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Zhang Yiming’s Last Speech: Part II
"All-in" attitude is mental laziness
This post is Part II of our team’s translation (or transcreation) of Zhang Yiming’s last speech, delivered in March 2021 at ByteDance’s new year all-hands meeting. He resigned two months later as CEO. To read Part I of this speech, please click HERE.
In this Part II, you will get a glimpse into Zhang’s attitude towards competition, why he thinks an “all-in” attitude is mental laziness, why Google Earth, Roblox, and Scratch are his favorite products, and his admiration for the free solo climber, Alex Honnold.
Similar to Part I, I’ve bolded noteworthy phrases and passages throughout this translation. I hope you enjoy reading it and pondering about it.
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. (Annotation: 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 share 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.
Click HERE to read Part I of Zhang Yiming’s speech.