Startup Dharma

“Do important things” is often invoked as a rallying cry in these pages, but this time I want to talk about something more important than innovation, invention, entrepreneurship, and all the rest. I want to talk about dharma. More specifically, I want to talk about your dharma.

Classically speaking, dharma represents both cosmic law and order – our universal duty - as well as reality itself. Upholding your dharma, then, refers to both your ultimate responsibility, and upholding the truth.  It is no accident that I say your dharma. The truth, while in one sense absolute, is also deeply personal, and rooted in the enduring power of the individual.

With commitment to the truth as the first principle, your code of conduct is simple: When you see something that's broken or bad, you have to say something about it or fix it yourself. Just as importantly, when you hear something, listen. It’s not just about the success of the organization, but also a moral imperative not to let anyone you care about fly off a cliff.

In practice, this is extremely painful. Honest, unadulterated feedback is as emotionally alien as it is intellectually obvious, whether giving or receiving. Confronting the truth together is a social endeavor, yet it flies in the face of all social convention and pleasantries. Unlike you or me, the truth doesn’t have feelings – but that is precisely why it’s the truth.

Of course, it’s easier to face hard truths when we talk about collective failures. These are important to address, and can be invaluable object lessons for the organization writ large. Individual failures, however, are the ones you, and only you, can control. Accordingly, the most painful and most vital incarnation of the truth is individual feedback – all in the service of discovering and fulfilling your dharma.

This matters on multiple levels. In practical terms, nothing happens unless you make it happen. Day to day, the bias towards action is one of the most valuable things you can institute.  Without your concerted action, things like planning, analysis, strategy, et cetera are just distractions from an empty center.

However, dharma is also about the unlocking the essence of the individual. Facing your dharma means stripping away the pretense, delusion, and distractions to reveal who you are and what you are meant to be doing. You uphold your dharma in the service of both the individual and the collective. For the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, the parts cannot seek anonymity and cover in the whole.

Likewise, true feedback comes from a foundation of investment in the individual. The underlying intentions need to include the opportunity to grow from mistakes and the willingness to help someone get there. We all like to talk about investing in people, but it’s important to internalize that hiring isn’t the end of the road. The hard part starts after - especially for the most innately talented individuals. If you don’t give them feedback, you’re just as guilty of coasting on their talent as they are, and you will inevitably reap the consequences.

As many a wise master has observed, there are countless paths to dharma – indeed, there are as many forms of dharma as there are seekers. Everyone arrives at the truth in a different way, as evidenced by leaders as diverse as Ray Dalio, Prof. Carole Robin, and Peter Thiel.

Ray Dalio’s Principles is more than required reading at Bridgewater, and Bridgewater’s culture of “radical transparency” is almost infamous for the degree to which honest feedback is emphasized. Dalio’s most basic principles states: 

“Truth - more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality- is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.” 

It seems simple enough, but the real genius of Principles is how he mediates between the truth as an absolute and the individual experience: 

“Above all else, I want you to think for yourself - to decide 1) what you want, 2) what is true and 3) what to do about it.” 

Dalio also caveats that “you can probably get what you want out of life if you can suspend your ego”, and the same can be said of feedback. For most of us, this will be the hardest battle.

One of Peter Thiel’s great maxims is “Listen carefully to smart people with whom you disagree.” Thiel is a renowned contrarian, but he didn’t hone his worldview in a vacuum. One of his greatest strengths has been assembling teams with the built-in structural tension needed to confront bias and complacency head-on and do transformative things. To be frank, this includes the ability pre-select for thick skin.  No one who was at PayPal in the early days would describe it as a touchy-feely place – but factoring in the type of talent it attracted, that was part of the genius of the design. Pre-eBay PayPal practiced a form of directness that probably wouldn’t have flown at most other companies – but look at the record of the PayPal mafia versus any other group of corporate alumni.

Professor Carole Robin of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is best known for her popular “Interpersonal Dynamics” course, affectionately nicknamed “Touchy Feely”. As Professor Robin describes, “"It's about learning how to create productive professional relationships," and feedback is a key ingredient. Robin’s approach may seem like a high-empathy yin to the low-empathy yang of radical transparency or the PayPal model, but many of the basics are the same. Robin advises doing it early, and above all practicing often. She also emphasizes the need to avoid shaming and to “stay on your side of the net” by not making the critique personal – in other words, don’t aim for the ego.  Finally, listening is crucial – in Touchy-Feely speak, “It takes two to know one". 

Recognizing there are many paths to dharma, where do you start? The most important thing is to take that first step, practicing feedback early and often, and making it a non-negotiable component of every consequential effort. To have any chance of sticking, it has to become the new normal. 

One of the great tragedies of working life is the tendency to treat feedback like taxes: a necessary evil to be addressed annually or quarterly. Too often, feedback is also synonymous with either punitive or back-patting exercises. You need to inoculate people against these associations by starting early, before there’s a crisis. Of course, as new people arrive, you will be forced to begin the acclimation process from scratch, because organizations that practice truthful feedback as a way of life are rare, and individuals for whom it comes naturally are rarer still.  

Another complication is that people tend to be lopsided in their feedback. Those with lower empathy have the easiest time giving feedback. It’s intuitive, even reflexive, but these people tend to be terrible at giving feedback in a diplomatic way.  This is your opportunity to suspend the ego, assume it’s not a personal attack, and consider the substance of what is being said. Eventually, you realize that seemingly low-empathy individuals are often just carrying out their dharma. Make no mistake, it is a gift.

On the other hand those with high empathy are best suited to diplomatically give feedback, but struggle to make it appropriately critical because the very thought of doing so causes pain.  An empathetic style can also be a gift, but only when personal sensitivity is complemented by the courage to overcome the inertial bias against criticism. Above all, recall that this is the real world.  There is no perfect Goldilocks balance. The key is to get started with the ingredients you already have.

You should also consider the source – except when you shouldn’t. Remember Peter Thiel’s smart people who disagree with you. With any luck, you will have colleagues who possess deep credibility in areas you don’t, and you should make extra effort to listen to them. On the other hand, sometimes incisive and true feedback will come from people with no apparent legitimacy. When your ego cries out “who the hell are you?”, turn the other way and focus on the substance of the criticism.

What if you’re wrong? This is always a possibility, giving or receiving, but because you are already thinking critically, it’s not a meaningful risk. If there is any possibility in your mind that something is wrong, confront it together. Either you avert disaster, or you discover why it was in fact right. Both are preferred outcomes.

Feedback is especially hard at any meaningful scale. The larger you get, the tougher it is to guarantee a high standard of intellectual honesty, while cracks in the foundation become increasingly subtle and imperceptible. In many ways, it’s good to maintain a healthy reserve of fear of what you might become - look no further than our political system to see what happens when the truth is focus-grouped beyond all recognition.

As with almost any worthy endeavor, the pursuit of your dharma involves constantly raising the bar. It is never easy to ask people to be more than they have been, and to address when something has stopped working, or never did. It is doubly hard because these realizations often come when people are working their absolute hardest. As painful as it is to admit that someone’s best isn’t good enough, it doesn’t make it any less true. In fact, it becomes that much more important.

It’s fine to say failure is not an option in moments of bravado, but you know inside that abolishing failure – at least the lower-case kind – is not only unrealistic, but leads to denial and paralysis. It’s entirely reasonable, on the other hand, to insist that you won’t accept failure without feedback. Only by confronting the day-to-day truth can you hope to unlock the greater truth of your highest potential, as an organization and as individuals. That is good karma.