What does good look like?

High-level summary: As we progress in life, leave our structured university and job settings, it becomes more difficult for us to assess where we are, and what the benchmark for “good” actually is. I’ve thought through three methods of gathering guidance or feedback on where we are (i.e., top-down guidance, sideways peer comparison, and looking up at successful individuals/companies that we hope to emulate). My thoughts are that while retaining the big-picture perspective that comes from “looking up” is most important in guiding us, we can and should leverage all three methods to get accurate guidance and feedback on our progress toward our goals.

I sometimes think about how hard it can be to determine what good actually is or looks like. For example, when we are still studying in a school or university setting, we have very clear guidance for what good looks like – good grades, good test scores, and so on. Beyond this, we also have our peers to compare against – we can see who around us is considered good (i.e., in terms of intelligence, grades, having the right answers in class, etc), and we can take that as an implicit measure in our minds. As we progress and enter our first jobs, which often tend to be in larger and more structured organizational environments, we also often have very clear indications of what “good” is — we have ratings, reviews, and more.

However, as we progress forward, leave the realm of our academic pursuits and structured job settings, the question arises: what does good actually look like? As we branch out and have a less standardized path to follow, with less clear direct comparisons to ourselves, that answer becomes more unclear.

We no longer have our classmates or colleagues from work to compare ourselves against. We may or may not have crystal-clear guidance from work that tells us what good actually is. And we may not even have a view of what direction to actually turn to find the clear examples of what good is.

I’ve been thinking about these things as I consider starting my own company in the future, and branching further off the relatively clear path that I have followed thus far. I see three primary methods to getting input on performance and path (both on a personal level and as a company): guidance top down, sideways comparison against peers, and looking up. My thoughts are as follows (and by no means necessarily correct):

1) Receiving guidance top-down: By this point, I mean receiving feedback and guidance from someone who has done something similar before, or has input to provide from a stance that provides a bigger-picture view than what we may current see (i.e., for a company, this may be an investor; for an individual, this may be a mentor or manager).

-Pros – Personalized: Because we are receiving this feedback from someone who knows us or our situation well, this method can provide more personalized feedback, with direct and actionable input that is applicable and tailored for our unique situation and where we may be at the time.

-ConsMyopic and reactionary: However, it is worth noting that the feedback received via this method is limited to the knowledge or experience of the person providing the feedback to us, or of the mental model that they have of what good looks like, and therefore may be too myopic. Furthermore, this sort of feedback can sometimes be more reactionary (i.e., “you did this, and this didn’t work well from my perspective, so my advice for you is to do this differently next time”), rather than proactive.

-Overall: While personalized, this method of feedback can sometimes be too myopic, and therefore, it is important to receive feedback from multiple points of view when following this method, so as to avoid the bias of only receiving one point of view.

2) Looking to the side (Comparison against peers): By looking sideways, I am referring to referencing what other individuals or companies are doing that are at a similar stage or point in progress as us.

-Pros – Not falling behind: By looking sideways at our peers, we can get useful, real-time information for not falling behind, in the sense that we remain aware of what others around us are doing, and make sure to emulate that, or at least, not stray too far away from that. If we can identify who is doing best out of the peer set we are comparing against, we can also try to follow that path more closely

-Cons – Limited-term information, and regression to the average: While a comparison against peers provides real-time input that is useful for not falling behind, I believe that it is less useful for helping us to become the best. After all, if we are comparing against others alongside us, we would get a more “average” view, which is helpful for remaining average, but not for rising above this. Beyond this, sometimes we don’t even know whether our peers are actually good or not, or whether their methods are actually working – that information often comes over time with feedback from results, and is hard to gather in the moment. Unlike in a school setting where we receive grades very shortly after doing work or taking an exam, feedback loops in the real world often take much longer. Furthermore, a pure peer comparison can turn into more of a competition (a race to stay ahead), rather than something that actually guides us in the direction that is most accurate or productive, because as mentioned, we often simply don’t know what actually works or doesn’t until more time has passed. 

-Overall: While a peer group comparison can be useful for helping us remain “in the range,” it will not necessarily take us beyond this, so it is important to have a bigger-picture view than just looking sideways at what our peers are doing.

3) Looking up: By looking up, I refer to finding someone (or a company) who has done what we aspire to do, or is at a point that we would hope to get to (can be quite far ahead of where we are), and using them to provide some level of guidance. It may also be more than just one person or company — it can be multiple — but the key point here is to look for individuals/organizations that are farther ahead than we are.

-Pros – Big-picture view, and incorporating longer-term success criteria: I believe that this method works best for enabling us to look up to someone or an organization that has truly had success over time (rather than looking at peers, who may or may not achieve success in the long-term). Of course, our vision may be different, but we will adapt it to ourselves as we go, and having this far-off “guiding star” can help keep us centered on what it is that we most what to achieve and what the best actually looks like. Beyond that, I believe that the value of looking so far ahead (and maybe getting advice and input from such a person or set of people, who have managed to get so far ahead) is more useful than looking to the side, because someone who has already walked this path has far more experience with trial and error than our peer set does. Our peer set simply knows what is the current reality, and will, of course, learn over time, but does not have the big-picture view that someone who has already gone down this path would have. Thus, keeping this “guiding star” view will also help us  to actually understand what it may take to get there, in a more real rather rather than hypothetical way.

-Cons – Not always directly relevant for the present – While extremely useful for providing a big-picture view, this method sometimes does not take into account the current reality, because sometimes current situations have changed significantly from what worked when the “guiding star” example(s) were starting out, or at a similar stage in growth or development. Thus, this method sometimes doesn’t provide the best “current” situation guidance, which is where peer comparisons can help.

-Overall: I believe that this method works best for enabling us to take matters into our own hands, retain a bigger-picture view of what has worked for truly successful individuals/organizations in the past, and retain the perspective of what we can do to actually get there as well. However, we should keep in mind that we should still look to our peers or closer mentors to give more real-time guidance.

Overall, I think that as we leave the structured path, there are actually more ways than initially come to mind to gather the feedback on where we are and how to get to where we want to go. We likely would benefit from a mix of all methods mentioned above, with each of them providing different points of input — feedback “from the top” provides some level of direct input, but is limited to the feedback giver’s own point of view, looking to to the side prevents us from getting behind, but doesn’t help us to become the best, and looking up gives us a “guiding star” to keep in mind and big-picture guidance on how to get there (although of course, our own path will still be unique). Ultimately, I do believe that “looking up” toward someone or a company that has accomplished what we hope to accomplish provides the most unwavering guidance for us to progress towards, while supplemented by the other methods. This provides intrinsic motivation, and is a better benchmark for excellence. 

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