Seeking the Roots

Ask the right questions to unearth a wealth of insights

👋 Hi! I’m Julie Zhuo. I help companies scale and build people-centric products informed by data. I’m the author of a popular management book. I used to lead design for the Facebook app. The Looking Glass is my once-a-month-ish musings on products, teams, and our journey as builders.

One glorious thing about having an almost six-year-old is that we’ve started to read some of my favorite childhood books together.

Recently, we read Matilda by Roald Dahl. When I first encountered this story as a wide-eyed immigrant kid, I loved the idea that a smart, resourceful little girl could one-up the bullies. And not just kid bullies, but the the All-Powerful Adult Authority Bullies! Who doesn’t dream of that?

It wasn’t just Matilda. Looking back now, I see that so many of the stories I adored back then glorified the power of the individual. You could be the Chosen One. You could vanquish your foes, save the day, or turn a sticky situation into a happy ending. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in an orphanage or your childhood was absolutely miserable. That just made you more capable and deserving of the final rewards.

The appeal of that message is like honey when we’re small and powerless. But now that I have kids of my own, I can’t help thinking: What will be the impact of Matilda’s parents treating her so poorly and then essentially abandoning her?

How will this affect her ability to trust others? How she seeks love and approval in the future? How she views herself?

It’s with some sadness that I suspect a real-life Matilda will have a lot more to grapple with than the story lets on.

“Return to the root and you will find the meaning” — attributed to Sengcan

One of the more memorable job interviews I’ve had went something like this:

  • No situational problem-solving questions (“What would do if X happened?”)
  • No questions about my past roles (“Describe the biggest challenge you faced when…”)
  • No technical questions
  • Only questions related to my upbringing and broader life story.

I thought this was a fascinating interesting technique. I was tossed questions like “What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome in your life?” and “Where did your drive come from?” It felt as if the interviewer was trying to open my skull to discern what made me tick. Would my mindset fit in with this particular team? Would I be compelled to shoot for the same stars?

The whole thing got me wondering: what does make us tick? Certainly there is our genetic make-up. Any parent with multiple kids (me included) will happily talk you to sleep about how different their offspring are. My grandma likes to remind me that I was a hard-to-raise kid, the impish, rebellious sort, and my daughter got this “gene” but my son didn’t.

But increasingly, I believe much of my thinking and behavior is shaped by the thousands of circumstances outside my direct control.

What was the biggest challenge I had to overcome in my life?

How to feel like I belonged when, as a six-year-old, I boarded a plane to the United States alone to meet parents who were strangers to me. How to fit in when my classmates spoke of camping and tooth fairies and trampolines as they ate their PB&J while I picked at my “weird Chinese leftovers” and wondered what they meant. How to prove myself worthy of years of sacrifice.

This constant yearning to belong explains so much about my behavior today, in ways both big and small. It’s why I’m fanatical about celebrating traditions. You better believe I’ve got a stack of mooncakes for this week’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, and my kids’ Tooth Fairy writes long letters about good dental hygiene. It’s why I avoid engaging in public conflicts on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s why I’m determined to prove myself over and over again, sometimes past the point where it serves me.

My family runs deep in my roots as well. Every few months, I’ll realize with fresh shock that I am doing something just as my mom does, despite my deep-seated narrative that I’m SO incredibly different from her. For example, earlier this year it hit me that my default tendency is to believe there is an objective “best” path forward in any situation, which is how she sees the world. But this is not my intention. Once I recognized this, I could start to unwind the thought pattern and remind myself that often we are choosing from many fulfilling paths, or choosing the one that best matches our needs at a given moment in time. Sometimes there is simply no such thing as “objectively best.” Chance plays a huge role in specific outcomes anyway, so why not just enjoy the journey?

Understand the roots, and you can understand the body. I know one person who never locks their doors because they grew up in a warm, close-knit community. I know another who is adamant about installing security features because they’ve experienced break-ins before. I know decorated former athletes who to this day are incredibly motivated by the idea of winning; I know others with losing Little League records who care far more about the players than the score.

When we’ve been badly hurt by those we love, we find it difficult to trust again; when we’re repeatedly shown a vision of what “good” looks like, that influences our North Star. We treat people the way we’ve been treated. The body always keeps the score.

Some of the explorations of one’s roots are joyful and heartwarming, some are dark. Some are best done with a trained therapist or medical professional. I am sure I will be unearthing my roots for the rest of my life, and I’m glad for it. Our past doesn’t define use, and we can always change for the better.

But the better I understand where I came from, the more content I become; the sharper the future seems.

How well do we understand our roots?

If I asked you to describe yourself, I bet you’d have a well-practiced answer for me. You’d tell me about your interests, your work, your childhood, your family.

But personal stories are complex and richly layered. My own answers to the same questions evolve year over year. New experiences and learnings reshape the narrative. When I answer these questions purely for myself, the answers become more nuanced. Fluff gets eroded away.

Every six months or so, I try to ask myself the same things:

  1. What kinds of people do you admire and hope to emulate? Why?
  2. What do you love about yourself? Why do you love those things?
  3. What do you dislike about yourself? Why do you think you feel that way?
  4. What do you consider the greatest challenges in your life? How did you respond?
  5. What are some recent examples of things you tried and failed at? Why didn’t you succeed?
  6. What does a good life look like to you? Why?
  7. How does work fit into your picture of a good life? Why?

So far we have been talking about people, but the same thing applies to organizations. Every team has default ways of thinking and working.

It used to be that when something seemed obvious to me but other members of the team thought differently, I’d chalk it up to some individual personality mismatch. “X hates being wrong and admitting someone else is right.” “Y is risk-averse.” Or, in my lesser moments: “Z is being an idiot/short-sighted/ridiculous.” Unfortunately, this line of thinking never helped me resolve anything.

What I do now when I think something is obvious but others disagree is to try and understand what happened in the past that made this person feel that way. Because there usually is a story.

Why isn’t the CEO more optimistic about my proposal? It turns out they tried something similar before and it didn’t pan out.

Why isn’t a colleague amenable to my feedback? More questioning reveals that she’s getting conflicting reports from others.

Often times, an organization’s willingness to take risks is directly influenced by its history. If a company has even one example of a wild success when betting big, it will be more likely to try for moonshots again. If a company fails with transformative new ideas but finds success with iterative, “try and see” approaches, the latter playbook will dominate its strategy. I remember the era of “separate apps” at Facebook when we mobilized teams to work on tons of different app ideas. Quickly we learned that it was far harder to scale and grow these individual apps than to launch them, and momentum for this strategy fizzled. For the next few years, there was little appetite to try again, even as new team members joined and pitched compelling concepts.

How can you better understand the roots of a company? Often, prospective candidates ask questions like “How do decisions get made?” or “What’s it like to work here?” Unfortunately, these questions are vague and invite generic, feel-good answers.

Happily, our previous set of questions also work here to get additional color:

  1. Which companies does the leadership admire and hope to emulate? Why?
  2. What are the top 3 things that employees are the proudest of?
  3. What are the top 3 complaints that employees typically have?
  4. What are the biggest challenges that this company has encountered in its history, and how did it respond?
  5. What are the most recent examples of things the company has tried and failed at?
  6. What does success look like for this company, and what metrics are used to measure success?
  7. What’s the leadership’s philosophy on work in the context of their broader life? How many hours of the day did you spend working last week, on average?

American society in particular idolizes the myth of the man, the solitary hero’s journey, the sheen of celebrity. Tesla employs nearly 50,000 people but the way Elon Musk is talked about, you might well believe he’s the one sketching up futuristic car designs or installing engines.

We imagine people emerging and walking through the world fully formed. We like to think the past is in the past.

But nothing happens in isolation. Our roots run deep and weave together. We are who we are because we’ve weathered numerous experiences beyond our control. Like the rings within a tree trunk, each one leaves its mark on how we see the world.

The more we seek to understand the roots, the better can we live with intention and harmony.

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Also, in other news, I shared about a ladies’ virtual mentorship circle I’m hosting over the next 3 months. If you’re interested in learning more and applying, read the full details in the thread below and drop me a DM me on Twitter!

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Julie Zhuo @joulee

September 29th 2020

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“Roots” Photo by Matthias Ripp

Currently: Inspirit. Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.