Zhang Yiming’s Last Speech: Part I

TikTok continues to dominate the attention of young people and media headlines everywhere. A FCC commissioner is hell-bent on banning it. Meanwhile, competitors like Meta and Snap continue to struggle to keep up with its growth. With this backdrop in mind, I’m sharing a translation (or transcreation) our team did of Zhang Yiming’s last speech shortly before he resigned as CEO of ByteDance.

Zhang Yiming delivered this speech in March 2021 at ByteDance’s new year all-hands meeting. He resigned two months later. Even though Zhang is longer in charge of the day to day operations of ByteDance, he is still an influential presence in the company’s future (via his supervoting shares).

This speech gives a rare look into the minds of one of the most successful entrepreneurs of this generation. It reads more like a meditation retreat sermon than the typical rah-rah rallying cry of a stereotypical tech CEO. By 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, offered praise of his favorite products (Google Earth, Roblox, Scratch), mentioned the “Free Solo” documentary protagonist Alex Honnold as an inspiration, and telegraphed his desire to step down as CEO.

Because the speech is long, we are publishing it in two parts. Today’s post is Part I. (See Part II of the speech HERE). I’ve bolded noteworthy phrases and passages throughout this translation. I hope you enjoy reading it and pondering about 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 (Annotation: Kuxun is 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).