The Looking Glass: Reader Empathy and Weird People
Tidbits including the desire to be right, the curse of perfect, and the root of ambition
This week’s tidbits:
The desire to be right
From the Archives: The Curse of Perfect
For paid subscribers:
Subscriber mailbag: What does a healthy cross-functional team look like?
I don’t want to win
Kissing my baby
The root of ambition
Paying for a subscription (ie, buying me a fancy coffee per month) encourages me to publish more and helps me hire someone to properly edit and manage this publication. (Which, as you can see without it, is riddled with embarrassing grammatical errors :P) You also get more tidbits (rawer, more personal ones) and questions + answers with me.
Building Reader Empathy
What are you typically thinking about when you write an e-mail or memo?
What YOU want to say. How YOU want to express yourself.
But effective writing is a two-way street and requires empathy for your reader. Here are 5 questions to ask yourself before that next Slack update to sharpen your message.
Which group of readers am I targeting?
Is this strictly for my manager or leadership? My entire team? The entire company? All of the above?
Imagine the cost of this group’s time to read your note, and spend a proportional amount of energy to make the note better.
100 people? Expensive. Your writing better be crisp and clear.
10 senior VPs and the CEO? Expensive.
3 of your immediate teammates? Less expensive — just dash it off.
What is the lowest common denominator of context for the group of readers I am targeting?
Write for the people who know the least in your target audience.
For example, your manager or leads may not remember the key outcome your team is targeting. So set the context: Our goal is to launch X by Y date and have Z response.
Your immediate team may know dnu stands for “daily new users” but if the not is going to a wider audience, don’t abbreviate.
What outcome do I want the readers to take?
The more specific your answer is, the better your note will be crafted. Too often the answer here is some kind of vague “Give an update.” But what is the point of the update? It should be clear from the first line. Some examples:
Ensure reader does not make a decision that is counter to the goal — describe what is happening and then spell out explicitly what you DON’T want to happen.
Give reader context to make a decision — make sure you put DECISION NEEDED and outline the decisions.
Tell reader to have peace of mind and not worry about this area — give evidence in the first line what the status is so people don’t have to read the rest.
Compel reader to change a behavior - describe the behavior, the problem it causes, how to change, and how it will be enforced.
What is the minimum amount of context that needs to be conveyed to get the outcome from my readers?
Your answers to 2 and 3 lead you here. Remind people of the goal. Remind people how we got here, if its relevant. Share the outcome you’re looking for.
Remember to KEEP IT SUCCINCT YET CLEAR.
If you are like me and always want to include more context, do a tl;dr section and then an “additional context” section.
Am I using the clearest presentation of my point?
While we typically work in e-mails and messages, don’t limit yourself to thinking of the output in that manner.
If you’re conveying an insight from data, include the chart.
If you’re describing a product decision or bug, include a video or screenshot.
If you’re summarizing a set of decisions or past events, use numbered lists
If you’re proposing a decision, say “DECISION: <describe the options>”
If you’re sharing follow-up action items, write “ACTION: <task + responsible person by date>”
If you’re clearer and more persuasive in person, and the message is more complex, record a video.
The Desire to be Right
Wanting to be right is different than wanting to be effective, just like wanting to be admirable is different than wanting to be kind.
The former is led by your ego.
The latter is led by your soul.
Are you more likely to be influenced by communal beliefs or a strong set of personal beliefs?
Are you more likely to feel guilt or shame?
Would different groups of people who know you (family, colleagues, friends) describe you similarly or differently?
Are you more likely to trust or mistrust strangers?
Do you judge people depending on their intent or the outcome?
Do you think of yourself as what you do and believe, or who you’re related to?
If you had a flashcard of a rabbit, would you pair it with a cat or a carrot?
The above are notes as I read The Weirdest People in the World by Joseph Henrich. If you answered more of the former, then you are likely WEIRD! (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). But most of the world is not this way. And it is a mistake to believe this way of thinking is universal.
From the Archives: The Curse of Perfect
In the house that I grew up in, there was a formula for the American Dream.
My parents believed this so deeply that they left China with a one-way plane ticket and hundreds of dollars in folded bills, their mouths full of broken English.
Here is how the formula went: learn English. Get the top marks in your class. Stay at least a grade level or two ahead on math and science. Enter and win academic competitions (science fair, math tournaments, etc). Ace the SATs. Become the valedictorian of your high school. Attend an Ivy League school. Study medicine or law. Afford a life of security and comfort.
The formula was not for my parents, who arrived to the game in the third quarter, too late to score a decisive victory. Their eventual middle class livelihood was built from the ground up waiting tables, losing sleep, and the continual habit of sacrifice.
But for me, my lips still loose enough to adopt perfect English, my eyes acute enough to observe and adopt the guise of American culture, it became my Gatsbian green light. My parents spoke of it with an unshakeable fervor. “Zhuo Li,” they’d point out to me every time we stopped at a red light and somebody tapped our window to see if we wanted to buy the day’s paper, “If you don’t study hard and get good grades, you too will have to sell newspapers on the street corner.”
In our circles, examples of children who had followed this formula to wild success were repeated like myths: “Auntie Wenfang’s daughter Sophia got a 1590 on her SATs and was just accepted into Harvard.” “The Tao’s son Frank did an internship at Dow Chemical lab and won first place at the science fair.” “Pam from church recently won a state piano award for her concerto performance.” Success was as uncomplicated as the times table — an unblemished report card; a Sunday dusting of the glittering trophy shelf that grew year over year; another line to add to the future resume that would transform into the entry card into the Promised Land of the Ivies.
In my parents’ mind, the concept of “perfect” existed. There was a right way to go about things. 99 was not as good as 100.
The American Dream, as I was taught, was less a spectrum than a binary switch.
I read Plato’s Dialogues in high school, and in it I was introduced to the concept of Forms. Instantly I was transfixed. In the book, Socrates suggests that for everything we can think of, tangible or not — dogs, grace, friendship — there is a true ideal form of that thing.
Yet the true ideal form is not something we mere mortals can behold. We are like prisoners tied down in a cave, a fire burning behind us as we stare straight ahead at the smooth grey walls. There, shadows dance — the outline of a dog wagging his tale, the dancing body of a ballerina, the swaying silhouettes of friends in song.
If this were all that the prisoners saw, would they not think the shadows were everything? That the dark shapes moving across the wall represented dogs, grace, and friendship in all their essence and beauty?
But no, we who are wiser, who are outside of the cave, who are a dimension apart, pity the cavemen. We see the real three-dimensional objects and know that they are so much more colorful, textured, and rich than shadows could ever be.
I could understand the allegory perfectly. It described my life: always in search of the brilliance of these Forms that I could never truly attain.
A worthy goal, surely? A foot, an inch, a nudge closer out of the cave and toward the true light.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial