We rarely do translations on Interconnected, because this newsletter is focused on original work and thinking. Today’s post is an exception -- an English translation of a Zhang Yiming speech delivered at the ByteDance company annual all-hands meeting in March 2021, and his last one as CEO. (Our only other translation is Jack Ma's Bund Finance Summit Speech.)
This speech is translation-worthy, because it’s one of the most philosophical company anniversary speeches by a CEO I’ve ever read. It reads more like something you’d hear at a meditation retreat. Putting the timing of the speech in context, it was delivered after ByteDance had one of the most tumultuous years any tech company could have -- from meteoric global user growth, to facing a possible ban by the Trump administration. (See other ByteDance related posts during that time.)
In summing up 2020 and looking ahead, Zhang Yiming asked everyone at ByteDance to “slow down” (a rare sentiment in a tech industry that’s all about moving fast), called out the popular “all-in” business attitude as mental laziness, shared his favorite products (Google Maps, Roblox, Scratch), mentioned the “Free Solo” documentary protagonist Alex Honnold as an inspiration, and telegraphed his desire to step down as CEO that became official two months later, which I wrote also about.
When I recorded a podcast episode on ChinaTalk in early May, the host Jordan Schneider asked me who in China tech deserves the Steve Jobs Hollywood biopic treatment. My answer was Zhang Yiming. I’ve always seen him as one of the most creative, thoughtful, and self-aware entrepreneurs -- a different breed from Jack Ma, Pony Ma, Robin Li, and others from that generation of tech founders.
Given how introverted Zhang Yiming is, this may just be his last public speech ever. I’ve bolded noteworthy phrases and passages throughout this translation. It’s a long speech but worth your time. I hope you enjoy reading it.
Just like previous years, I would like to share with you what happened in the past year and some of my feelings about the company. These feelings come from life and work, and from communication with colleagues. First of all, a brief review of the past year.
Our overall business growth rate is still very fast, and we have made some breakthroughs in new directions. We have also done a lot of things in corporate social responsibility (CSR), including fighting against the pandemic, so this is the inaugural year of our global CSR efforts. We hope that in the new year, we can continue to refine our business and continue to consider social responsibility as one of our business goals to serve society well.
Last year was a very special year, with various emergencies, including the novel coronavirus pandemic. The resulting chain reaction was very volatile, and I believe we all felt it. Many people like to say that “quiet years are good years” (岁月静好), but in my opinion, the world is dynamically changing at an accelerated pace. We can see a lot of news every day, and it is very noisy.
Therefore, I would like to talk about the topic of "ordinary mind" today. In the face of a dynamically changing world, we are often anxious, worried about the future or upset about the past, and a lot of energy and time are wasted on facing volatilities. In the past, there were more discussions on methodology in the industry, and we all attached great importance to it. But I think that in such an environment, keeping an ordinary mind is something that sounds simple but important.
I think people who keep an ordinary mind are more relaxed, have no internal distortions, observe things with a more nuanced perspective, are practical, and have more patience. They tend to get things done better. Most of the time, people are able to have good judgment without paranoia or distractions. There is a saying, “本自具足”, which means “it has always been complete and sufficient, and lacked nothing”. The theme of our anniversary this year is "Remain Grounded, Keep Aiming Higher". My understanding is that these two sentences are similar in meaning. Only when the mind is smoother and more stable, can it be more firmly rooted, and only then can it have the courage and imagination to do things that are more difficult to reach.
When Hungry, Eat; When Tired, Sleep
When we discuss a topic, we first need to understand clearly, “what exactly is the topic?” Because the concept is generally abstract, and since it is abstract, it is easy to have deviations.
The word "ordinary mind" is a word of Buddhist origin, and there are many such words in Chinese, such as "精进” (dedicating oneself to refinement or progress) and "想入非非” (daydreaming). The definition of "ordinary mind" in the encyclopedia is: "to remain unbiased and not paranoid under all circumstances and in all actions". In modern psychology, there are also some explanations that basically mean, "doing one's best, going with the flow, and staying calm". If you search the headlines, you can also find other articles, concepts and explanations, such as let it be or let it go, common sense, intuition, and righteousness and sincerity. For example, the saying "不离日用常行内，直到先天未画时” (the supreme principle is buried in one’s mind) is actually about intuition (or intuitive conscience). In the Internet tech circle, there is also the popular saying, "return to the basics, seek truth through facts" and acceptance of uncertainty.
If you use the most straightforward words, an “ordinary mind” is: "when hungry, eat; when tired, sleep."
Everyone is Ordinary
The first thing I would like to say about the ordinary mind is, treat yourself with an “ordinary mind “. The most basic thing is to realize that everyone, including yourself, is an ordinary person.
Some media want to add drama when they report on startups and people's stories, either by making the experience seem legendary or by dramatizing people’s characters. When I used to be interviewed, people also wanted me to share twists and turns. I often said it was nothing special. In fact, most things, in my opinion, have reasons and justifications. Nothing is particularly that difficult or unusual to explain.
It’s really true. As our business has grown, I have gotten to know more and more people, including many very special and capable people. One of my own feelings is: maybe there are some differences in knowledge and experience, but from a “human” point of view, we are still very similar to one another -- we are all ordinary people. But there is one thing that is different. For people who achieve great things, they often maintain a very ordinary mentality. In other words, if you keep an ordinary mind, accept yourself as you are, and do well for yourself, you can often do things well.
Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Both Expectations and Labels are Bondages
When you really care about the outcome, you are likely to play poorly.
For example, when we shoot an arrow, we aim at the bull's-eye, but if you think, "I'm going to get the tenth ring," it's not easy to play well. The same is true in work and life. When we have expectations, we will move in a distorted way, and it is easy to make things complicated.
“I should do this and that...” If you care about your own expectations or those of others, you will be more or less bound in your thinking or decision making. All kinds of labels can be psychologically burdensome.
The “executive” label, for example, may make one embarrassed to ask a seemingly simple question as a result, or one may not be able to experience a product as deeply as a user would. If you position yourself as a big company, you will think, how should a big company hold its annual meeting? A big company should have an ambitious strategy, and should hold a pep rally. In fact, our company emphasizes “not caring about titles”, because titles will let people make comparisons: the vice president should be in charge of this many people, have this form of reporting, and correspond with peers of that particular level, resulting in various forms of bondage.
Or the label of “young people” will make you afraid to void your ideas, suggestions or criticisms. Labeling yourself as a “frontend engineer”, and you feel no need to learn about machine learning. When I was working at Kuxun (Note: a Chinese travel tech company owned by Meituan), my engineering work was on the backend, but I got involved in frontend issues, product problems, and sales problems as well. I think it's helpful for me not to be limited by self-imposed titles and to have all these experiences.
Focus on the Present; Treat the Past and Future with an Ordinary Mind
Two years ago, I heard about a best-selling book called “The Power of Now'' on Open Language. The book has this passage:
All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present moment. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry, all forms of fear are caused by thinking about the future. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by worrying about the past.
This description may sound serious. I would like to give a small example from my own life. I am not particularly disciplined in my life: I often look at my phone, listen to music, read Toutiao, and browse through Douyin and Xigua -- very different from how the outside media portrays me.
Sometimes at night, I would plan to do some work, but then get distracted by interesting content on Xigua and browse for a long time. Before going to bed, I would get a little pissed because the things that I planned on finishing are still undone. I would then do some work, but almost as a form of revenge, but that leads to staying up very late (I truly think sleep is very important). The next day, I would go to important meetings, feeling really tired. During these times, what you should actually do is rest. Now, I still don't have a plan to fix this problem, but at least I don't get upset when it happens any more. I just go to bed right away.
“The Power of Now” focuses on the fact that people spend too much time worrying about the future and obsessing about the past, but very rarely focus on the present, on what should be done, how they feel, and their judgment at the moment. When we say that the past year was a year of dynamic acceleration, many people have many different worries. Perhaps while people are worrying, time and energy have been spent, but there is a lack of attention to more important things happening in the present. Or perhaps in feeling frustrated by the losses and mistakes made in the past, we miss new opportunities.
Last year, when we faced challenges and crises, I always told everyone to "stay calm, be patient". And overall, we did that. This is really the biggest gain from our past challenges: you can't control the outcome 100% of the time, so stay calm as much as possible, make the right decisions, don't rush to make decisions, don't panic, and oftentimes you can achieve the best results this way.
Some companies start their annual meeting by saying that the company is doing very well, the business is doing very well, and next year will be even better. I don't really want to stress this to people. There are always various situations in business, there will be ups and downs. Some people often ask me, "How do you deal with anxiety? Your company went up 100% last year, but will it still go up by 100% next year?”
I usually reply by saying: Why must our company grow 100% next year?
Of course, we hope that we can grow at a high rate, but you should not let “growth anxiety” affect you. Now the company's business growth is indeed very strong, but we can't indulge in past achievements, nor can we linger on past mistakes. At the same time, we can't have the inertial expectation that our company will definitely become...something! Keep your eyes open to see your environment clearly, understand your users, make good decisions without distractions, and the results will be what they are.
There is a saying that if you treat yourself as an object, you can have a more ordinary state of mind. The same is true for a company. Now there are many external summaries of our company -- I think it's called "ByteDance Successology" (字节成功学) -- that are very problematic. I try not to read them. We should not be defined and influenced by external evaluations, but should set a higher standard for ourselves.
This year, I hope that the company can slow down its mentality to some extent, to avoid the burden of short-term business metrics on the one hand, and have an open mind to imagine the future and set longer-term goals without fixed expectations on the other. It is only when there are no constraints that we can keep our imagination flowing for the longer term. From my own point of view, I will also reduce my own daily small tasks, and free up more time to focus on the company culture, social responsibility, and new direction, in order to complete the OKR mentioned in last year's all-staff letter (last year, we set a lot of goals, some of which, due to external challenges, were not reached).
Competition is the Best Opposition
I’ve actually heard our team say more than once, "Geez, all this competition feels endless, when will it end?”
I think the first point of treating competitors with an ordinary mind is to see competition as the norm. Don't try to escape the competition, it's a good thing. I don't even think that competition should be ended by doing M&A. We see a lot of companies that eliminate their rivals through M&A becoming complacent and end up slacking off.
Competitors are worthy oppositions. (Note: the term Zhang Yiming uses is “blue armies”, which means the opposition squad you fight against in a military practice.) Competitors may have good approaches to product innovation, marketing strategies, etc. that you should learn from. Even if there is a critical media article planted by a competitor, we read it carefully instead of being angry. Maybe 80% of the article has problems, but 20% can give us inspiration, then we should absorb that 20%. No one will be as serious in finding your problems as your competitors.
Of course, we should also keep in mind "do not compete for the sake of competition". Sometimes, after a prolonged period of competition, the only goal becomes simply beating the competitor. For example, in the Microsoft-Google competition, Microsoft for a long time saw defeating Google as its goal, and invested heavily in search. It wasn't until a few years later that it realized what could really impact the core business was the emerging cloud computing trend, with Amazon as its rival.
Why do we sometimes turn a blind eye to some opportunities? In fact, it's likely because our mindset has become unbalanced during competition, leaning more toward winning the competition. Outside of competition, there may be other reasons, such as the desire for success, the expectation of going public, etc. In the case of such an unordinary mindset, where there is already paranoia and discrimination, the company may "lose its eyesight".
“All-in” Sometimes is Mental Laziness
In particular, I would say: don't rely on shortcuts and use less leverage. Let me give two examples here.
Many people in business will say they want to go “all-in” and end the battle at once. I think there is a big problem with teams that just say “all-in”. All-in is sometimes a type of mental laziness. If you have thought very clearly about the strategy, then there is no problem. But my feeling is that in many cases, it's just "I don't want to think about it anymore, let's just do it, let's just go all-in, let's just gamble."
There is another way to take shortcuts: excessive abstraction, excessive pursuit of methodologies. My own feeling is that methodology is actually not that useful, and in most cases, may even be of little use. Because applying abstraction is equivalent to adding leverage to your thinking. But if this leverage is applied to the wrong thing, a slight deviation in abstraction can produce a massive mistake in results.
In fact, this phenomenon has a counterpart called "rational conceit", which also maps to human ego, because the limitation of knowledge is very obvious. A lot of knowledge is unstructured and excessive use of abstract concepts is actually not helpful for understanding. Avoiding excessive abstraction is also a kind of ordinary mind.
I often say to colleagues in different discussions, “don't rush to conclusions.” Don’t easily say, "that's all there is to it". When we draw conclusions, we have to keep in mind other possibilities and thus keep an open mind.
The use of increasingly abstract and advanced vocabulary is also a tendency to seek methodology. I’ll read you a paragraph that I pieced together using words taken from our bi-monthly meeting materials:
In the past, we mainly relied on the ability to distribute information that our recommendation technology renders, linking Douyin, Toutiao, and Xigua end-to-end, dividing into multiple products for individual research, to achieve a deep co-construction and boxing combination, and to create a closed loop of content ecosystem, so as to empower customers and users to create value. In the future, we want to increase the value of different scenarios horizontally and extend our chain of services. At the same time, we should meet user needs vertically, with the natural potential of different age groups, to penetrate users of different ages. In addition, by strengthening infrastructure investment and a variety of position-related products, we will improve the operating value chain and establish a lasting influence on external users.
Many of our important decisions do not require such complex descriptions. Many important judgments are made through observation of users and facts, and it is important to maintain empathy and an open imagination. I've found some photos from the past of me doing random user interviews with our management team in Delhi (India), Qingyang, Chongqing, and Zhangjiakou. Even earlier, we encouraged all of our employees to talk to five friends and family members while on vacation to see what software they use on their phones and ask them why they use it.
I often find that we have counter-intuitive designs in our products. I also often wonder why we make counter-intuitive designs. If you don't bring in methodology and just relax and use the product, you'll see that something is not quite right. Is it because we are trying too hard to prove an idea or too fixated on a concept, that we make mistakes in product design? Oftentimes, children can find the counter-intuitive parts of a design. Why can't product managers who have read all kinds of product concept documents find them? Is it because they are too eager to validate an idea or too influenced by a dogmatic concept?
I'm posting here three products that are doing very well. One is Google Earth - I often use it to learn geography. This product is great but not profitable. Scratch -- programming for children. I don’t know whether it makes money or not, but it’s also really great. Roblox, a kind of UGC sandbox game, which is very different from games that we usually talk about.
What are the characteristics of all these products? First of all, they are very imaginative. Second, one has to be very patient and work on them for a very long time. I was thinking if our company could make a similar product. I'm not saying it's better to do things slowly. Speed is determined by the thing itself, but if the thing needs to be very imaginative, and you've only been doing it for two years, meanwhile there are a lot of people saying, "Geez, this won't work”, will these strong expectations from the outside affect our continuous investment?
Don’t Confuse External Reasons for Internal Ones; Don’t Mistaken Luck for Competency
One time during a discussion on business competition, I remember one team who said, "Our rivals are growing fast again, let's hurry up and do something about it.” I said, “In the beginning, when we were lagging behind our rivals, we thought of many ways to improve, but there was no mental baggage -- only bold imagination and bold actions. Now, we are ahead of our rivals, but we can no longer do things with an ordinary mind. We’re too afraid of failure, and our actions become deformed.”
I asked him, “do you play games? Have you ever encountered this situation: in a game that requires you to pass 100 levels, when you reach the 99th level, your hands start to shake more easily, because you think you’ve worked so hard to get to the 99th level and you must not make a mistake?”
Treating success and failure with an ordinary mind also includes not misattributing causes, treating external causes as internal causes, and not treating luck as ability. We should find out the real reasons for success or failure. When we first did short videos, the retention of urban users was not very good. During the discussions, a colleague felt that it must be because urban white-collar workers do more brain work and tend to enjoy graphic expressions and texts. This logic made sense at first but now we know that this was not the case.
I'm not saying all the conclusions are incorrect. It's just important to acknowledge that there are things we don't know. People dislike uncertainty so much that they want to find attributions for both success and failure that fit the self-narrative, but I hope we could maintain more of an ordinary mind.
I have a "four-part series" on how to deal with mistakes. The first three parts are taken from a book, which say that when you have a problem, you have a few steps you need to do. The first step is to realize it, realizing the mistake, after which you can be a little less frustrated. Realizing the mistake itself is a gain. You can also correct it, fix it, which is another kind of gain. You can also learn from it, from this mistake to learn the reason behind it. The book mentions these three steps, but later I added one more: forgive it -- if you have completed the first three steps, then you should let it go. In the face of mistakes, many people emphasize the pain, but I am suggesting: do not go too long into a state of self-blame.
Two years ago, there was a documentary that was very popular called “Free Solo”. I met the main character, Alex Honnold, when I was in California. Many people shared his story, but the thing that struck me the most was that it was dangerous to go forward and backward, but it was most dangerous to have a weak leg and a confused heart. In the process of rock climbing, you can’t look back too much and be afraid of what’s behind you, or keep thinking about a wrong step taken. Nor can you look forward and realize that there is still such a long way to go. One thing is very worth learning from Alex: he was very focused on the present moment at every moment.
Free soloing is an activity with such high uncertainty that few people will ever have that experience. I myself had one of a much more ordinary, but similar feelings. I used to have a hard time sticking to running or swimming. Running for two kilometers was very difficult for me. Then I was thinking, what is it that makes me unable to run? It was actually the aversion to running, that fatigue or worry, that made me nervous. Later, I tried to run without thinking about anything else, except for the necessary adjustment of breathing. I tried to use only the necessary muscles, relax as much as possible, and ignore the interference of soreness. Then it became easy to run 3 km, 4 km. Later I used this same method to practice swimming. Originally, I could only swim 500 meters, but now I can easily swim up to 1,000 meters, not because my physical ability has improved, but because, I feel, I have removed the attrition in the middle. I stopped worrying about whether I could finish the swim, whether I was well-rested yesterday, or whether I was in good shape today, and was able to run better.
I really like watching videos on Douyin of sailing in the ocean. I'm not saying that people's work or life is always really difficult, like crashing ocean waves. I just want to use it as an analogy for a state of mind: no matter what challenges and difficulties there are in work or personal life, these are external. What each of us can do is while there are always external waves, maintain an internal calm.
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