Updated: Apr 2, 2019
This post is inspired by a mentorship session I recently had with a senior manager at my employer.
It revolves around career paths, professional curiosity, and most importantly the fickle balance between grand ambition and disciplined contentment.
Also published on Medium.
There's a section in Amazon's 2015 shareholder letter where Jeff Bezos says,
"Our success at Amazon is a function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day.”
I reflect on this statement often. It's profoundly powerful, inspiringly daring and undeniably true. Amazon wouldn't be the monolith it is today if it hadn't experimented with the relentless (its original name!) hustle it has come to own. There's a treasure trove of lessons in the company's story that can be channelled to feed an individual's personal ambition.
On the other end of the 'ambition-contentment' spectrum is a nugget of wisdom by the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus who advises us,
"Starting with things of little value--a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine--repeat to yourself: 'For such a small price, I buy tranquility'"
And so while I was having this fascinating discussion on life choices, I kept thinking about both: Bezos' crystal clarity on how and why his company's been so successful, as well as Epictetus' minimalist solution to temper our insatiable desire for more. The struggle and balance between both is real. But I believe a middle pathway lies in genuinely trying to understand what drives us and more importantly, the elements that make up the DNA of someone who deliberately SHAPES their life.
Daniel Pink has already written a fantastic book on the former issue of what drives us. But in an attempt to reason from first principles and build a narrative for the latter, here's how my colleague and I shaped it up:
People approach the journey of life either as: Drifters, Steerers or Shapers
Roughly, those who:
Cruise through life, taking what they can get
Are relatively happy-go lucky
Are more reactive to opportunities and circumstances
Connect the dots looking backward to find patterns of meaning, if they do at all.
Have somewhat of a plan for direction and implement regular milestones for evaluation
Set targets and goals for when what needs to be achieved
Invest in increased self awareness
Take proactive, rather than reactive control of opportunities and circumstances
Draw out dots in advance, but shift, redraw or erase dots as they go along.
However, those who:
Approach life like craftsmen, with a Tabula rasa blank slate mindset
Strive to unlearn as well as they learn
Make total effort to control the tools that influence the reality around them
Build out their luck surface area rather than leave 'luck' to chance
It's these rare individuals whose Genome we attempted to dissect further and as a result here are 9 main factors that I believe sum up to make an individual a Shaper:
Bold Vision - the ability to dream widely without inhibition and inspire with wild imagination
Reasoning from First Principles - deconstruct and build up from scratch, rather than approach problems with preconceived notions and biases (Tim Urban at Wait But Why's piece on being a Chef vs. a Cook is a magnum opus on this subject)
Reality Distortion Field (RDF) - the ability to literally distort your headspace into looking at the world the way you dream for it to be, and then fitting yourself and others into it
Relentless Experimentation - trying trying and trying again with any and all ideas. As Bezos says, "Given a 10 % chance of a 100-times payout, you should take that bet every time". But to do that, Shapers relentlessly experiment
Communicating It / Spreading the Word - shapers are ruthlessly prolific with letting people around them know what mission they're on and why they're doing it. It proactively helps build their luck surface area and chances that serendipitous things will happen to them
Leverage - wealth, power, fame and influence now are all about leverage: leveraging other people’s time, leveraging other people’s money, leveraging other people’s talents, leveraging the power of scalable tools. So it pays to understand leverage! And shapers do
Minimalism - the ability to tune in, drop out and focus only on the deep, high value work. I'd also include 'the art of saying a compelling no' within the fold of minimalism here
Loyalty, Trust & Confidence - a fundamental understanding of , and respect for, the trio of emotional bases that make up social life - the glue that binds society together: Loyalty, Trust and Confidence
Empathy, Curiosity & Humility - aka, in my opinion, the non-negotiable Golden Trifecta of Valuable Traits
Therefore, to sum it up in a one overarching & rudimentary equation:
Reasoning from First Principles
Reality Distortion Field
Communicating It / Spreading It
Loyalty, Trust & Confidence
Empathy, Curiosity & Humility