A key principle when thinking about a product is to understand, deeply, the needs of the user of the product. What job are they hiring it to do? Why – What are they trying to accomplish?
But this is difficult – and not just because it takes long hours and many cycles of iterative improvement. It’s not just that the things people tell us about what they want are wrong, or at best incomplete. It’s not just that it’s difficult to simultaneously have deep belief in your insight and also question every assumption.
It’s difficult because we get in our own way.
We have difficulty sorting out our own motivations, dealing with our own emotional responses, and knowing our own mind. So how can we really understand someone else? At the same time, we also tend to attribute motivations and meaning to the actions of other people —as if we know what they are thinking.
Look at your personal life. Have you ever been accused of some transgression that all turned out to be a misunderstanding? Now, be honest, have you ever made that sort of assumption about someone else, later to find out that you were wrong?
These emotional examples just highlight a more pervasive problem. Our minds tend to make a leap of meaning, a shortcut of sorts, to help us understand the world around us. We tell ourselves stories about things that happen around us that build our concept of how things work. This skill is useful. But we also tend to stick to stories that reinforce our ideas about the world. We resist, and explain away, anything new or different —especially if it challenges our core ideas.
“If you can identify a delusional popular belief, you can find what lies behind it: the contrarian truth.”
– Peter Thiel, Zero to One
We can never perfectly understand the motivations, aspirations, emotions and thoughts of other people. We can probably never perfectly understand our own. But by working at it, we can grow and become better at it. We can see our own thoughts as just thoughts. We can turn them over, examine them, think about alternatives, and decide what to think.
This is the beginning. It’s not about having a formula for success, but rather a skill of being present and self-aware so that we can make better use of any idea, method, formula, or framework. It’s not about being perfect. Just notice that you are making assumptions or assigning motivation, and come back to self-awareness.
Be Present. Be Self-Aware. Innovate.