Lessons not worth learning.
A few weeks ago I had a call with a startup founder who was frustrated with their team. The team kept getting distracted by interesting work, and was avoiding the most important work to move the business forward. Was it possible to build a team that simply does the important work without getting distracted by more interesting or energizing work? Why can’t you build a team that operates rationally to the businesses interests rather than their own?
My advice was that there are basically two paths forward in that scenario: constrain your team’s growth to the rate at which you can identify the infrequent folks who genuinely do feel compelled to act rationally on behalf of the business (even when it’s arguably not in their self-interest), or hire an executive between the founder and the team who is able to translate between the founder’s and the team’s priorities. The founder’s response surprised me a bit. Yes, they agreed, those are the options, but isn’t it fundamentally wrong to tolerate the second approach?
My experience is that most startups take the latter approach, sometimes without their founders recognizing it, but I think it’s an interesting question. Is that wrong? That question reminded me of a topic I’ve thought about a lot over the years: what are the valuable lessons that I’ve deliberately chosen not to learn?
My general view on beliefs is that we get to choose them, so we should choose empowering beliefs. Beliefs are different than facts, because beliefs are not entirely grounded in evidence. The most obvious example would be choosing to believe (or to not believe) in a greater power. Believing in God, as well as not believing in God, is a personal choice, and there will never be any evidence that wholly confirms or denies your choice. That’s why it’s called Faith rather than Reading Comprehension. As we construct ourselves as individuals, we are forced to choose among many beliefs. Are humans inherently good? Do you align with cultural relativism or a universal measure of morality? Is it moral to separate enjoyment of an artist’s work from approval of an artist’s behaviors? Picking our way through beliefs is a fundamental aspect of being an individual; our lives and career are deeply influenced by what we choose..
Work happens in community with your colleagues, customers and the broader industry, and that community will endeavor to teach you lessons that change your beliefs. When I left Yahoo, my Director asked me to explain my decision, and I ranted at him that I was disappointed by the lack of effort within my team. Several of my colleagues accomplished so little in a year that I was able to reimplement their work, running faster and using significantly less memory, in a weekend. This wasn’t because I was experienced or exceptional–I would generally say that I was neither–simply because I maintained a fairly moderate level of effort. This was, from my point of view, a major failing. My Director disagreed. Instead, he argued, you need all types of people in an organization. You need folks who push hard, but also those who are willing to maintain the boring pieces at a slow pace. Rather than a failed organization, this was good governance.
Over the following few years, I asked myself sometimes whether my Director was right. Was I thinking about this the wrong way? Was I projecting my values in a toxic way? Should I embrace the indifferent methodology of the team I had worked with?
Ultimately, I decided not to, and developed the idea that I should identify the lessons I didn’t want to learn from life, and simply choose not to learn them. My intent was not necessarily to evaluate whether a certain lesson was true or false in a given context, rather that there are certain lessons that are true in some scenarios, but learning them forms a limiting belief. Limiting belief, founded on a circumstantially true lesson, can change the slope of your future in unpleasant ways.
Since starting this approach, here are some of the lessons that felt true in the moment, but that I’ve nonetheless chosen not to learn:
- It is irrational to care about the quality of your work
- You’re too inexperienced to have anything interesting to write
- Performance feedback is an evaluation of you as a person (as opposed to an evaluation of your work within a particular system)
- Leadership is something you’re intrinsically good at (not something become good at through practice)
- You can rank individuals by intelligence, and that ranking is generally static among adults
- Compliance is a virtue; raising concerns is poor leadership
- Who we are at 25 (30, 35, 40, etc) is a strong predictor of who we’ll be in five, ten years
My point is not that these lessons are wrong, they certainly are not wrong in many cases. That said, I think you should choose the beliefs that help you live a meaningful, ethical life. Don’t get too caught up on what’s real or true, you’ll never know for certain anyway. Why worry about being wrong, when you can be happy? Why worry about being right, if it prevents doing what you love?
If you’re too accepting of new beliefs, you may go down one of my old coworker’s path, who tried to teach me that if I ever learned PHP, then I wouldn’t be allowed to write C++ again. I’m certain that was a lesson with practical roots in his lived experience, but it certainly wasn’t a useful one for living my life. There are a lot of lessons out there, pick the ones worth learning.