Remember that feedback is aimed to shape us to the system we are in…so take it with a grain of salt

Shaping us to the system

One thought I’ve been having recently is regarding feedback. We often receive a lot of it, from many different sources and directions. However, it is also often inconsistent, and the key is to find the consistent patterns within it, while taking some and leaving some (ideally, taking that which anchors on the consistent patterns).

Moreover, I think that there is an important recognition to be made that feedback is meant to shape us to the system that we are currently in, without necessarily helping us to become the way that we want to actually become (i.e., that depends on the answer to how we actually want to be shaped, and whether that is aligned with the current system that we are in — is the direction that the system is shaping us actually how we want to be shaped? )

For example, we may be working at a particular company that has certain values, culture, and vision – the feedback that we will receive will be geared toward making us more aligned and fit in more with that company’s values, culture, and vision. If we were to switch companies, the feedback that we would now receive would be far more tailored to now getting us to become more like the culture, values, and vision of the company that we have joined. In a sense, although the feedback we would now receive would have some similarities, there would be many differences – and simply because we would have switched companies, not because we would have become a fundamentally different person.

I’ve also noticed the same pattern when I work with different people — with one person, I’ll receive one point of feedback, and sometimes with another person, I may receive the exact opposite. Again, not because I’m different (because I haven’t changed that much in the span of a few weeks or a month), but because different people have different perspectives, and in working with us, the feedback is coming from their perspective, and people inevitably give feedback from their own perspective (which is aligned with who they have become), and in this way, subtly try to shape us to become more like them, so they give feedback aligned with that. However, this often leads to inconsistencies.

All this comes to say that although we should listen to the feedback that we are receiving (especially the patterns, because that is what is actually consistent over time and may be worth considering), we should nonetheless take it with a grain of salt. In the end, when we work for a company or person,  we are part of their system, we are part of their system, and the feedback that we receive will be aimed to try to shape us to operate smoothly within the context of this system. The managers of every system want it to run smoothly, so they will try to shape the elements of the system accordingly — and employees are part of this system. As Ray Dalio recently said in a post about his philosophy of providing constant feedback: “Remember that you are responsible for achieving your goals, and you want your machine to function as intended. For it to do so, the employees you supervise must meet expectations, and only you can help them understand whether they are stacking up.” So, indeed — feedback is meant to shape us to a system.

What this means for me

What does this mean for me? I listen to and recognize the feedback that others give to me, but I always try to remember that it is coming from their point of view, and although I do try to implement the actionable and relevant feedback that I agree with, I also do not always fully trust certain points until I’ve heard a particular point come up more than once. If it has only come up 1-2 times, then it may be due to idiosyncrasies of a person’s perspective, rather than a true pattern.

However, beyond this, I also ask myself if the system that I am currently in is actually what I want to be shaped to – and I have consistently come to the answer that I want to create my own system, rather than remain in the system that someone else has created. I would rather be the creator of something, than a “system element” for someone else.

And when we run our own system, or company, to say it more clearly, we certainly cannot do without feedback. Rather, we will consistently have many points of feedback, and we may even seek out more feedback because it is critical to growing the business successfully. However, if this is our system, our company, then we know that the feedback is fully aligned with what we are trying to accomplish – build a product or service that others want. All the market and customer feedback on our product/service, as well as the feedback on our own management and work style, is highly valuable, and will help build our own company into the best it can be, while also shaping ourselves and our management style around that as well.

So, it is worth remembering that although consistent feedback is valuable, we need to remain cognizant of the fact that most feedback is aimed to shape us to a system, and we have to constantly ask ourselves, “is this actually how I want to be shaped?” And if not, maybe it is worth stepping out of that system…maybe to find another with which we are more aligned, or to create our own. 

Staying flexible without spinning in circles

Staying flexible without spinning in circles

I’ve recently been thinking about the spectrum of flexibility and adaptability and where the optimal level lies. I’m going to share my thoughts here as I think through this.

On one hand, I think it is important to be highly flexible so as to be able to adapt to the situation and adjust actions, behavior, and  decisions as new information arises. On the other hand, there has to be a certain level of stability so as to not be jumping, changing direction, and spinning in circles with every single new piece of information. There is likely an optimal level somewhere in the middle.

I think that to maintain this “optimal level,” it helps to have a bigger-picture goal and perspective in mind. This can ultimately help with minimizing the spinning, because with a bigger goal in mind, the smaller details matter less and do not derail us as much. Having this goal also helps to keep us focused on finding the best way to get there, which means remaining flexible enough to pay attention to the feedback points on what is and is not working, and adjusting based on this. These points are more informative when we pay attention to the patterns that arise over time rather than each individual one-time occurrence, helping us to remain flexible to adjust to bigger themes but not constantly changing based on every single new data point.

How do I handle this? I tend to have my bigger goals in mind (e.g., start a company, find a place where I’d like to live more permanently, etc), along with plans on how to get there, but I am very willing to adapt these plans based on new information. As part of this, I am extremely clear on what I know and do not know (for example, these days I’m quite clear that I do not know where exactly I want to live). I am transparent about these points of uncertainty, both with myself and with others, because it enables me to more easily seek and gather other perspectives, which often help me to gain clarity. This helps me be especially adaptable on these open points, because these are exactly the areas that I should be changing as I get new information to test what works and doesn’t work and eventually move toward having a stronger perspective and making decisions that move me closer to my goals.

As I run more “tests” by trying a variety of things and continuously gathering opinions, I begin to develop stronger perspectives across multiple areas, and these areas become slightly more fixed. As I gain higher “certainty” in my opinions and hypotheses, I still remain willing to adapt with new information, but the bar for the level of information required cause me to change those points becomes increasingly higher – i.e., for areas with high points of certainty, I would need materially new information to change my perspective. Of course, this should all be taken from the perspective of understanding that we definitely don’t know everything, and should always remain highly open-minded. 

I believe that I am somewhere in the middle in terms of my adaptability. Above all, I maintain a bigger-picture goal that I try to work toward, which helps me to keep all of the more minor points in perspective. I’m highly adaptable for areas in which I am less certain (and therefore I explore these a great deal), but I become somewhat less adaptable as I develop higher confidence levels in my perspectives and certainty (based on feedback) that this works to help me move toward my goals.

So, I suppose that I answered my own question. There is not really a right answer on the “optimal” level of adaptability, but what does help is keeping a bigger-picture goal in mind to serve as a guidepost for what matters and doesn’t matter (i.e., patterns rather than one-time data points). We should start out with a “hypothesis” plan, but be clear on where we are more “uncertain,” and be open to gathering information on what works and does not work. Even when we are more “certain,” maintaining open-mindedness over time is still very important. 

As we gain more information, we should look to increasingly “fill the gaps” on the uncertainties, and become more certain, point by point. We should still maintain flexibility to change the approach based on materially new information, but not spin in circles with every single minor detail.

A series of auditions, not failures, for what should have a place in our lives

High level summary: Everything that we try can be thought of as a “test” or “audition” for it to be in our lives, and it’s okay if certain things don’t work out. By letting one thing in, it means that we are not letting in everything else, so we should be picky about what we let in.

I’ve recently been thinking about things that I have tried and failed at…or at least things that haven’t worked out the way I had planned or hoped. I tend to have a lot of these, as I imagine most others also do.

Throughout the course of time, we try many things – some work, and some don’t. Some play out out in unexpectedly good ways, and others that we thought would have worked, don’t work out at all.

It’s easy to think of these things as “failures.” I often feel like that in my case – whenever something doesn’t work out with a project, person, friendship, experience, or something else, I feel a profound sense of loss and sadness. I often start wondering why it went wrong, what I could have done differently, and why I did what I did. I question if it was my fault.

But as I’ve thought about it, maybe that isn’t the case. All of these “trials” are like auditions in different aspects of life (and not us auditioning for things, but rather, auditions for these things to be present in our lives). Each “audition” provides us with information on what does and does not work for us, and gives us valuable data points for future decision-making.

Ultimately, it is all part of the process of figuring out what belongs in our lives – that is, what deserves our effort and mental space. Every single thing that we let in means that we don’t let in the whole universe of other alternatives. That means that we should be picky, because by saying yes to one thing, we are saying no to everything else.

And so maybe we should be thankful for, rather than sad about, the things that don’t work out. They save us time and effort.

Think of all of the things that we try, people we interact with, as auditions, not failures on our end. They are simply auditioning to be in our lives – and some will pass, while the majority will not. And that’s okay.

Freedom and responsibility of shaping our reality

High-level summary: Having the ability to shape our own path is an enormous freedom, but we also have the responsibility to ourselves to constantly be aware and continue questioning what is right. It is important to maintain a relentless approach in cutting that which we realize is not, while incorporating our continually increasing self-understanding to decision points in the future.

I was recently thinking about the freedom that I have had in shaping my life and my reality – both out of circumstance, but also because I made it so. I wanted to share some of my thoughts around this in terms of how this has come about, but also the responsibility that this also brings about.

I. Shaping of freedom

As I thought about it, three main things set the stage for freedom in my life from the very outset.

  1. New country: My family and I immigrated to the United States when I was a child, which meant that there was no precedent set for me in terms of what to do – this country was as new for my parents as it was for me, and the old ways of doing things did not hold true here.
  2. Oldest child: I was the first child, so I was my parents’ first experience with parenthood, and I had no siblings to look up to or compete with.
  3. No rooted family traditions: Finally, given that most of my family is relatively independent and non-religious, I have never really had any strong family or religious traditions that rooted me into any set routines or processes.

All this to say – I have had a lot of freedom from the beginning of my life. This meant that as I grew older and began to make decisions, there were no expectations, precedents, or footsteps to follow, from my parents or any family or siblings. What my parents did give me, however, was a guiding light – they pushed me to always strive for the highest and best that I could do, while also keeping in mind my happiness. Despite an unclear exact path, I internalized, from a very young age, the ever-present pursuit of excellence and achievement – and also of happiness.

Over the years, I have shaped my path very independently. I have felt free to explore, try things, fail, try again, and keep trying, across a variety of different areas. I had no expectations to meet other than my own, which tended to be far higher than those of others around me. At times when I felt that I had limited freedom or felt stuck in a “box” of some sort (stringent expectations from others around me that were not aligned with my own), I often distanced myself from this as well. Overall, this freedom has meant that I have taken a relatively unconventional path at times, and likely will continue to do so. However, the freedom to shape my path as I want, combined with my relentless pursuit of excellence, has also come with a certain responsibility to make sure that I am doing the right thing for myself in the decisions that I take.

II. Sensitivity = awareness, which also requires ruthless decision-making

For me, this responsibility has meant constant analysis and a certain hypersensitivity to the situation in which I find myself. I am naturally a sensitive person, but as the weight of my decisions has become increasingly higher over the years, my level of sensitivity has also increased. With sensitivity comes a high level of awareness.

I constantly assess how I am feeling and try to determine what is causing me to feel a particular way. I track (in my head or in written format) the specific emotions that I am feeling at particular moments, the situation, and the factors that may be leading to these feelings. I try to be very specific about it, down to getting an understanding of what types of people I tend to get along with (down to personality type), what sorts of work situations I enjoy (down to particular focus areas, tasks, and team situations), where I tend to enjoy living, and more. Doing this over time has enabled me to develop a very keen understanding of the small factors of the bigger-picture situations that lead me to have positive or negative experiences. With enough data points, my level of certainty increases, and I am able to form a relatively clear picture of what it is that I like or do not like.

When I realize that something is wrong or right with a high level of certainty, I try to act upon that (whenever possible). That may mean changing course, cutting ties with certain people, changing work direction, or other such measures oriented around change and decision-making. It may also simply mean that next time such a decision comes about, I am more aware of my preferences, and can make a more informed decision that will likely provide a better experience.

Over the course of time, I have realized how important it is to take steps to cut out that which we know is not right, and to take steps toward that which is right (or at least toward the unexplored and unknown, if we already know that what we have tried is, at least, not right). We need to be ruthless in cutting things out or making better decisions, because that is the only way that we can create the empty space to fill with something that has the potential to be better.

It is only in taking these decisions that we actually get the feedback to continue making more decisions that are increasingly more right – tailored toward increasing the good and decreasing that which is not right.

Over the course of my life, I have tried to become increasingly active in making these decisions for myself, even though it can be hard sometimes, and I have not always perfectly followed this. Nonetheless, in business and in life, it is an important mindset to take. In shaping our reality, we need to be both aware, but also relentless in acting upon this information.

Creating order out of chaos: Archetypes and systematization

How can we create order out of the chaos that is our disorganized world? Recently, I’ve been thinking about two concepts that can help us to do this, related to organizing ideas, systems, and businesses: archetyping and systematizing.

I. Identifiying Archetypes

A couple of years ago, I read Ray Dalio’s book, Principles, which detailed his principles around life and work, and among many topics, one stood out to me in particular: his focus on finding patterns, or archetypes, in the world around him. He explained that he applies this principle across much of his work and life, including hiring, investing, and making predictions. For example, Dalio applies personality testing in his hiring process at Bridgewater in order to determine what potential hires’ natural strengths and weaknesses are, and what sorts of roles people are best-suited for. As another example, he studied the history of the rise and fall of empires to determine what the high-level patterns are that take place before, during, and after an empire’s rise and fall, thus being able to apply forward predictions for our world today.

In his belief, most things in life can be categorized into archetypes – people, problems, situations, and more. The concept is that even though problems/people/situations in our lives may seem unique to us, once we have enough experience or information over time, we can see that certain sorts of these problems are actually repeated multiple times, many people fall into certain archetypes of personality, and patterns of events and situations repeat over time (ex: debt crises, rises and falls of empires, etc).

Once we realize that these patterns exist, it opens the door to actually start looking for these patterns in our own personal work, interactions, and experiences. This concept was quite interesting to me, and since then, I’ve been looking at things from that perspective as well. Around me, I see various experiences, but I constantly ask myself – what is the big picture behind this? What is the bigger pattern underlying this? How can it be systematized?

We can take the chaos that is the constant influx of ideas, situations, conversations, work, events, and more, identify a pattern, and then create a narrative and understanding of it.

For example, I’ve recently been looking at my own work and trying to identify areas that may seem different and varied, but actually have a variety of similarities. What came to mind was due diligence work. Private equity firms often do a large number of diligence efforts as they analyze a variety of acquisition targets, and they often hire consulting firms to run them. Although each target and diligence effort may have differences, when we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, there are actually a variety of similarities. For example, they often require building a market model, doing a customer survey, running ex-employee/ex-competitor interviews, identifying trends/growth areas, and more. When we think about these elements, there are many opportunities to standardize and maybe systematize. I’ll continue with this analogy in the next section.


II. Systematizing

Building upon a concept in Michael Gerber’s E-Myth Revisited, it is important to build in standardized sets of practices and systems for conducting certain processes. Once an order or pattern has been identified, I believe that this is where there is a lot of opportunity to address it by creating systematized solutions for the situation at hand. For example, let’s say that we have identified a set of archetypes for a particular problem, situation, or type of person that we may interact with. Once we have the archetypes laid out, we can determine how to go about appropriately addressing each archetype based on the bigger picture and unique circumstances/requirements of each, and can create a more standardized solution approach.

Let’s return to the due diligence example. As we said, there are often a variety of types of analyses that need to be run in due diligence settings, regardless of the type or topic. Let’s go deeper into one of them – conducting interviews. There are often a variety of types of interviews that need to be run, for a variety of topics. However, maybe if we think further into the types of interviews that we need to run (e.g., ex-employee, ex-competitor), the particular topic (e.g., understanding competitive landscape, understanding key buying factors, understanding trends, etc), we can think of the types of questions that may need be asked for each, and how they would differ (by leveraging past successful examples of each type). We could then construct a base set of questions that would be asked based on the particular type of interviewee, topic, and add further specificity as needed.

Now, we could argue that this wouldn’t be useful because we would need to adjust the questions that we are asking in real-time as per the interviewee’s response. However, maybe we could actually build that in. Let’s say that we anticipate that a particular question would have response type A, B, or C – we could then actually create a set of follow-up questions based on the response that the interviewee provides, dig deeper into that area with several questions as long as needed (maybe as long as we have specified as per the parameters), and then go back up several levels to the overall set of questions.

Ideally, we could create this base skeleton of questions to be asked as per several parameters set at the beginning (i.e., length of interview, type of interviewee, type of topic, level of detail desired which could govern the depth we enter for follow-up questions, and more), with certain data plugged in to customize to the situation (e.g., name of competitors trying to assess, key buying factors we are assessing between, etc).

In this way, we could actually create a customizable skeleton of questions for conducting interviews across a variety of situations. Of course, all this isn’t to say that we can create a perfect guide 100% of the time. However, what we can do is at least minimize level of effort expended to create new solutions every time, and rather, get the team ~70-80% there with little effort by creating a base case version customized to the situation, which can then be further adjusted.

This is a very particular example, but the concept is applicable in a very wide variety of ways. For the diligence example, we can create 70-80% skeleton versions for the other areas as well, including for building a market model, building a survey, and finding growth opportunities. Outside of the diligence example, we can think more broadly within consulting about the archetypes of projects that come up, and the standard elements that may be included within each.

Thinking more broadly, we can also find countless examples in other domains, from writing an essay, to putting together a brief, to designing a building as an architect, to doing a company valuation, and more. In every single situation and domain, there are currently many complex tasks that require a great deal of mental energy because people often start from scratch for the creation process, when in reality, there are countless past similar creations to leverage, and complex thought from scratch may not be necessary. If we could create 80% versions as a first step with very little effort and then only some minor adjustment required thereafter, we could take out the requirement for heavy thinking in these areas, and instead focus our and our employees’ mental energy on more complex tasks.

III. What this means

I think that as we progress as a society and continue in our desire to grow and enter into new areas, thinking about our work and experiences from the perspective of archetypes and systematization can be immensely powerful in simplifying much of our current mental load.

I’m going to continue thinking through this in my work, experiences, and daily life, and I encourage anybody reading this to do so as well, because there is an immense amount of potential within this.