Fast Company: What is your best habit, and what is your worst?
Vas Narasimhan: I maintain a 20-minute daily meditation practice, but I have a weakness for very dark chocolate.
FC: What do you do when you’re creatively stuck?
VN: I read things unrelated to our day-to-day business, such as National Geographic, The Economist, or The New Yorker, or I go on long bike rides.
FC: Is there a businessperson you admire?
VN: Dr. Roy Vagelos, former CEO of Merck. He continues impacting human health today. The ways he put people over profit helped set a strong standard and reputation for the industry.
FC: How do you unplug?
VN: I take all my vacation days, which helps me recharge. When travel isn’t possible, skipping stones with my youngest son on the Rhine helps me unplug lately. We’re getting pretty good!
FC: Do you have a favorite book?
VN: The Tao Te Ching. It has timeless leadership lessons and reminds us that some of the seemingly new approaches to leadership have been around for centuries.
FC: What’s the advice you’re glad you ignored?
VN: I was told early on that it’s not possible to impact public health from [the] industry [side of things], but I’ve found it’s not true. It will take innovation from every sector to improve human health and extend life on earth.
FC: What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
VN: Keep developing range in your experiences. I’m captivated by the idea from David Epstein’s book Range, which argues that in a complex world we shouldn’t specialize, but rather expand our range.
FC: Did you have a career fork in the road?
VN: Almost everyone I asked advised against leading Novartis’s former vaccines and diagnostics unit, saying it was not a core part of the business. [But] that position gave me the leadership and technical experience to lead Novartis and contribute more effectively to the global COVID-19 response.
FC: What’s always in your bag?
VN: A 400-million-year-old ammonite fossil, which a coach of mine gave me to remind me to keep perspective, and a Tide to Go pen.
FC: Do you have a favorite object in your office?
VN: A picture of my grandmother. From a small village in India with only a primary school education, she raised 11 children and made sure they all completed higher education. She touched lives all around the world, and when she passed away, obituaries were written about her in more than six cities.
FC: Is there a TV show you’re midbinge on?
VN: My boys and I love Star Wars, and we’re in the middle of watching The Mandalorian together.
FC: What’s your “get pumped” song?
VN: “Get Out of Your Own Way,” by U2—the Switch Remix!
I’m a lifelong fan of the team, having grown up in Pittsburgh.