The Looking Glass: Get Over Yourself

The most important thing my manager ever told me; we vs. me mentality; the future of AI-powered user experiences

Julie Zhuo
7 min readSep 20, 2023

Hello readers!

One of the things I get unreasonably excited about is drawing threads across different learnings.

I get the same satisfaction out of it as introducing two good friends at a dinner party who you just KNOW will hit it off. Except in this case, it’s two ideas and the setting is my head.

Of course, sometimes the introduction doesn’t have staying power. The golden thread frays over time. Or it snaps, because hey, that is a totally wrong conclusion!

But the love of discovery remains.

One such thread I’ve been drawing lately is between lessons from spirituality and workplace leadership — namely, the ways in which our singular, voracious, brash ego interferes like a sugar-crazed toddler running around a glass emporium.

Enjoy these tidbits on the topic of ego.



This week’s tidbits:

  1. The most important thing my manager ever told me
  2. Not a family, not an employer… but a team
  3. We versus me mentality
  4. From the Archives: What game are you playing?

For paid subscribers (2 longer pieces):

  1. The 2 variants of me-focused thinking
  2. The future of AI-powered user experiences

The most important thing my manager ever told me

Week after week, I’d show up to my 1:1s with an appetite and an agenda.

The appetite was for more of the bounty of corporate ladder-climbing: promotions, plum assignments, power.

The agenda was to inform my manager of all my wins and my excellent aptitude, and appeal for a greater allocation of that bounty.

My manager saw right through that. (Of course, I didn’t know it at the time — sometimes you only realize something in retrospect, and it took years of me sitting on the other side as a manager myself to fully grasp this.)

I must have been so annoying, the way I kept drumming for the above week after week. Eventually, he said this to me: Focus foremost on making the company successful, and the rest will follow.

At the time, it came off as one of those so-basic leadership platitudes: Rah rah, let’s focus on making the company successful!

But now, a decade later, I can think of no better way to summarize leadership, or the answer to That One Weird Trick to Propel You Toward a Rocketship Career.

It’s simple to say but hard to do.

It’s hard to do because many people don’t even believe it to be true.

It’s hard to do because even if you believe, your ego tells you to do the opposite.

It’s hard to do because it takes a leap of faith, and the risk you might fall is real.

Focus foremost on making the company successful.

Focus on the we, not the I.

Fight for a bigger pie, not for your bigger slice.

Care less about credit and care more about results.

Ask not what the company can do for you, but what you can do for the company.

Do this, and the rest will follow.

Do this, and you will be a leader.

Not a family, not an employer… but a team

It used to be in vogue to say that your company was like your family.

Yeah, we’re there for one another. We eat and drink and play together. We are friends and confidantes and work wives / husbands. We push and root for each other and we roll our eyes at our various quirks and superpowers and blind spots. We care, oh we care so very deeply about this crew and we’ll always have each others’ backs.

This quickly crumbled with the realities of a tightening economy. After all, a family would never FIRE you, would they? Send you off with an e-mail and a check and a sorry, goodbye, good luck?

No, a company is definitively not a family.

Now, the tide has shifted and it’s in vogue to say that your company is simply your employer.

Yeah, it’s just my job, whatevs. It’s not the worst thing and it pays the bills. I gotta figure out how to stay remote and then interview every few months to see if I can do something better.

This positioning is perfectly rational. In an uncertain world, we need to take care of ourselves. No one can be expected to care more about our own backs than us. Put your oxygen mask on before helping others.

But My company is just my employer is also a self-defeating prophecy for those looking to grow in leadership. In my experience looking across thousands of promotions: at a well-run company, even the most talented performers will reach a ceiling in their career growth with this kind of attitude. It’s night-and-day obvious when you have someone who just really fucking cares about making some dimension of the company better — that kind of person learns faster, has a better track record, and naturally becomes seen as a leader.

The right balance, in my view, is to think of your company as a team — a group of people trying to achieve something big together, make some kind of difference in the world.

To win, a team needs to pick the right players, and the players need to play right for the team.

Imagine your favorite sports team.

Yes, that team will drop a player if they are not contributing to wins.

Yes, a player will drop that team if it doesn’t suit the player’s goals.

Yes, there are contracts to protect each side’s interests, and yes, we should expect respectful behavior all around.

But when that team wins a championship, it’s a beautiful thing.

Everyone focuses on winning, not on maximizing individual stats. Players sacrifice for the greater good. The team pulls the best out of one another.

This is what it means to fight for a bigger pie, not for your bigger slice.

We versus me mentality

Do you spend more time thinking about how you can personally advance, or how your team can advance?

One way to tell is to examine the kind of language you naturally use. Observe how the two statements below come from different places on the we-me spectrum.

The point isn’t to try and change your language (in fact, it’s practically impossible to do this if your mentality is what it is). The point isn’t to say one is the “better way” (depending on the context, either could be more appropriate).

The point is to honestly examine where you lie in the spectrum.

On starting a new team initiative:

Me-mentality: Let me get this figured out and I’ll get back to you within X days — underlying message: I can take care of this.

We-mentality: Any useful context you can share, or people you think I should connect with to get all the context? — underlying message: I’d like to tap into whatever increases the chance that this initiative succeeds.

On presenting a project to a bunch of people:

Me-mentality: I need to get everyone aligned — underlying message: I know what needs to be done, but I have to convince everyone to do what I want.

We-mentality: I need to get a few rounds of feedback — underlying message: Other people probably have good perspectives and hearing them will make the work stronger.

On your team running into a roadblock with another team:

Me-mentality: they are slowing our team down and it’s so frustrating to have to deal with them — underlying message: what I am doing is more important OR my inconvenience is a sign that our company is overbloated and bureaucratic.

We-mentality: let’s figure out between our two teams which initiatives are most important for the company and prioritize accordingly — underlying message: we both want the best for our team so let’s put our heads together and collectively get to a good outcome.

From the Archives: What game are you playing?

Life is like a video game.

The important question is: Which game are you playing?

Is it Fortnite Battle Royale, where you outshine in an arena of others?

Pokemon, where you collect and show off your rare finds?

Minecraft or Roblox, meta-games where you build games that others play?

Or perhaps you’re playing…

Tetris, the game of slotting stuff into the right place with increasing intensity (aka management).

Minesweeper, the game of avoiding being cancelled.

Myst, the game of figuring out what the hell this world is all about.

Some games are extraordinarily popular. When everyone around you is playing, it’s easy to get swept up in them: the Be influential on [App] about [Topic] game, or the Show off your wealth and fancy possessions game or the Look attractive and get liked game or even the Lead a team towards some outcome game.

But there are a stunning variety of games you can play: the Make money off crypto game. The BTS ARMY breaks records game. The Make others laugh game. The Help someone else reach their full potential game.

The lesson many of us eventually learn is that the game we’ve spent years playing turns out not to be the right one for us.

It’s like discovering all your life you’ve been trying to win at competitive Street Fighter when what you really love is Final Fantasy.

And the problem with most advice you get is that someone will say: Oh, to get to the next level, you just need to mash the ‘jump’ button twice as quickly as you can and press Y.

And their advice might be absolutely spot-on if you’re playing Mario.

But are you?

So how do you find the game that’s right for you?

1) Ask others what they’re playing to know the options: What drives you?

2) Try out a bunch of different games.

3) Think about yourself at 80 — what will you be proud that you played?

4) Avoid comparisons.

What game am I playing these days?

1) Can I show up for my family, friends and community in accordance with my values?

2) Can I learn and better myself every single day?

3) Can I create at the peak of what I am capable of?

What game are you playing?

Below are 2 more pieces for paid subscribers:

  1. The 2 variants of me-focused thinking
  2. AI-powered user experiences

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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.