Theory of Atomic Living

February 10, 2014—Before you can understand Kiran Gandhi (C’11), you have to understand the theory of atomic living. It’s a theory that Gandhi devised, and it’s what has allowed her to be both a graduate student at Harvard Business School and a drummer touring with the British musician M.I.A.

In its simplest form, the theory of atomic living goes like this: when you are faced with a choice of doing something serendipitous and doing something quotidian, you must always choose the former, assuming it feels right to do so. In her recent TEDx Brooklyn talk, Gandhi used the example of running into a friend at the farmer’s market. You want to have coffee with her because you haven’t seen her in a while, but you really have to clean your house and get your laundry done.

“Atomic living says you have to go [with that friend] because in that moment, there’s so much meaning in that interaction and so much good can happen,” she said during the talk. “Who knows what can happen really?”

Gandhi certainly isn’t advising that people drop all obligations and rather only do fun things. She wouldn’t have gotten as far as she has thinking like that. But recognizing the importance of chance and the opportunity that lies therein has been a guiding principle of her life thus far.

Gandhi grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of a humanitarian mother and an investment banker father. When she was in middle school, she didn’t totally feel like she fit in, so she asked her parents to send her to summer camp in Maine—that’s where all the cool kids went.

By her fifth week at camp, she was so burned out on arts and crafts and canoeing, she needed to find something else to do with her days. There was a drum kit in the theater, and so one day she popped in and started banging around.

One of the camp’s maintenance workers—a drummer—happened upon the young Gandhi playing on the drums and offered to give her a few lessons. From there, she was hooked. It didn’t matter if she fit in with the cool kids—she knew how to drum. When she returned to New York, her parents put her in drum lessons and then bought her a drum kit. Drumming became her life.

During her time at Georgetown, Gandhi didn’t waste any time or opportunity. She joined the women’s squash team and helped them win a national championship. She interned for then DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, as well as then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She pursued a double major in math and government with a minor in women’s and gender studies. Then there was drumming.

At the Eighteenth Street Lounge in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, Gandhi found her voice. She started playing there and eventually developed her own show. She began meeting people who make their living playing music. While she had always thought she’d go down a political path, music was now opening doors for her.

But as she became more connected to the music world, she realized a hard truth about the life of a working musician.

“I had been gigging five times a week, but I was hardly making any money,” she said. “There’s not a good conversation happening around people who play music and people who want to make money. There’s a disconnect.”

In an effort to figure out how to bridge that gap, Gandhi took an internship at Interscope Records after graduation. There she worked in digital marketing, trying to make sense of the data services like Spotify, iTunes, and SoundCloud playing Interscope bands.

While at the label, Gandhi developed their first digital analytics program to help map out trends in the industry. Interscope then used the data to create marketing strategies around its music. The experience at Interscope helped crystallize for Gandhi the path she wanted to be on. “I wanted to innovate around how artists’ lives could be better,” she said.

While working at the label, Gandhi noticed that all the people with big ideas had business degrees. So in 2013, she applied to Harvard Business School and was accepted.

At the same time, Gandhi began feeling restless about drumming. In an audacious move, Gandhi reached out to M.I.A., an Interscope artist, and suggested she become her drummer. As Gandhi explains, she was filling an unmet need. M.I.A. needed a better live show and Gandhi was just the drummer to make that happen.

Shortly after M.I.A. saw a video of Gandhi drumming, she hired her to go on tour with her. At this point, Gandhi had committed to getting her MBA. But in accordance with her theory of atomic living, Gandhi had to say yes to M.I.A. She would make it work with Harvard. And she has. She does her MBA work on planes and in hotel rooms. It’s the ultimate in experiential learning.

“In each of these amazing micro-interactions, if you make decisions based on what feels good to you,” Gandhi said in her TEDx talk, “as long as you sort of have a sense of what matters to you, these decisions actually come quite naturally.”

—Lauren Ober