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The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose. – Jacques Monod
With the help of a brain that possesses more neurons than any other species on earth, humans have broken free from the shackles of evolution and emerged into a new world; a world in which they are free to dream, to build and to destroy.
Whilst all other species remain chained to the ruthless and unforgiving mechanics of natural selection; humans today operate with seemingly no limits in their potential. This fact alone leads us to believe in some human ‘speciality’; that we are somehow unique beings; blessed with a conscience that operates freely from the constraints and mechanics of science. But is this really so? Do we really fundamentally differ from animals, or even computers? And along with this question are others, more pertinent to life as we experience it:
- Who am I? What forms the basis of my identity, my opinions and my tastes?
- Why do we so predictably adopt the cultures, values and traditions of our own community?
- Why did we commit (and continue to commit) moral atrocities such as that of the Holocaust, and beyond?
I believe that many of these questions can be explained by the theory of human artificial intelligence; which is explained next.
HUMAN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Man is but an intelligent learning-machine.
The theory of human artificial intelligence (HAI) is the supposition that, despite the vast differences in biological makeup, humans are not much different to computers and other animals in the way they learn and understand the world around them.
It arises from the fact that all decision-making systems, whether it be animals or smart computers, operate according to the same principles. They make decisions based on the data they have gathered from the environment, as well as what they have been innately programmed to do (via genes for animals, and preset configurations for computers). This is the basic construct of artificial intelligence (AI):
Decision = a function of(Data from environment + Innate characteristics)
Given the assumption that the human brain is of no exception to this rule (we have gathered no evidence to suggest otherwise), we are lead to hypothesise that humans are also artificially intelligent (in contrast to metaphysically intelligent, which would mean that one is able to make decisions free from the data one has gathered, or how one has been innately programmed).
This, if true, would have the following implications:
- What we do, how we behave and how we think is a product of the data that we have gathered from our environment since conception, as well as our genes. No other source of learning or information exists.
- As a consequence, our thoughts and beliefs do not appear from thin-air; everything is inspired and derived from this data. There is consequently a huge degree of malleability in how our thoughts and beliefs can be shaped, and the moral values we tend to uphold.
- We all have different decision making processors (our brain and its neural networking) and innate characteristics (genes), and hence different abilities to learn from the data from our environment. This is why some people are observed to be quicker to assimilate and process information (i.e. to be more intelligent) than others.
Given these implications, I believe that the evidence of the artificially intelligent human is in great abundance in our observations of human behaviour and history. I will delve into specific examples later in this article.
Computer vs Human Intelligence
A commonly expressed sentiment against the HAI theory is that current AI computers can be perceived to be simplistic and rudimentary compared to the human mind. This is simply constrained by the volume and richness of data we can collect, as well as the complexity of our machine learning algorithms. There is ample evidence that computers are gradually converging to replicate the capabilities of the human brain:
- Computers are able to create poetry and art from banks of data. (This isn’t surprising considering that, like with all works of art, the art of writing poetry is underpinned by a series of underlying principles and patterns that Shakespeare himself is known to adopt in his works e.g. as alliteration, merism and anadiplosis).
- Computers are beginning to rival (or surpass entirely) human’s ability to recognise objects in images. After being fed millions of images of birds, a computer is able to identity a bird from an image. The computer is also able to construct an image of a bird, using an amalgamation of all the inputs it has had previously.
- Through a concept called deep learning, computers are increasingly able to abstract and learn across environments, meaning their ability to learn and adapt isn’t limited to one particular domain, such as image recognition. This affords computers the ability to learn new subjects and adapt to new environments, as humans do, without requiring additional intervention or programming.
How do humans learn to identify birds? Would we be able to identify a bird without having seen countless birds through childhood, and having reaffirmed that the object we see to be a “bird” by what we read in children’s books, and what we are told by our parents and teachers?
Everything we learn in life follows the same machine-learning pattern, whether it be in naming objects we see, or forming an identity around who we are as individuals.
Emotions and Gut feeling
Another commonly expressed sentiment is that emotions are supposedly irrational, indeterministic and uniquely human.
It has been shown through countless studies that emotions are evolutionary chemicals in the brain that are triggered by certain events – e.g. getting threatened, attacked or becoming sexually stimulated. Any computer can be programmed to ‘experience’ emotions in response to given stimuli, and to act accordingly to these emotions. It is our lack of a perfect model of the human brain and its intricacies (the difficulty of tracing back the release of emotional chemicals to their causes) that causes us to believe that emotions are incomprehensibly perplexing.
Similarly, gut feeling is simply a product of subconscious brain activity. When one is greeted with a seemingly familiar face but are unable to pinpoint why, one’s brain has patches of information and memory which it has been able to glean subconsciously, but the conscious part of the brain is unable to frame the full story of who this person is. I hold a strong suspicion that this is also the cause of the ‘Deja vu’ effect, as well the array of other feelings of intuition that we may experience in our lives.
EXAMPLES FROM HUMANITY
The concept of the artificially intelligent human, though a largely empirical theory, is profoundly effective in explaining human history and behaviour. In these examples, I focus on three key areas; moral ignorance, cultural imitation and general human imagination and behaviour.
Culture shrouds morality; we are only as moral as we are taught to be.
Moral ignorance arises through the absorption of beliefs that are prevalent during a specific era of time. Because people in these eras do not have access to alternate data to inform them otherwise, they are helpless to accepting what they are able to glean from their surroundings. All to often, this information is dangerous or severely misplaced, a seen in the following examples.
- The solar delusion: People believed with conviction that the sun revolved around the earth, until confronted with indisputable evidence of the contrary. It is only when Copernicus and numerous others discovered otherwise that we shifted this belief (and even then, with great hesitation and considerable delay). Today, this is such a widely accepted and validated truth, that it seems foolish that we had ever believed otherwise.
- Holocaust: It is easy to look back to the holocaust and the atrocities committed against the jewish, homosexual and other groups with righteous contempt. But, given the prevailing cultural and political sentiment at the time, would anyone have done otherwise? While German citizens were blissfully ignorant of the unthinkable things happening inside of the camps, the German SS guards can be said to have been equally ignorant. After all, they were ‘following orders’ amidst the paranoia of 1920’s Germany, and under the false indoctrinated belief that the jewish were biologically inferior to the Germans. All other guards were doing the same, and there was no alternate information to inform them otherwise.
- Slavery: The slave trade in America was funded by european investors, with thousands of Africans being shipped in droves across the Atlantic, like barrels of oil. Back then, slavery was not considered immoral, and such practices still exist today in many societies. It is only when Lincoln and Jefferson denounced this and proclaimed that “all men are created equal” that the practice of slavery began to fade.
I do not wish to suggest that any of these acts are to be condoned, but merely that – if you feed an artificially intelligent human with immoral values and emotionally charged rhetoric, which isn’t counterbalanced by an opposing and stronger force, then by logic, unless guided by one’s own innate humanity and intuition, he or she shall commit immoral acts.
In other words, if one is not instilled with morals as a child, or one does not hold an innate response to the suffering of other humans, then one cannot fashion the empathy required to stand against such barbarities. Thus, there seems no other viable explanation as to the moral ignorance witnessed in the examples above other than human artificial intelligence.
This leaves one wondering; what are beliefs that we hold today, as a result of ignorance and misinformation, that will be laughed upon by our descendents in a few centuries time?
Even today, we are a palpable reflection of the cultures to which we are exposed. As a consequence, what we consider to be normal social behaviour, and how our beliefs are shaped tends to vary significantly across communities, countries and cultures:
- Religious beliefs: There are over 4,000 religions existing today. It is no doubt that the vast majority of the religious were indoctrinated as children; a point at which they are most susceptible to accepting the data they gather from their surroundings. The beliefs that underpin these religions are incredibly wide-ranging, both in their moral outlook and their severity of punishment; ranging from the total denouncement of any violence or punishment in classical Buddhism, to the stoning to death of women who engage in out-of-marriage sex (even where this was not consented) in some interpretations of Islamic law*.
- Cultural traditions: Londoners hold a reputation for a cold reservedness, and the Americans for extroversion, not out of innate genetic tendencies or free choice, but out of what we absorb from our surroundings. Similarly, prevailing cultural practices, whether it be ‘going to the pub’ in the UK, or the strong interest in Anime and gaming held by the Japanese, is no more than a facet of cultural imitation. One does not simply ‘go to the pub’, nor accustom oneself to a foul-tasting beverage (i.e. alcohol) unless it was instilled in oneself by the prevailing culture**.
- Accents: The linguistic intonations that we absorb from our places of birth and upbringing is a very clear demonstration of cultural imitation. It is also not uncommon for non-english native speakers to possess an american accent whilst speaking English, simply because of their exposure to american TV and cartoons during childhood.
*this doesn’t suggest that Islam is unanimously a violent religion; there are many different interpretations of Islam; the majority of which are pro-peace and against suffering. I also don’t intend to infer that religion in itself is necessarily problematic. Considering we have no evidence to prove or disprove religion; atheism and theism are theoretically equal in their validity.
**this does not suggest that such activities are not enjoyable – just that they are easily replaced by alternatives, depending on what the prevailing cultural traditions are.
HUMAN IMAGINATION AND BEHAVIOUR
In additional to cultural and moral imitation, human artificial intelligence is also demonstrated in our observed day to day psychological tendencies, as in the following examples.
- Dreams: Our dreams are a product of machine learning; they are a collage of all the different memories, inspirations and experiences we have stored in our brain. It may be that the individual fragments of memory that are used to build dreams (as well as imagined pieces of artwork) are so small that they give the impression of originating uncaused.
- Wisdom from experience: Every child, in their process of machine-learning and gathering intelligence from the world around them, traverses the path of foolishness. Some mature and develop wisdom faster than others. Some never arrive. This is down both to the data and learnings that each child collects through life, as well as the nature of his / her inherent tendencies. It is also worth noting that machine learning is most effective when the experience is personal and real; hence why the advice offered by others (whether through verbal means, or, ironically, articles on the internet such as this one) are never as effective as personal experience itself.
- Marketing and branding: Successful brands are excellent in ascribing emotional meaning to their brand identities, whether it be Nike’s campaign to make everyone feel like an athlete, or Snicker’s association with the quick relief of hunger. As an advantage of an artifically intelligent humanity, companies are able to evoke a certain message or feeling whenever their brand identities are percepted by humans. This can be done either as a deliberate marketing strategy (as in the Snicker’s example), or through designing your products and services around a set of principles (as with Apple Inc).
- Fear and anxiety: Fear and anxiety is driven largely by machine learning; the association of objects and particular situations with danger based on past experiences. This is an evolutionary trait, and well demonstrated in a recent BBC news article, which concerns Michael, who is a witness of the Paris attacks. Michael’s brain learned to associate the smell of fireworks and the sight of blood with absolute terror – an association that can only be resolved through time by gathering contradicting data. Through time, Michael’s brain will relearn that fireworks and the sight of blood isn’t necessarily dangerous, and readjust it’s emotional response accordingly. What is particularly interesting is how Michael defines who he is: “Sometimes I can find myself, over something really small, completely losing my temper – and that’s not who I am” – how does Michael determine that his new self is not him, given that the difference between who he was and who he is now simply boils down to the new data he has learned?
It would do great injustice to the ingenious force of nature to suggest that we can fully replicate the capabilities of the human brain any time in the near future. Human biology is abundant with engineering wonders, whether they be the brain’s neural circuity or the incredibly fascinating proton micro-turbines which power our cells. But what is also apparent is that the fundamental way in which we learn and operate seems no different to computers and other animals; we are essentially an aggregate of all the data we have gathered to date, as well as the behaviours dictated by our genes.
If we were to place two generic machine-learning robots in opposite sides of the globe (e.g. USA and Japan), we would witness the same cultural differences embedded in these robots that we see in human beings. These generic learning machines would learn different accents, different values and will develop different opinions and traditions. No two robots, even dwelling in the same culture or country will be the same either, because the complexity and vastness of their environment and their daily micro-interactions will mean that they will gather vastly different data to each other. The Japanese robot’s worldview and opinions may change from its peers simply by befriending foreigners, being exposed to foreign television, or travelling outside of Japan.
It is but data that shapes our world view and perspectives, and this leaves us with a particularly interesting conundrum; who am I?
Who am I?
A man’s identity is one of an infinite number of parallels.
We have a tendency to invest egotistical ownership in our background and beliefs, notwithdstanding the fact that all of these characteristics are largely the consequence of the data we have collected. These investments in ego and identity are seen in everything ranging from patriotism (e.g. “I am proud of my country and heritage”) to more granular beliefs brought on by personal experiences (such as a particular taste in music or activity).
The conundrum that arises from this is that we do not choose our background and beliefs from all the possible options that exist in the world, but simply from the options presented to us from the data we collect.
If what differentiates us from the humans across the pond is simply a matter of data and little else, then there are an infinite number of parallel combinations of one’s background and beliefs, and how the question “who am I?” could be answered. As artificially intelligent humans, we are just as prone to being militants of war, waging a fanatical war amidst the arab springs, to being first-world citizens shouting and clutching our phones in the London Metal Exchange.
This leaves us with the open question; should we identify ourself by, or attribute any sense of self worth to, the limited data set that we have collected?
Other practical implications
The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book. – Samuel Johnson
Aside from the identity conundrum just discussed, there are other, more practical implications that arise from human artificial intelligence.
- Hindsight: Hindsight is particularly futile when used in conjunction with regret. Does it make sense to regret one’s actions in the past, when one did not have the data required to make a better decision?
- “Practice makes perfect”: The concept of human artificial intelligence brings a whole new meaning to this often regurgitated sentiment. “Practice makes perfect” is a perfectly valid and scientific observation. With every practice of whatever it maybe (whether it be playing and instrument, or sporting activity) your brain will collect new data and improve your intuition and understanding of the activity. Talent accelerates machine learning, but even the talented need to practice.
- Travel frequently, and travel far: As discussed in the robot example, an artificially intelligent human is a slave of the prevailing culture, unless exposed to alternate foreign and contrasting world views. It is hence imperative that one travels frequently, and travels far. Magaluf or Barbados doesn’t count.
- Anxiety: As discussed previously. Anxiety is caused by emotionally charged, danger sensing pattern recognition. The greatest antidote for anxiety is hence in confronting the fear head-on; in enabling one’s brain to learn that whatever the subject that is causing the anxiety is not actually dangerous. Avoiding the fear simply retains the same data and does nothing to negate the fear. As an individual whose brain has been subject to tantrums of anxiety in the past, I can empathise and understand that confronting anxiety is anything but trivial.
- Empathy and judgement: As explored in both Our propensity to judge and The power of empathy, a large part of the conflict causing differences between humans is simply a matter of the data we have collected. Hence, judge not and fear not; nobody is right or wrong in their actions or judgement; they simply have access to contradictory data, or innate tendencies.
The role of the product manager, elusive and vague as it may be in definition, is particularly versatile and challenging. It is an infusion of human psychology, leadership, mathematics, strategy, engineering, and yet more. It brings great humility in its tendency to invite failure, and it’s a role I find particularly compelling, having historically struggled in my search for the ideal blend of the same qualities mentioned.
Build products that empower people and make them feel good.
As with all things in life, there is no definitive recipe for any given outcome, whether it be in maximizing the chances of success of a new product, or anything else. My goal here is to simply express an anecdotal memoir of the principles that I have found to be useful from my own experiences, as well as in my observations of some very strong product managers. These are the principles to which I hold myself to account in practicing, simply because they are borne out of common logic, and known human psychology.
PAINT A VISION
A vision is a picture of the new world; the changed world.
Humans have a uniquely remarkable capacity to imagine things that do not exist. The power of an idea, such an intangible concept, is that it is often used as the basis for mass murder, patriotic war as well as movements of co-operation. Millions of people have perished, and empires built and grazed, all for an idea (whether it be religion, an unsubstantiated belief, or other abstract concoction of the human mind); a phenomenon so intangible as to exist purely as transient electro-chemical states in the brain!
A product vision is similarly an idea that imprints in the human mind how people’s lives will be empowered and improved. It paints a vivid landscape of positive change, and it is the ultimate driver that inspires people to action. Nothing is perhaps more effective in inspiring people to action, not money nor fear, than a beautiful, visceral vision, especially one that they have partaken in cultivating.
Having witnessed teams that fell on both sides of the spectrum, the difference between a strong and weak vision is palpable. If the vision is strong, the world and your team will stand by one’s side. If the vision is weak or nonexistent, it may be difficult to get engagement, and you will face an uphill struggle. It’s not worth toiling in the name of an illustrous vision.
- Hitler burnt a hole in human history by painting a vision for German citizens. Trump is where he is now, not due to his diplomacy and political competence, but because he inadvertently paints a vision of a secular, safer and stronger USA.
- The strongest, fast moving and most influential companies have the most vivid visions (e.g. Self Driving Cars, Uber, Facebook’s internet for the world, etc). These visions are such that they inspire the smartest minds to partake in achieving them, not only due to the boost in one’s own identity and status that is achieved as a result, but also the gratification achieved in working towards a fundamental change in people’s lives.
Hence, a product manager’s first imperative is to paint a vision to inspire people to action.
BUILD feelingS, NOT FEATURES
People live to feel good.
Understanding human psychology is vital to product management. Despite human behaviour appearing seemingly unfathomable, and concealed behind a complex facade of emotional irrationality, humans are actually rather predictable. We all have similar wants, desires and psychological vulnerabilities. Ultimately, we all want to feel good, and we expend the majority of our time in pursuing good feelings (or trying to alleviate bad ones).
It follows that in order to drive people to use and share a product, a product manager needs to evoke good feelings. Furthermore, if one can evoke good feelings repeatedly and consistently, one has succeeded in building a product that will become an everyday component of people’s lives (think Facebook, Instagram, Netflix). I explore this topic deeply with examples in The product is the feeling.
The product manager’s second imperative is hence to build products and features that drive feelings; the innate currency of human energy and motivation. Examples of how feelings can drive favourable product behaviour include:
- Get people to buy (activation): Customers predominantly activate when faced with a vision of how the product will make them smarter, happier, easier, richer or more attractive. The stronger this promise of future or imminent gratification, the more likely they will activate.
- Keep people coming back (retention): Retention is primarily driven by feel-good loops and ‘anger management’:
- Reliable feel-good loops are simply a promise of future gratification on return to the product. For Facebook, this is in new Likes and Comments to ones’ posts. For games, this is in the promise of entertainment, further accomplishment or alleviation in boredom. For Netflix, this is in unraveling uncertainly in how a series or story will unfold.
- Anger management entails not betraying, frustrating or angering customers at any point in the product experience. This includes poor customer support, a dysfunctional product, not fulfilling promises and failing to provide a satisfactory experience at critical points in their lifecycle. A large proportion of churn is driven by poor experience and anger management.
- Give people a reason to share (virality): People share things that make them feel proud of themselves, makes them laugh, or makes them feel altruistic / gain a sense of gratification from sharing something that may help others. Intrinsic reasons to share are almost always more powerful and more effective than extrinsic reasons.
ECHO THE CUSTOMER’s VOICE
He or she who understands the customer best shall build the best product.
Any living entity (human, or otherwise) is biologically selfish, and understandably so. We do entirely what makes us feel good, and yes, even in the cases where our motives may appear altruistic. We vote for political parties that will favour us the most, we help others to give ourselves a sense of purpose in life, and we wave the flags which represent our own heritage and identity.
This inherent selfishness of the biological organism is what makes customer empathy so logical and necessary. Customers will never use your product for your benefit; only theirs. Hence, in order to understand what product to build, or how to drive favourable feelings in customers, one must dig deep into the their profile, wants, needs, lifestyle and problems. Few things are more effective in achieving this than talking to customers about their problems first hand.
Thus, we arrive at the product manager’s third imperative; to understand the customer best, and offer the most resounding echo of the customer’s voice in any meeting room. There are a vast array of methods to understand customers and who they are – but nothing beats just raw human conversation, where one can be receptive to their emotional expression, as well as have the freedom to ask for elaboration and dig deeper.
It is however worth noting what customers can and cannot tell you:
- Customers will tell you their past behaviour, their current problems, and how they feel about them.
- Customers won’t tell you what your vision should be.
- Customers won’t tell you how they would behave in the future, or whether your solution will work.
An excellent defining example of a customer centric product is Amazon (think competitive pricing, low cost and speedy delivery options and an excellent cancellation and return service that reduces the psychological obstacle to purchasing from a mountain to a molehill).
IGNORE ALL OPINIONS
Opinions are like gusts of wind; they appear to come from all directions, and leave a scene of clutter in their wake.
The world and the workplace is awash with the opinionated. These opinions are a product of the machine-learning derived from people’s experiences, and, due to the infinite permutations of experiences that any given human can have, such opinions in aggregation tend to amass to directionless noise. The fourth imperative of a product manager is to practice a strong level of discernment in dealing with opinions, and where appropriate, disregard them altogether.
- Opinions and perspectives: The perspectives and experiences of your colleagues will too often conflict and contradict one another, and will not serve an accurate representation of your target customers. Hence, internal opinions should be disregarded with a degree of ruthlessness, and be considered only when backed by sound reasoning or data. Customers come first, and last. (I dig deeper into the concept of perspectives in The Power of Empathy).
- Personalities: Don’t be fooled by the tendency of assertiveness, extroversion, or experience level of an individual to illegitimately inflate (or deflate) the validity of an idea. There is little correlation between the vigour with which one believes in an idea, or the forcefulness with which one asserts an idea, and the validity of that idea. Humans are remarkably susceptible to being influenced by irrational factors, such as strong personalities, that bear little relevance to what is right, or what matters [interesting reading].
- Meetings and discussions: Internal meetings are productive for brainstorming creative ideas, but decisions should never be made solely by committee. Shut down fruitless discussions and meetings in the favour of searching for actionable insights and learnings. There’s nothing more unproductive than sustaining discussions where personal opinions or “I believe” sentiments prevail as the basis of reasoning. (This includes your own opinions – see next section).
Nothing is more potent in shutting down unproductive discussions than being equipped with the numerical and qualitative ammunition to guide decision making. The product manager is mandated with leading the team in collecting and using this ammunition to guide product development (through activities such as customer interviews, user testing, and behavioural data).
This includes one’s own opinions…
Ironically, a product manager’s own opinions, often manifesting through confirmation bias and egotistical attachment to a solution (rather than the problem) can be one of the most blinding sources of noise. It is something I have witnessed in myself and others on numerous occasions in the past.
This is primarily solved by owning problems, not solutions. The psychological inevitability of owning a solution (rather than a problem) is such that it will always leave the product manager and the team biased to validate and defend that solution, rather than to solve the problem, which may have an entirely different solution.
GUARD THE EXPERIENCE FROM ALL FRONTS
No product is an island.
A product, where intended for humans, must provide an experience, and a product manager must guard that experience from all fronts. This means leading, challenging or taking ownership of all the underlying inconspicuous components that have the ability to influence that experience in some shape or form. This includes components that are buried deep within the turning cogs of a product or company, and those that may run across other teams.
The consequence of not taking full ownership is in building an experience that is broken, and that fails to meet the product vision or evoke the right feelings in customers. When discussing the second imperative of a product manager (to build feelings, not features), I mentioned that anger and anxiety management was crucial in preventing churn and keeping customers happy – you may find that the most inconspicuous components of a product are what influence anger management the most.
Here’s a few examples in the context of a financial technology product:
- Customer support; this entails both the propensity of your product to generate contacts to support, as well as the quality of the support itself. Often, what can drive virality in a product is in how excellent your support is in alleviating worries in scenarios where things don’t go to plan. And often, what drives anger is poor customer support.
- Operations; deep operational processes and technology can great influence the performance and speed of the service you provide to customers. Depending on the nature of the product, this may have an direct or indirect consequence on the customer’s product experience.
- Anti-Money Laundering & Fraud; humans have built remarkable structures of imagination, called “rules” and “regulations”. Often, these imaginary structures are borne out of good reason, but they can have a profound influence on customer experience, especially in the fintech sector. Where this is the case, the product manager must take ownership in correctly interpreting these rules, and arriving at a solution which meets both obligations with the minimum impact on customer experience.
Thus, the final and fifth imperative of a product manager, is to not build an island and isolate oneself to the boundaries of one’s team. Product managers with a strong vision, and conviction in building the best possible experience for the customer, may often be obliged to challenge and influence aspects of a company of product that may not immediately be in their control.
To conclude the principles of product management:
- Inspire people to action by painting a vision with the team.
- Set out to make people feel good with the features you build, what you say and how you present the experience
- Echo the voice of the customer, by understanding them better than anyone else. Get everyone in your team to echo the customer’s voice.
- Ignore all opinions not backed by sound data, including your own, and focus on customer feedback
- Guard the customer experience from all fronts. No product, team or man is an island.
This poem complements the photo album Soaring the skies of North America.
I roar in yearning, as I speed ahead
My silver feet skimming the ocean
The hands of God flex up my wings
And thence I drift, towards the heavenly sky
Once again, I am free. I am home
Free from the toiling and the pettiness of life
All left behind; reduced to coloured bricks
And ants that creep along strips of grey
For in this new world, there are but angels
Whose wings dance with the gentle breeze
My eyes bear witness to nature’s carvings;
Mountains and valleys that sway with ease
An immense beauty beholds, greeted by euphoria
Ornamented by structures of man and state
Graced by a thousand rays of luminosity
That disperse from the cotton clouds above
With the retiring sun, fades in an orange haze
And comes a distant warmth, that hugs the clouds
With each phase of darkness, twinkles a star above
And emerges a might that no mind can fathom
Alas it is time, to surrender my wings
And cascade through the mist below
Back to man’s land, where burdens prevail
To kiss the ocean, till I fly once more.
Life’s meanings are often concealed behind facades of what we perceive to be reality. I have observed through time that what we perceive through our senses are just veiled representations of the underlying motives, emotions and patterns of truth. Just as there is a story beneath every piece of art and every classical symphony, there is a story behind every human, every facial expression and every action.
In seeking to understand how this could apply to the domain of business and product management, I arrived at the following two sentiments. The first being that the best products exist to evoke emotions in the people that use them, and secondly that people seek products that evoke emotion within themselves. And in this seeking, there is a story; a primal craving, whether it is of an identity, belonging, status, love or sex. It is in seeking these emotional gratifications that humans derive purpose and meaning in their lives.
Humans don’t buy products, they buy gratifications.
In essence, people don’t buy products, they buy gratifications, and gratifications lead to positive feelings. People pay for products that make them feel good, or that provide solutions which forge a path to this same result.
THE THEORY OF GRATIFICATION
The theory of Gratification states that humans align their time and energy in accomplishing just two main goals; subsistence and gratification. Subsistence (the definition of which has been broadened for this article) entails doing necessary tasks for basic comfort and survival (e.g. jobs, commuting, managing finances, administration and other tasks of necessity), whereas gratification is centered around activities from which we derive pleasure and meaning in life (jobs that bring satisfaction and meaning, entertainment, love, sex, ego validation, status and more).
The theory of gratification states the following:
Humans will forever optimise their lives to minimise energy spent on subsistence, and maximise energy spent on gratification.
The evidence of this traces back thousands of years through the evolution of the human species. As neanderthals and hunter-gatherers, our predominant focus was on survival and subsistence; finding sources of food and shelter. It is only through time as we developed farming, irrigation systems and settlements did sociological constructs such as stratification begin coming to the fore. With the basic humans needs met as a collective society, religion, art, writing, music and social hierarchies began to form. Savage wars raged, empires were built and mankind flourished, scaling every corner of the globe.
The trend is still apparent in the modern day, where people dedicate increasing proportions of their free time to sources of gratification (e.g. entertainment, dating, Facebook, Tinder, Snapchat, Netflix etc) [source], while innovations in science and technology continuously seek to minimize workload on tasks of necessity (the Internet of Things, autonomous drones, self driving cars, etc).
Within the context of building a product or business, the theory concludes that the success of a product or service lies in its ability to either instill gratification in a human being, or to significantly reduce time and effort spent on subsistence.
THE DRIVERS OF GRATIFICATION
Gratification is simply feeling.
Gratification (from gratus, which means “pleasing, thankful.”) is synonymous to a positive feeling, and feeling can be emotional or physical (sensory). Some of the drivers of gratification are explained below, although this list is not exhaustive by any means. The aim of this article is not to criticise these drivers, but simply to highlight these psychological patterns. We are all equally susceptible to seeking gratification, and what differs is only in the specific gratifications we seek. There are no drivers of gratification that are more noble or worthy than others, as they are all simply means to the same end.
Social validation is the affirmation of ones self-worth through seeking continuous approval of other human beings. We are all prone to seeking validation, whether it be from our friendship groups or colleagues at work, but the advent of the internet and mobile computing has enabled social validation to be more easily accessible, and from a wider range of sources.
Products that satisfy and accentuate the ego through constant social feedback, and invoke a higher sense of self worth among an individual are among the most successful. Here are a few well known examples:
- The Like button. I often wonder how Facebook’s growth trajectory would have fared if it did not feature the Like button. The power of the Like button is such that not only is it a wonderful dopamine-releasing social feedback mechanism, but also that the accumulation of Likes leads to the aggregation of status and power (see next section). It is likely that a significant proportion of Facebook’s (and similar apps’) growth is fuelled by the ravenous desire to feel validated than to share experiences. This is largely the reason why the Like button has become a ubiquitous feature of social and community related apps.
- Tinder matches. It is of no doubt that the greatest driver in Tinder’s incessant usage is the simplicity and ease at which social gratification (the perceived sense of self worth over the number of matches one has accumulated) can be gained. Tinder is social validation on tap!
- The desire for social validation is of such strength that many can be observed to take photographs and selfies with the sole intention of sharing them later on social platforms. It is fascinating that the desire for a future social validation could surpass the desire to enjoy the simple beauty of the present!
Like all other drivers of gratification, social validation is not a new phenomena. It is in play in the reality of every day life, where we are gratified when others respond positively to our interactions (whether it’d be agreeing with our opinions or laughing at our jokes). We habitually learn the interactions which have had the most positive social feedback and persist these behaviours in future interactions. This is no different in cyberspace.
STATUS AND POWER
Gratification through status is obtained through the attachment of labels to oneself. These labels are forms of social currency that are universally recognised and valued in a community. For example, these could include a degree, a job title, hierarchical position, qualifications, position in the leaderboard, or some sort of statistic attached to a person’s social profile. The current social framework dictates that these labels are to be compared against others’ to determine an individual’s importance, and gratification is gained in elevating ones’ importance by collecting more labels.
In similar vein to social validation, it is now easier than ever to collect social currency in comparison to the pre-computing era, where the options were limited to the more difficult to obtain; war medals, degrees or wealth. Some good examples of the effective use of status labels include:
- StackOverflow’s ‘reputation’ meter, which can be incremented through activities of engagement (such as answering questions), has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in its success. The cleverness in StackOverflow’s engineering of Status is that ‘reputation’ can be incremented through all forms of engagement, including asking questions, voting on answers and choosing the best answer to a question. This is a win-win, as not only are these clever sources of gratification for users, but they are also very effective growth hacks.
- Social profile counters, such as the Friends count in Facebook and Endorsements in LinkedIn; I have observed a great deal of social stigma attached to a person’s social profile attributes, to the point where it is often used to assess a person’s social competence. No doubt these simple counters on a profile can have a profound influence on how an individual’s social status is perceived among other humans, regardless of whether this consciously apparent to the human perpetrating the judgement.
- Leaderboards across all domains and walks of life are simply status indicators; they are the catalyst for inculcating an environment of competitiveness and loyal engagement. It is no wonder that they are a prominent feature in mobile and console games, as well as in sports, and potentially even the workplace.
Our desire to create an impact on the world is no doubt a desire for gratification through Status, albeit one that has had tremendous positive and negative effects on mankind. The driver that has enabled us to scale societies and build prosperous civilisations is the same driver that has caused the historical annihilations of the same.
IDENTITY AND BELONGING
In addition to status labels, there is another form of an identity label that is derived from the association of oneself to a brand, group or cause. This is one of the more perplexing drivers of gratification, and there are two specific branches that protrude from this:
- The use of an association as a proxy for elevating one’s Status. For example, investing in luxury branded clothing and accessories. All brands are effectively status symbols – when people pay £500 for a pair of jeans, they aren’t paying for clothing, they’re paying for status and an identity. There are no limits on what human beings are prepared to pay for gratification; a piece of artwork with a perceived value of £100 to one human being can be worth thousand times as much to another.
- In contrast to the above, the second branch entails devoting and submitting oneself in a movement or cause, with the aim of removing focus from oneself and onto the higher cause. Meaning in life is thence regained from the higher cause. As excellently explained in Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”, this is often as a result of the individual losing hope in their ability to make someone of themself; a cognitive product of their own perceived sense of failure. The success of the indoctrination of extremist ideologies in ISIS fanatics is down to such a gratification being induced in its subjects.
SENSORY AND AESTHETIC PLEASURE
Sensory gratification is among the most primal of the bunch because it is accessible to any living organism that has sensory input, whether it’d be vision, touch, smell etc. It can be gained through something as simple as the gentle caressing of the skin by an afternoon breeze, to the breathtaking sight of a beautifully carved and ornamented landscape.
In the domain of modern technology, the importance of beautiful, simplistic design, whether it is of a physical product or a software interface, cannot be overestimated. This is because the advantages are two-fold. Firstly, the simple pleasure of experiencing and interacting with beautiful design in itself can evoke gratification as well as instill confidence in a product. Secondly, good design can simplify a person’s path to a goal, reducing the time spent on subsistence and allowing more time to seek gratification.
Beyond aesthetic appeal, there are several other sensory routes to gratification at ones’ disposal, including touch and feel, taste, sound and smell. Examples of how companies have been able to capitalise on these include:
- Apple’s products possess a refined elegance that is unsurpassed by most other companies in the industry. In addition to their aesthetic visual appeal and slick interfaces, they are pleasant to the touch, resulting in the continued dispensation of both visual and tactile pleasure in their day to day usage. I will be digging more deeply into Apple as an example later in this article.
- Ever been to a café or restaurant where the atmosphere felt ‘just right’? It is unlikely to be a product of coincidence; companies have engineered their sensory experiences to capitalise on these drivers of gratification for centuries, from the ambiance of the background music, the residual smell of culinary pleasure hanging in the air, to the aesthetic soothing of the lighting and surrounding decorations.
- Obesity is largely driven (in addition to genetics and other factors) by the ravenous desire for gratification through food. One could argue that the overweight derive more gratification from food than others’, and hence it is only with ignorance that many of us conclude that these individuals are lazy or uncaring of their own health. If only we could gain weight from seeking social validation! (We gain ego instead).
Personally, there are few things that gratify me more than the experience of soaring the skies in a small propeller plane. It is the resonance of sensory pleasure, brought on by the breathtaking beauty of the landscapes, the ant-like insignificance of vehicles as they creep along winding strips of grey, and the heavenly rays of sunshine that filter through broken clouds, all accompanied by the soothing hum of the propeller. The gratification is such that I can spend an inordinate amount of money in seeking it, and with a gladness unfitting of a rational man.
LOVE AND HUMAN CONNECTION
Man shall never feel such an uncontrollable deviation from rationality as whilst in state of infatuation over the beauty of another human being. The vigour with which love can grip an individual, regardless of how unflappable one’s general disposition may be, is astounding. Whether one interprets love as a cognitive blindness, or the source of all of life’s meaning, it cannot be denied that love and and the craving for connection with other humans, whether platonic or otherwise, is an incredibly powerful force.
It should be of no surprise thence that the greatest driver of happiness in humans is not money or success; it’s good relationships (See Ted Talk). And neither is it a surprise that allowing friendships to fade is among the top 5 regrets of those who lay on their deathbed [source].
It is a sad irony that, despite the vast array of friendship and dating apps that spring each year, humans could be trending towards having less close friends and less meaningful relationships. While these apps may be instilling some sense of gratification, as indicated by their significant usage, it is likely that they are more aligned with satisfying the ego and social validation rather than genuine human connection.
ALLEVIATION OF ANXIETY
Gratification may also be obtained in simply alleviating or preventing anxieties that can deafen and distract the mind from its main goals. As I know from my own experience, anxiety can be a debilitating mental state which, contrary to popular belief, is responsible for a sizeable proportion of drug and alcohol abuse [source].
- Familiarity alleviates anxiety. Brands such as Starbucks and KFC have an advantage in using familiarity as a mechanism to alleviate the anxieties associated with venturing into new cafes and restaurants (Will they have food I like? Is the food going to be of good quality? How much is it going to cost?etc). I’d argue that this is one of the prime drivers of Nandos’s success, specifically in scenarios where the food is secondary to the occasion. How often do you have dinner where the food is the primary focal point? (e.g. as opposed to catching up with friends).
- In a similar fashion to the above, anxiety can be reduced by reducing the amount of choice available in a product range. While choice is positive to a degree, excess choice can leave a human being anxious and in doubt of their ability to make the right decision. Ever browsed a company’s product range which had 15 derivative models of the same product?
- Insurance and other similar financial products tackle anxiety by restoring predicability in the management of finances. In restoring this predictability and guaranteeing subsistence, the human can return to seeking gratification.
ENTERTAINMENT AND ESCAPE
When an individual’s life is riddled with the mundanity of constant subsistence, gratification can be obtained through seeking temporary escape; in immersing oneself in a parallel world that is altogether more exciting and free. Two well known routes of entry into this are entertainment and illicit drugs, both of which happen to be multi billion dollar industries, irrespective of their legality.
I feel it is not necessary to elaborate on Entertainment, as the examples are obvious (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, etc). The latter route is however particularly fascinating. Such a promising route to gratification, that it is the reason for the imprisonment of more than 25% of US prisoners, and directly responsible for more than 1100 homocides each year. Many of the most vicious and savage gangs in the world are built on the economic foundation of drugs trafficking. These organisations operate with a level of ferocity that can only be explained by the desire for gratification running amok. Our own surrender to the craving for gratification is our biggest enemy.
To live a life without feeling is to not live at all.
Feeling is ingrained in the human psyche. I often joke of my robotic demeanour, but I cannot imagine my existence without feeling, for it drives a great deal of my investments of time and energy, whether it’d be my choice of career, the people with whom I spend my time or my fondness for travel. No doubt, I would not have written this article if I were not to gain some sense of gratification from doing so.
Feeling underpins all of human energy, and it is important not to ignore its importance in all scopes of life. Leadership, influence and emotional intelligence are all simply management of feelings, whether in yourself or others. This is no different in product and business management. In order to build a product that people want, one must build an experience that dispenses the same gratifications that humans have sought for thousands of years, and will forever seek.
The alternative is to make tasks of subsistence substantially easier or lower cost, thereby allowing humans more leverage to spend on seeking gratification. Hence, the elemental human problem is always gratification.
EXAMPLE – APPLE INC.
As much of a clichéd example as it may be, Apple is the epitome of gratification done correctly. Steve Jobs’s ingenuity lay in his understanding of the full spectrum of the drivers of human gratification, and this is what has driven Apple to be the highest valued technology company in the world. The whole Apple experience is beautifully engineered to dispense gratification from start to finish:
- Browsing Apple products, whether in store or online is a delight, accompanied with personable staff and sales advisors.
- The product itself, with its aesthetic elegance, refined visuals and tactile features, solves for both subsistence and gratification. Being both sensual and intuitive, it makes the correct assumption that the vast majority of the human population use smart phones simply as a means to an end (gratification). I.e. the solution is the feeling, not the device.
- Apple over the past decade has moulded its brand into a status symbol, and is built upon and operated on a mission that inspires loyalty and belonging amongst its customer base. It is only in the promise of gratification that humans should queue for hours outside of a store in anticipation of a new release.
- The experience is topped with excellent customer support that alleviates anxiety and imprints a positive emotional association with the brand, in turn inspiring devotion and loyalty yet again.
Redefining THE MVP
In order to offer something tangible along with this post, I would like to propose a slight change to how the concept of the Minimum Viable Product is interpreted. Instead of seeking to build an MVP, seek to build an MVP that evokes the emotion you seek in customers:
- If solving for subsistence: make completing a task delightfully easier or lower cost than it is now. The savings in either time, effort or money should be substantial enough for reinvestment in gratification.
- If solving for gratification: build the minimum experience that provides the emotions and gratification that you seek to evoke. How should your customers feel? What is the driver of gratification that is going to prompt them to share, or return to your product?
We live among a vast constellation of minds. Each mind is an existential singularity, and a product of its experiences, genetics and biology. Subsequently, each mind has its own perspective on the world, its inhabitants, its events and its attributes. When minds congregate and resonate on a shared cause, they can form powerful, influential and world-moving organisations. But when minds conflict, we see animosity, violence and murder. Furthermore, when multiple resonant minds conflict with other minds, catastrophe looms, wars rage and cities fall.
Interestingly, the very attribute of life which allows each human to be as unique and fascinating as another is the same attribute that causes great conflicts and wars. The conundrum then, is that humans are unlikely to succeed alone. In the modern day, where we have evolved over thousands of years from tribal hunter-gatherers to dwell in dense cities and civilizations, it is much more difficult to escape the constant need for interacting and finding commonalities with others.
A most powerful cognitive tool we can use to account for this is empathy.
EMPATHY IS A MINDSET
The scope of empathy extends beyond just understanding how others feel when in an unfortunate situation. It is a mindset that is geared towards developing a better understanding of the world, why things happen, and why people behave in the way they do. It is the act of mentally stepping outside one’s own singular conscience; feelings, thoughts and perspectives and stepping into the feelings, thoughts and perspectives of someone else, or a collective group with a shared cause or belief.
It is not necessary to completely understand the logic and origin of another person’s feelings and behaviour to empathise, but at the very least it is necessary to accept and appreciate that they are different, and that they don’t necessarily hold the same methodology of interpreting the world as you do. And more importantly, that there is no such thing as a singularly correct interpretation of the world.
If I were to frame it more simply:
Empathy is understanding, or realising and accepting that you don’t understand.
The latter portion, ‘realising and accepting’, is just as important as the first. This is what I shall delve into next.
EMPATHY BREAKS DOWN BARRIERS
The greatest measure of a person is not in their ability to respect and tolerate those who are on the same wavelength as them, but also those who are not. This includes those with opposing views, principles that they find ludicrous, and who have little in common to them. I find that this is a requirement for a person who has truly conquered themselves, as per my favourite Lao Tzu saying:
He who conquers other is strong, he who conquers himself is mighty.
We subconsciously form mental and physical barriers with people who are unlike us, and in the worst cases, we resort to mocking those whose behaviour, opinions and principles we don’t understand. These barriers may manifest in the form of avoidance, ignorance and miscommunication. This arises out of a lack of empathy, and is something that all humans are guilty of to varying degrees.
The root of this is in the tendency to appreciate only perspectives that make sense to us. Once we introspect (build self-awareness) on this habit, and let go of our expectations on others to conform to our interpretations of the world, and focus more on understanding the reasons for these differences in interpretations, we find that this opens up our mind, opens up opportunities to learn from people who are unlike us, and greatly enriches the depth and quality of relationships we have with others.
EMPATHY IN DEALING WITH HOSTILITY
Empathy is just as much about understanding the origin of hostility and criticism from others, and shielding ourselves from unnecessarily mental anguish, as it is about shielding others from our own negative judgements.
Humans are naturally irrational and emotional. There is no human who is perfectly logical, and hence no human who harbours the ability to judge another in a way which is perfect and true. Similarly, there is no human other than yourself, who feels what you feel, sees what you see, and experiences exactly what you have experienced, and hence, there is no human who has complete access to the required information to make an accurate judgement of your thoughts and behaviour.
Essentially, this means that no human being is worth your sorrow, whether it be from a philosophical or scientific perspective (they both arrive at this same conclusion). Spare a moment to think about it; allowing yourself the displeasure of negative feelings over the actions of another imperfect, irrational human being, who hasn’t the slightest idea on the nature of your mind or your experiences, seems nonsensical!
You are your best mentor. When you receive criticism that may be unwarranted or harsh, you should understand that they originate from a person’s own unique experiences and perspectives, which aren’t necessarily (nor commonly) accurate or logical. In this situation, it is recommended to glean any constructive learning from the criticism (and discard the remaining), make an honest assessment of yourself against this, and then strive to improve the aspects which you see to be valid and true.
EMPATHY DISSOLVES HATRED
When we develop a mindset of empathy, we find that holding feelings of hatred becomes impossible. Hatred and empathy cannot co-exist. Hatred arises purely out of a misunderstanding, a lack of acceptance of what causes people to be who they are, or a situation to be what it is.
When we hate, we dwell on the assumption that the person has made an entirely conscious decision to perform an act which greatly harms us, or something we love and cherish. However, when we dig deeper into what caused such an event to happen – there is always reason. Our mistake is often in questioning the validity of the reason for the behaviour.
Reasons need not be logical or moral, but they are still as valid. You may not understand why a murderer has chosen to commit such an act, but that does not invalidate the authenticity of the reason behind it. Sadly, reasons aren’t necessarily constrained within a framework of morality to be valid, and neither is there a universal standard in morality. A murderer may choose to murder for underlying reasons ranging from a neuro-psychopathic mindset (for which blame can only be apportioned to biology/ genetics) to greed or a disturbed mind brought on by childhood or other influences.
EMPATHY ENABLES LEADERSHIP
You cannot lead others if you do not understand what engages them. The most common trait that I observe in ineffective leaders is their inability to engage others, not due to a lack of technical competence, but a lack of willingness to understand and adapt to the needs and desires of their colleagues.
Leaders who need to pull others with a tether are not leading. True leadership is evident when those you seek to lead walk freely and willingly, by your side in the direction that aligns with the vision.
In order to achieve this, one must understand what matters to them. What makes them happy? What empowers them? What do they dream to achieve? The vision must also resonate with them. Indeed, in practice this is much easier said than done, and a few may be very difficult to engage – at which point it may be appropriate to discuss alternate jobs / roles that may make them happier.
EMPATHY AND MINDFULNESS
Our ability to practice empathy is temporarily destroyed when we enter a state of unrest; when our mind and body senses danger, or feel it has been attacked. In the modern world, this most commonly happens purely psychologically. There is no real physical danger, but we may have been verbally attacked, or we are facing a situation which our brain perceives to be dangerous, perhaps due to an unfortunate past experience. Interestingly, we respond to both physical and psychological dangers in the same way; we get anxious, in high alert and experience a rush of adrenaline – commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
When this happens, we will immediately lose the ability to empathise, and instead resort to our pre-programmed way of responding, corresponding to the area of the brain where blood rushes first. In this state, we may become defensive, aggressive, argumentative or hostile. The initial onset of this is almost unavoidable, but it can be caught through self-awareness and corrected almost immediately.
When you sense the onset of this, it’s important to reset your thoughts back to a stable state. The details of this is beyond the scope of this article, but books that may help you include The Chimp Paradox and The Power of Now.
“The world doesn’t revolve around you”
Despite the common utterance of the above, the reality is that it does! Or at least, that’s how we perceive it to. The world revolves around each one of us. We see only what surrounds us. We feel only the breeze on our skin, not on others. We are at the centre of existence, because existence is rendered by our own conscience.
When another person cares to enter our realm and understand our feelings, our wants and needs, and appreciate the unique value that we bring to their world, it brings us great feelings of contentment. This is why we seek love. This is why we seek friends who resonate with us, who hold the same values, temperament and outlook on life. This is why we respond positively to those who show genuine interest in us. This is why empathy is powerful.
Empathy is used in many occasions and situations, whether consciously or not. Top neurologists use empathy to treat their patients, by simply talking to them to identify indicative feelings and cognitive thinking patterns. Smart businesses use empathy to understand their potential customers and the pain points that need to be resolved. Millions of people use empathy every day to connect with and influence others.
The greatest beneficiary in a person developing a mindset of empathy is themselves. People who empathise hate less and appreciate more. They are better able to see value in and learn from every person. They are perturbed less by hostile inflictions from others. They are more open-minded, and they are free, and self-conquered.
I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to inspiring workplaces with great leaders and thinkers of all shapes and styles. And through my observations and own experiences, I’ve picked up on some core principles that I find prevalent in all great leaders.
First and foremost, I find the most fundamental principle of leadership to be empathy. It is not management, power, or hierarchal position. And it’s not how extroverted or charismatic you are. It’s the consistent and deliberate practice of placing yourself in the shoes of your customers and the people you work with. The second principle is ego. More specifically; the ability to control it and detect when it is influencing your behaviour. Everyone has an ego, but it is especially damaging if allowed to reign over your decision making. And finally; direction. Direction is about doing the right thing; maintaining focus on what matters, and filtering any external noise which detracts from this focus.
The leadership equation
Leadership = EMPATHY – EGO + DIRECTION
Take away your ego, add empathy and direction, and you have leadership.
In reality, there is a good degree of overlap and crossover between these principles. For example, you cannot be empathetic if you are egotistic. And you cannot be focused on what matters if you are not empathetic. But for the sake of clarity, I will go into the details of each principle separately.
Empathy is about seeing the world through other people’s eyes, and leading through their perspectives, wants and needs. Humans have the natural inclination to dwell inside the mental cocoons of their own psyche. The remarkable leader is one who develops the ability to look, feel and think beyond themselves, and understand the viewpoints and thought patterns of others. This is the single most powerful mental skill you can possess, not just in the domain of leadership, but in every aspect of life that involves people.
Great leaders empathise with the people that surround them, and great companies empathise with their customers and the markets they seek to penetrate. Empathy-driven companies solve real problems for the customer, and thus succeed. Ego-driven companies solve problems that don’t exist or don’t matter (e.g. revenue, profits, etc) and thus fail.
Here are some practical way you can practice empathy:
- Actively aim to look beyond yourself, and understand other people’s viewpoints. This means understanding the limitations of the human perspective and where it comes into play. What your mind renders to be the normal interpretation of an event or situation is not necessarily universal. Your brain has just applied a bunch of its own learned rules to something and made its own judgement. There is nothing wrong with this, and it is responsible for the amazing variety of people you will meet in your life – but being aware of it will make you a more open minded person. Try to keep this in mind next time you have conflicting opinions with someone, or when you’re struggling to meet eye to eye.
- Listen – people like to be understood, and this is irrespective of whether if their thoughts are acted upon. The act of making the effort to understand and appreciate someone’s viewpoint is powerful. Next time someone expresses an opinion, understand it first, convey your understanding, and then express your response to that viewpoint. Never dismiss an expression of feeling or thought without considering it first.
- Do not assume that malicious behaviour is necessarily caused by malicious intent. Always make an effort to understand the cause of behaviour, which may be very legitimate indeed. Perhaps you could sit down with the person and ask them how they feel, and what their concerns may be. Never be confrontational with a person who’s acting maliciously, or in an ego-driven manner. You will always exacerbate the situation. In the same way, do not assume that underperformance is caused by conscious disengagement. There’s always a reason. It’s your responsibility to find it first, and then act accordingly.
- Understand, and only then critique poor performance. If you don’t understand the causal factors that have led to poor performance, you will be unable to highlight the appropriate actions to take to unblock progress. Furthermore, you may evoke resentment from the people you work with.
Ego is about self-awareness and introspection. While empathy is about looking into others, ego is about looking into and understanding yourself. Everyone has an ego. Yes, you too. It’s unavoidable, and it’s human. Your ego has the potential to be highly destructive, and people who are most effective at leading keep their egos from driving their behaviour. Ego-induced mind states and behaviour include wanting to be right, wanting to be obeyed, defensiveness, personalising events, feeling offended and feeling angry.
Ego-driven leadership can be a blocker to utilising and unlocking the talents and skills present in a team. You can either lead through your ego, and keep these talents locked away, or you can disregard your ego and lead through others. This means enabling others to be leaders themselves in some shape or form, whether it is advocating a good idea, or empowering an individual or group to take ownership over something that matters to them.
Ways you can practice the principle of ego include:
- Be aware of and accept that you aren’t always right, you don’t always have the best ideas, and that you don’t always have to be right. Being a leader isn’t synonymous with being right. What’s more important that you work from a framework of what matters, as described in the next section. Admit when you are wrong – let others be right and commend them for it.
- An ego-driven leader believes great leadership is about being in the frontline, and the limelight. Not true. Where practical, co-create your vision with your colleagues – grant them a sense of ownership over the team and the project. Even better, empower them; make everyone a leader in some way or form.
- When you exhibit ego-driven behaviour, you will much more likely trigger the equivalent in the other person. If you express anger and a confrontational demeanour – you will automatically trigger defensiveness and a similar level of ego-driven behaviour in the other person. Often, the same exact words, said with a calm and controlled tone, will have an entirely different effect than if expressed in a rash, demeaning manner.
Direction is the constant, unrelenting focus on what matters, and what makes an impact.
Opinions don’t matter; data matters. Words don’t matter; actions do. What your ego says doesn’t matter, but your gut instinct, which is a product of your intuition and past experiences, does. (Yes, there is a difference). Your vision doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t resonate with the customers that you seek to attract.
Direction is also just as much about enforcing focus, as it is about implementing it.
How you can practice good direction:
- Focus on what matters. Challenge every decision and plan around that same framework. You can determine what matters by assessing what will have an impact on the goals, objectives and KPIs of the company. You should treat any decision or activity which doesn’t fit into that criteria as a distraction, and be relentless in removing it.
- Filter out noise from outside – that forms a distraction from what matters. Appreciate input but don’t let it sway the team. You should be the stabilising mechanism for unwanted external perturbations that divert the team from what really matters.
- Delegate based on what people want to do, what they’re good at and where they have potential in developing. There is also a strong element of empathy in this. Placing people in roles in which they do not enjoy is poor direction, just as is placing people in roles in which they have little potential for progress.
- Identify people who are not suited to the team and role, and remove or relocate them. Being relieved of a job can be one of the best things that can happen to a person, especially if they are smart and competent but proving to be unsuitable for the role. Instead, you will be empowering them by force to find better, more suitable opportunities elsewhere.
In essence, what does an empathetic, introspective (not ego driven), and focused (directed) leader look like? They know what matters for the company, and they listen and delegate well. They do not lose their temper often, and they shield the team against noise that detracts from focus. They are empathetic and conscious of the need for self-development of the people around them. They are easy to talk to, and approachable, but extremely firm and relentless with maintaining focus. They do not jump to conclusions on poor performance, but they do not hesitate to relieve people of their roles within good reason. They lead by example, and are willing to get their hands dirty. And finally, they can be just like you and I.
Really, this is just an idealistic view of leadership which reflects my personal experiences and viewpoints. There are vastly differing styles of leadership which prove to be effective in different contexts. And mostly importantly, there is also no such thing as a perfect, empathetic, ego-free, focused leader. The human condition means you will sway from these principles from time to time, and you will make mistakes. You will lose your temper, get offended, or sometimes engage in destructive behaviour. But the more you consciously make the effort to develop these skills and traits, the more positive impact you will make in whatever you may be engaged in.
As humans we have an overwhelming propensity to pass judgement.
Passing judgement is not without its uses. Without the ability to judge, we cannot function; we cannot make decisions, lead others, operate tools safely or even express our creativity. But when it comes to passing judgements on people, I find this is where the uses of judgement often breaks down, becomes damaging and leads down a dangerous path of ignorance.
Before I begin, let me clarify that I am a culprit of the same, and the propensity to judge is something that permeates through every human being in varying degrees. This is not a self-righteous claim of superior enlightenment, but a poignant observation of certain areas in life which I find especially humbling. Among the most pressing is the underclass of the homeless; those dishevelled and dejected figures that you and I walk by every day.
The MYTH OF THE ORIGIN OF THE HOMELESS
As a social collective, we are quick to jump to assumptions about what leads to such a low, broken state of being. Among the most common presumptions include:
“He got there because he’s too lazy to get a job”
“She made some poor choices in his life, and now she’s suffering the consequences”
“He’s just a druggy and an alcoholic, he doesn’t deserve a home”
There are unlimited permutations of events and choices that can lead to a person finding themselves in this state. Prolonged resignation to alcohol and substance abuse is just one of them, but even then, we do not know what led them to such a state of resignation either. And we don’t know that there is no human who isn’t susceptible to the same, given the right circumstances.
My exposure to the homeless in my previous voluntary work confirmed my suspicions about how simply unjustified these preconceptions were. This article endeavours to provide my own interpretation of the flawed patterns of thinking that lead such preconceptions, not only of the homeless, but of other people in general, no matter their background or social class.
The biases in life
“If you work hard, you will succeed”
This is a convenient and comforting notion that is injected in all of us from a young age, but I don’t believe it really depicts some of the harsher realities and inequities in life.
While the evidence is in abundance that a greater level of exertion, hard work and persistence is more likely to lead to a successful outcome, I find two problems with accepting this notion blindly. One, is that hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to success, and wealth and comfort isn’t necessarily preceded by hard work. There is no deterministic equation linking hard work to success. And secondly, it makes us ignorant of the great influence that the silver spoons and favourable opportunities may have provided in our lives.
People aren’t born on a level playing field, nor is a level playing field ever sustained in a given lifetime. Our fabricated societies are fraught with biases and inequities that influence the trajectory of the individual’s life. A child from poor background is substantially less likely to get access to high quality education, and thus less likely to obtain the same degree of accomplishments than their middle class counterpart. Furthermore, a child in a developing country is unlikely to envision the same dream let alone be exposed to the same level of opportunities to reach that dream as one in a developed country (completely disregarding the microcosmic variations in wealth and opportunity that exist within countries themselves).
There are an unlimited number of influences that can perturb the individual during the course of a lifetime. In almost every disturbed, unlawful individual you will find roots of poor upbringing, abusive parenting or some remnants of a disturbed childhood.
These biases are often dismissed out of our collective inclination to submit to the notion of ‘free will’ and ‘choice’. We assume that, because we all ultimately have a ‘choice’ in the decisions we make, that we are fully accountable for the state of our lives. This is most destructive, and it can lead to the excess self-aggrandisement of the accomplished, leaving little room for gratitude and empathy.
the MENTAL bias
I hold a theory of what I call the ‘mental body’, which I believe we all have. Our mental body is analogous to our physical body except that it lives in the form of electro-chemical neural networks in our brain. We can ‘exercise’ this mental body by reading, acquiring knowledge and engaging in intellectual activity, but as with physical bodies, mental bodies come in all shapes and sizes; some can be trained and developed more easily, whilst others are genetically disadvantaged.
Just as some people are born with physical deformations, so too are people with mental deformations. It is the middle ground to which we tend to turn a blind eye, and which leads to our propensity to judge and misunderstand those who exhibit behaviours and opinions which conflict with our own. Babies aren’t born with the same neural structure, and they are hardly in conscious control of the personalities and abilities that they may develop during early childhood. Some are more mischievous than others, and some are more intelligent than others (by the measurements that we have fabricated). Some are more musical, and a few are prodigious.
All these factors contribute to mental biases the influence the individual and his / her decisions in the same was as physical and external biases. Hence, just as excess pride over ones’ appearance can be construed as vanity – so can excess pride over one’s intelligence and mental abilities.
people are not comparable
These biases and inequities in life means people are not comparable.
Therefore, comparing oneself against others, regardless of whether it produces feelings of pride or dejection, is futile.
Competition is but entertainment. It is meaningless unless you are competing with a historical snapshot of yourself, or if the competition is geared towards (whether intentionally or not) a wider external goal, which can include philanthropy, a world cause, entertainment, career, fitness etc. You cannot compete meaningfully or accurately against another human being – who likely has a radically different upbringing, life experiences, mental body, physical body and genetics. Note that this doesn’t mean that you cannot derive any meaningful gain from competition on the whole, but only that there is no intrinsic value in succeeding against another human alone.
So with this in mind:
A fat person cannot be compared to healthy, active person.
A murderer cannot be compared to a clean-slate civilian belonging to the same society – what is to say that you or I cannot be capable of murder, given the right triggers?
A student or child cannot be compared to a fellow student, or sibling.
the RACE OF THE decent and the indecent
You cannot tell the decency of a person by the community or social class to which they belong.
Every community is a microcosm of the collective human population. This means that in every group you will find the decent and the indecent, just as I observed when working in the homeless charity. The majority were decent and grateful, while a few felt that it was owed to them, and a few were obnoxious enough to be asked to leave. One quality that I greatly admired about the charity manager was her insistence on holding the same expectations from these visitors as any other human being. Only those who showed respect and decency were allowed to use the services. They were subject to the same social expectations as everyone else, and there was no room for pity.
This microcosm can be seen everywhere; whole countries, religious communities, cultural communities, social status groups, police forces, armies; any sort of community you can imagine. This is why one can always expect to find rogue police officers, traiter soldiers and corrupt politicians! It’s unavoidable.
Therefore, to pass judgement on a person based on the community to which they belong is futile and unfounded.
As quoted from Victor Frankls’ “Man’s Search for Meaning” , you will only find two distinguishable races of human – the decent and the indecent.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking this article is a cry of fatalism, but that’s not the objective. What I wish to express is that humans operate within a framework of multiple biases that renders them incomparable to others and invalidates any form of judgement. This isn’t to say that we don’t have control, or a choice in matters of life, but these choices are weighted and influenced differently for each individual.
In fact, I feel that acknowledging this only serves to liberate the individual. We exert far too much effort in competing and comparing with others, when we should only focus on what matters to us. We also expend far too much energy in judging and misunderstanding others, and we become offended all too easily when other’s don’t share the same opinions as us.
These are behaviours that I too find in myself. It is a human condition, and it would be far too idealistic to believe that our propensity to judge can be controlled or eradicated completely. But perhaps, if we strive to introspect more and judge less, we can live more enlightened and enriched lives.