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. 

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. 

My 10-year vision: Systematizing decision-making

High-level summary: My 10-year vision centers around creating a company or series of companies aimed at improving decision-making on 1) an individual level, and 2) an organizational task/process level.

I believe that when we actually set an intention and write things down, that significantly increases the chance that they will become reality. I’d like to write out my 10-year vision for the future, as it stands right now. I recognize that this is still quite broad, but I wanted to write it down nonetheless.

I. What I would like to focus on

One of the biggest challenges that I have in my own life is making decisions – deciding what decision to make, criteria by which to make the decision, and when to actually stop deciding and to consider the decision made and locked. As such, my 10-year vision focuses on improving decision-making, both in an organizational and in a personal context.

I envision doing this in two main ways:

1. Systematizing personal decision-making at an individual level

2. Systematizing decision-making and automating complex tasks at an organizational level

II. Improving personal decision-making at an individual level

I envision simplifying decision-making at a personal, individual level. Human beings are inundated with information and decisions everyday, and it can get tiring and overwhelming at times. I believe that if we didn’t feel like every single decision was so uncertain and unclear and novel, it would minimize a lot of the stress we face, because we would realize that we have done this many times before and have an approach for dealing with this sort of problem.

Thus, I would like to create tools that enable people to sort through the chaos of this information and recognize the similarities in the situations that they face, and therefore, the similarities in the decisions that they must make. I would like to provide and facilitate the self-creation of frameworks to help individuals analyze the pattern of their past decisions and approach new decisions in an informed and clear way – by understanding what they did before, why they made certain decisions, why it did or did not work, and what they can do now that they are faced with a slightly different, but still archetypically the same, sort of decision. That is, I would like to provide individuals with the tools and frameworks to make new decisions in a confident manner.

Of course, this goes hand-in-hand with increased personal awareness and understanding of our emotions. After all, how can we know what the “right” decision may be, if we don’t know what tends to drive our personal happiness or unhappiness? (if we are solving for happiness, that is)

In order to make good decisions, we need to be very aware of our own personal strengths, weaknesses, sensitivities, biases, and more. We can only understand our emotions through careful reflection of our reaction to certain situations and decisions. We need to be aware of who we actually are. Therefore, part of the process of facilitating personal decision-making also involves a heavy element of facilitating increased personal awareness.

III. Improving decision-making and automating complex tasks at an organizational level

As I have written previously in some of my posts, I believe that there is significant opportunity to systematize certain complex tasks and decisions, many of which are currently done by humans, but which could be simplified and automated by embedding sets of logic into the workflow.

I would like to start a company, or maybe series of companies, to drive innovation in decision-making and knowledge work systematization. I could see this taking place in several ways.

1. Systematizing/automating complex knowledge tasks: As I wrote in one of my previous posts (linked here), I believe that when we think of the bigger picture of complex tasks (e.g., writing memos, making certain types of presentations, making financial models, eventually other even more complex tasks), there is opportunity to take a bigger-picture lens and identify the “archetypes” of certain types of the task (e.g., type of memo, type of presentation, type of model, etc, all further codified based on context and situation), identify the common elements across them, and create a system or process that creates an ~80% version, based on the archetype, customized as needed. I envision creating something in this space, likely for complex knowledge work-based organizations, such as consulting, investment banking, private equity, and other such firms. The starting step for this would be to pick a specific task and create a very robust logic-based system creation for this particular task. If this worked, others would follow.

2. Systematizing work-related decisions through prediction and recommendation engines: As part of this, I also envision systematizing decision-making and prediction in some of these areas. I believe that this includes

1. Stipulating what sort of data will be necessary to consider when making a certain type of decision (e.g., if making an investment decision, identifying what will be most important to consider in making the decision)

2. Gathering data on these elements in previous such situations (e.g., previous similar investment decisions of this “archetype”)

3. Gathering a record of the relative success/failure of these past decisions.

This would help to build a predictive engine for this type of decision, based on analyzing the factors and variables that led to success or failure in past such situations, with the output being a recommended decision and prediction of outcome/level of success (as per defined “success” criteria) based on the decision taken. From there, it would be a matter of, every time this type of decision came up again, gathering these data variables, incorporating them into the model, and reviewing the recommendation that would be provided (while, of course, applying human decision-making and judgement in parallel). As more and more decisions are run through this decision-making engine and the feedback is looped back in (positive, negative, etc, and why), the engine itself would be continuously refined and improved. Of course, there would sometimes be situations of mismatch between human/system recommended decision or prediction of success, and we may realize that there are further variables that would need to be built into the system for better decision-making. As we continuously built in new logic, variables, and information, the questions to be asked and refined include:

-How important is this information?

-What specific factor would it impact?

-With what magnitude would it change the decision?

-In what direction would it impact the decision?

-Would it change the decision or not?

Of course, I know that variants of this are already being done across a variety of different fields. Nonetheless, it is still not systematically applied in a majority of work situations, and I could envision that tools such as this begin to be embedded in a much wider array of situations, down to more daily tasks (e.g., writing certain sales emails, determining strategic priorities based on market sizing/growth rates, etc). This definitely needs to be made more specific in order to be successful (i.e., down to the very specific decision level). I would begin by focusing on something more concrete, and once again with this, I would start with something that I am more familiar with (e.g., consulting/banking/private equity contexts), and expand from there.

IV. Post-10 year vision: Creativity using data

Later on (not necessarily within the next 10 years, but still part of a longer-term vision), I also envision expanding my decision-making facilitation to more creative endeavors. As I have mentioned in a previous post, I would like to enable the development of novel creations based on something like comprehensively tagged databases of “building blocks,” (e.g., such as in dance, figure skating, art, cinema, music, etc) which could then be used to develop something new through unique combinations of these building blocks, aimed at optimizing for what the creator chooses to optimize (e.g., most likely to succeed with certain type of audience, or optimize around a certain style, etc) and along certain parameters (e.g., certain length, budget, etc), with the predictions of success being based on the success of past combinations (contingent upon a large enough database having been created).

This would be a decision-making framework applied in a unique way to more creative fields. Even though on the surface it seems very different than solving for things such as highest-success investment decisions with predicted success based on financial metrics, this would, in some ways, be the parallel to that for creative endeavors (except that it would be decision-making for creation, rather than just for the purchase/sale of existing assets). For example, these proposed creations could optimize for things such as highest expected ticket sales, highest expected audience attendance, etc, which would be similar to the “highest ROI” sort of decision-making done in financial settings.

V. My own path and role in all of this

I’m at the very beginning stages of doing all of this, but the above is a high-level version of what I would like to work toward in the coming 10-15 years. Of course, I recognize that I will need to get much more specific with my vision each of these areas in order to pursue it, and I would do this by picking very specific, discrete problems to solve and beginning there.

I also wanted to think through how I could go about doing this in the next 10-15 years. I would start by creating a company in one of these areas, focused on solving something relatively specific (i.e., a thin slice of a much larger problem). I imagine that this may start more on the individual decision-making side, as that is the more easily accessible challenge to solve, given that I don’t have technical skills in the area. I imagine that my first company would be a challenge, but I’m also sure that it will provide a variety of lessons.

Over time, I would also like to start several other companies, all related to certain areas of decision-making. Through multiple iterations, I would like to learn the skill of creating something from nothing and building it up to success. I imagine that I’ll fail many times in the process of this, and I accept that as part of the learning journey. The failures will be inevitable, but the important point will be to simply get up and continue toward the longer-term goal and vision.

Ultimately, I envision creating some sort of growth ventures fund, in which my team and I start, incubate, and grow  companies in these spaces (task-based decision making/automation and personal decision-making). I could envision it being organized a bit like the below:

Decision Fund [growth ventures fund]

Branch 1: Personal/life decision making

Branch 2: Task/process/automation decision-making

Some of what I would like to build into the culture of my company/companies includes (as a first hypothesis, as I’m sure this may adapt as I get actual experience):

  1. Being ruthlessly results-oriented
  2. Building a learning organization (always learning and iterating)
  3. Building a meritocratic organization in which the best people can thrive, grow, and continue gaining opportunities

In the meantime, a couple of skills that I also want to learn include: data science (at a high level) and investing (in-depth – I think this will come partly through the experience of starting/running companies, and partly through the trial and error of actual investing, both before and during my envisioned growth ventures fund).

Now that I have put it out into the world, I hope that it’ll help me get there by keeping this clear vision in my mind.