The Looking Glass: Unintuitive, lying truths

Julie Zhuo
4 min readAug 1, 2023

Hello readers!

This week’s tidbits:

  1. Honesty
  2. The deepest truth
  3. Lies builders tell themselves
  4. From the Archives: Seven incredibly non-intuitive things about growing your career

For paid subscribers:

  1. Subscriber Mailbag: Follow-up questions to Higher Level Design
  2. How do I know if I am truly honest with myself?
  3. The well goes deep

Dear readers,

The idea of truth has been on my mind for some years now. As we twist wider the spigot of information running into our brains we wonder more and more: what is really true? Who do I really trust?

It’s easy to pin the problem on some outside force — stupid media! No, social media! No it’s the damn politicians!

But there is another force at work too. The veil of self-deception.

Truth is the theme of these tidbits.

If you enjoy my writing, I hope you’ll consider being a paid subscriber to sustain this public habit.

The deepest truth

The deepest truth is not what is fact or fiction

But what we’d like to believe is fact or fiction

And the reason why we’d like to believe it

And what it says about us

And what is says about our fears

Really, the deepest truth is no different than our deepest fears.

Lies builders tell themselves

  1. If I just launch this next feature, customer will love the product.
  2. If I ask the user what they want, they’ll give me the strategy.
  3. If we make this one process tweak, that will fix our execution.
  4. It’s not my fault the customer doesn’t see the awesomeness of our product.
  5. This company does not care about <engineering/design/product/sales/insert-your-role> and that is why no one is listening to me.
  6. Everyone around me knows what they are doing except me.
  7. The quality sucks because we didn’t have enough time.

I have repeated many of these lies to myself over the years. Usually, as a coping mechanism to stay motivated, to keep going. To feel better.

But these lies more often than not get in the way of helping us do our best work. They provide false hope, excuses, or reasons to accept mediocrity. We can do better.

So absorb the truths instead:

1. Building a great product — that is, a product that solves real problems and is loved by your target customers — is hard, and is the culmination of thousands of small decisions rather than a single new feature, change, or piece of feedback. Play the long game.

2. If you find yourself thinking the problem is your team / company / customer / time, that train of thought is leading to stagnation-town. Try a different framing: what can I do to grow something remarkable out of this problem?

Honesty

I have noticed

The shorter the explanation

The more honesty it carries

From the Archives: Seven incredibly non-intuitive things about growing your career

1) The people whose careers you admire and study the most are the ones your own career starts to emulate.

This seems like a great thing, until you realize along the way the downsides that come with that kind of career.

2) Every glamour has its price.

We think the most confident person in the room is the one who sounds the most polished and certain.

In reality, the most confident person is the one who most readily admits and accepts *all* their flaws / mistakes.

Imagine how secure one must feel to do that.

3) It’s easy to worship at the alter of productivity and focus.

But the more focused you are on something, the less creative you become.

Focus is by definition narrowing. You block out serendipitous connections. If you want to innovate, you must make the space for it.

4) Worrying about asking dumb questions or saying the wrong thing leads us to bite our tongues.

But managers usually think most highly of reports who proactively ask questions and share their perspectives.

You have far more to gain than lose in using your voice.

5) In an effort to not impose on others, we don’t ask for help or we make our asks vague (“Can I get time with you?”)

In fact, many people do want to help, and it’s easier for busy folks to say yes if your ask is specific (“Could I ask for 30 min to get your take on AI and communication?”)

6) The mistakes you’re most worried about are unlikely to be the ones you make. You’ll err on the opposite end instead.

For example, if you’re incredibly worried about offending people, you’ll rarely do that, but you’ll probably avoid giving critical, honest feedback.

7) We think strength is self-sufficiency — achievement without reliance on others.

We think that if someone else gains, we lose. But intertwined, we all go further.

This is the secret of Silicon Valley. Help others, ask for help, and collective strength multiplies.

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Julie Zhuo

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