The Looking Glass: Faith and skepticism

The limitations of executive functioning; invention and certainty; management as faith

Julie Zhuo
8 min readMar 8, 2024

Dear readers,

The thing that sets us human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our rational brain.

Call it System 2, our planning process, our executive epicenter, math mode — whatever you want. But this thinking grey matter is what tamed the soils to grow our food and the dogs to heed our call; what enabled the bicycles, and later the bicycles of the mind.

Or so goes the story I told myself, for years and years and years.

Draped in the robes of a STEM education, drinking from the fountain of Silicon Valley tech, I was a street corner evangelist for the bounties of the analytical brain.

But in recent times, dear Readers, I find my story is incomplete. Flawed, even. In the pas de deux of life, I have favored one side more than the other, and it’s time to lean the other way.

Today’s issue is on the theme of faith.



In this issue:

  1. There is no invention without faith
  2. Do not place your faith in playbooks
  3. From the archives: Build a trustworthy design process

For paid subscribers:

  1. To manage is to have faith in people
  2. How to ask people to take a leap of faith in you

There is no invention without faith

Creativity is a hot buzz word among tech types.

Every team hails itself as creative, innovative, inventive, <insert your unoriginal-yet-original buzzword here>.

But creativity demands payment; its currency is faith.

Faith that a solution exists, even though you don’t know what form it’ll take.

Faith that you can be the one to pull it from the ether.

Faith that a budding, misshapen idea will grow into a thing of beauty.

Faith that your partners will infuse the idea with their own flavors of magic.

Faith that more and more people will eventually see the colors you see.

Faith that the journey will be worth it, come hell or high water.

There is no proof, no playbook, no validation, no consensus when it comes to matters of faith.

The harder you try to hold onto certainty, the more the sands of creativity will slip through your fingers.

Do not place your faith in playbooks

Take this from a lover and writer of playbooks: they can never teach you how to do something hard.

There are 4 reasons you should be suspicious of the teachings of any playbook or framework:

  1. Reason #1: It’s much easier to write a playbook than it is to do a hard thing.

    Thus, many playbooks are aspirational rather than experiential — I wish it worked this way, rather than this is what I know about how to make it work.
  2. To truly discern the difference, you’d need to know if the author of the playbook is indeed a master of their domain. Which means you’d need to know either the author extremely well, or the domain extremely well. The first is rare, and the second means you don’t really need the framework.
  3. Reason #2 (even if the playbook is written by a master of their domain): The ability to know something and the ability to explain it well are two different skills.
  4. To know how to do something difficult is rare; to know AND to be able to explain it well is even rarer. I have met numerous masters of their domains that are frequently right, but cannot explain why, because it is an intuition felt in the gut rather than a logical train of thought.

    Even those that do write a playbook may not write it in a way can be easily understood by non-experts — this is why so many books feel intimidatingly complex!
  5. Reason #3 (even if the playbook is written by a master of their domain AND they happen to explain it well): True knowledge of how to do something hard is too rich in depth and nuance to transfer to another person.
  6. The reality of how to do something hard is so complex as to be impossible to fully explain in a tweet, a diagram, a podcast, a class, or even a book (though on the spectrum, classes and books certainly do contain more depth of knowledge than tweets!)

    Human language is a lossy communication medium. So whatever you do read or see is generally a simplification of what the master knows — like a six-dimensional object transposed into 2 dimensions.
  7. Reason #4 (even if the playbook is written by a master of their domain AND they happen to explain it well AND you are reading the most in-depth version of that explanation possible): Your exact context will be different and something the framework author probably does not have firsthand experience of.
  8. This doesn’t mean that person couldn’t figure it out if dropped in your situation, but it does mean that whatever they wrote or said was written with a different context in mind. The world’s best instructions on how to get from the train station to Town Hall in London would simply not apply in Barcelona.

That said, playbooks and frameworks are not entirely useless! They are incredibly powerful tools, but not necessarily for the reasons you think.

A playbook or framework is most valuable for the author and their direct collaborators, because creating a playbook is an effective way of distilling complex knowledge. The process of creating a framework forces reflection. The process of following a framework forces evaluation and iteration. What is the takeaway here? — Write playbooks for yourself or create them collaboratively with your team to accelerate your own learnings!

A playbook or framework is also valuable as a handy reminder for others who work in the same domain and have similar knowledge as the framework creator. These are people who already know the framework to be useful in certain contexts, and now have an elegant encapsulation in a simple 2x2 or tweet so it’s easier to recall.

Finally, the third reason a framework is useful is as persuasive evidence for action. If you need to convince others of something you already know and believe to be true but can’t explain it well, a framework or playbook can serve as social proof.

Alas, there are no shortcuts to learning something hard. Reading all the product or strategy playbooks in the world will not make you an expert at inventing new products.

There is no way to learn such hard things but to actually do it over and over again.

From the Archives: Build a Trustworthy Design Process

About four years ago, the arrival of three new grads from the University of Washington — Drew Hamlin, Francis Luu, and Joey Flynn — changed the DNA of the Facebook design team forever.

It wasn’t the fact that they brought flavors of sitcom life into the office (though they did all work and live together in an apartment called Cloud City) or that they were heavyweights in the boxing ring of design (as talented as they were), or even that they were really really ridiculously good…er at puns (Drew today: “honor roll” to describe something that was, well, on a roll).

No, what the Seattle boys brought to the team was the rigor of design critique, deeply instilled after four years in the visual design program. And what I learned from them is that if you place your trust in a good process, then the end result will probably be pretty good. It’s that simple.

Oh, there are caveats, to be sure. The results of any process are only as good as the strength of the team, so if your team isn’t strong, you shouldn’t expect magical unicorns to suddenly start leaping out of the work.

But the key here is the strength of the team, not the strength of a single individual. Teams are generally stronger and more well-rounded than any one person, so the power of a rigorous design process is that it elevates the work of everyone — even the most junior members — to take advantage of the collective talents of the whole.

For me, a rigorous design process has the following characteristics:

  1. You have gotten feedback from enough people such that you understand at a deep level all the reasonable perspectives one could have.
  2. You have thoroughly explored the solution set of the problem.

#1 is why design critique is so important, and that in turn helps reinforce #2. Every time you show your work to a room of designers, questions spring up like geysers at Yellowstone. “Did you consider using a visual to explain what’s going on instead of a paragraph of text?” “How come you decided to go with a segmented control instead of a preview of each section?” “Why does this pane slide in from the side instead of from the bottom?” “Have you seen App X? It does something similar and feels better/worse.”

The goal of critique is not to say that something either does or does not pass the bar. It’s not about gatekeeping. It’s not even about making sure everyone’s concerns are addressed, because honestly, if you try and make everyone happy, you’re probably going to end up with a camel. It’s about recognizing that the set of choices in any design problem is enormous, and the more that all of us can help each other anticipate the pros and cons of these choices, the more considered the decision we will make, and therefore the better the decision we will make.

I repeat, the goal of critique is to help the designer make intentional decisions.

I consider it a night-and-day difference between arriving at a solution on the first try and arriving at a solution having gone through rounds and rounds of iteration. The latter tends to produce better results, and even if it doesn’t (maybe because you just so happened to design a great solution right off the bat) the process matters.

It’s like the difference between going on a nice vacation because you just won the lottery versus going on a nice vacation because you’ve worked hard at your job and built up a solid career. Sure, the end result may be the same, but one of those paths is more reliable and repeatable. One of these paths is going to help you when you’re at a high-stakes review and somebody asks “why is this thing you’re proposing better than [some alternative design]?” If the solution is your first and only attempt, you’ll go “uhhhh” because [some alternative design] will have never crossed your mind until now. But if your process was air-tight, you’ll smile as you make eye contact and deliver a buttery-smooth reply: “Well, I tried [some alternative design] and it’s better at [X] but worse at [Y]. Here, let me show you what that looks like…”

Nothing should be done at random; ignorance is the enemy of good design. To make a subpar decision because you didn’t get enough context or feedback is to fail. But to make a subpar decision when you considered all the angles but ultimately made the wrong tradeoff — that kind of mistake is honest, and far easier to learn from. When you put in that much careful thought, you don’t fall for the same trap twice.

So rely on the wisdom of the Seattle boys. Utilize the hell out of tools like critique. Build up a trustworthy process.

After that — for pretty much whatever what you’re selling — I’m buying.

There are 2 more posts for paid subscribers:

  1. To manage is to have faith in people
  2. How to ask people to take a leap of faith in you

If you like my words and want to support writers like me, consider being a paid subscriber!

A deep thanks to those of you who have — you’re like the rainbows over these winter storms of writer’s block.

Read more



Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.