that on the internet?

Tanmay: [00:26:10] All my work is hosted at my website, which is called QAspire.com. I created this website when I was a quality professional, and I had a deep explanation to deliver quality. So I named it as  as QAspire.com and that’s where people can find me. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram and LinkedIn, as at and Vora it’s T N V O R A. And that’s where you can find most of my work.

Sue: [00:26:36] Well, it’s brilliant. I’m sure our listeners will be heading over there to have a look at those visual as they were imagining them in their minds, having our conversation today. Thank you so much for your time, Tanmay, it’s been really fascinating to understand what inspires you to create such wonderful visuals for us to be inspired by ourselves. Thank you.

Tanmay: [00:26:53] Thank you, Sue.

Sue: [00:26:54] I hope you’ve enjoyed my conversation with Tanmay Vora and that he has inspired you to [00:27:00] pick up your pencil and start drawing. In the next episode, which will be the final one in this series about 21st century change-makers we will consider how you could change yourself when you’re faced with life-threatening circumstances. I will be talking to Palwasha Siddiqi whose life changed completely when she endured the civil war in Afghanistan as a child in 1989 and has gone on to develop a successful career in business. I do hope you can join us there.

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