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Doing extraordinary things with an ordinary mind: Zhang Yiming’s speech for ByteDance’s 9th anniversary

Written by Lin Lingyi Published on     12 mins read

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On the 9th anniversary of his startup, ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming quoted Buddhism verses, asked his employees to keep an ordinary mind, and even mocked his peers for excessive use of jargon.

Editor’s Note: China has always had an abundance of bootstrapped and accomplished entrepreneurs. There are the likes of Richard Liu or Colin Huang, spearheading e-commerce behemoths that have permeated into almost every aspect of the country’s retail market, which is on its way to overtake the US as the world’s largest. Or the likes of Pony Ma and Wang Xing, who oversee companies that have hired hundreds of thousands of people and provide Chinese with everything from online entertainment to meal and grocery delivery.

And still, the founder of ByteDance, Zhang Yiming, stands out with his emerging global tech giant that started in Beijing but aims for global expansion.

The company he founded almost a decade ago was reportedly valued at more than USD 250 billion in secondary market trading, making it more valuable than Coca-Cola.

What does it take for him to steer a company with such a young history in a world that’s rife with uncertainties? It seems that 38-year-old Zhang resorted to ideas from Buddhism, according to a speech he delivered at the company’s 9th anniversary, where he quoted several verses from Buddhism works, asked his employees to keep an ordinary mind, and even mocked his peers over excessive and unnecessary use of business jargon. Read on to find out more about the thinking of the founder of the world’s most valuable startup.

 

As I have done so in previous years, I will share some thoughts on the company’s situation over the past year, as well as my personal feelings on these developments. These sentiments span both the personal and professional, and also arise from my interactions with our colleague.

Overall, our business is still growing fast, with some breakthroughs in new areas. Aside from efforts to contain the pandemic, we have introduced other corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. It can be said that the past year marked the start of our CSR journey. Hopefully, we will be able to continue growing as a business while fixing CSR as an overarching goal in the upcoming years.

The past year is very special. Many emergencies emerged, such as the epidemic, sparking off a chain reaction of events that by which I believe everyone must have been deeply impacted. It is often said that time passes by quietly and calmly. But in my opinion, changes in the global dynamic are accelerating. Each day, the news bombards us with information and creates a lot of noise in our lives.

So, I want to talk about the “ordinary mind” today. I feel that in such an environment, maintaining an ordinary mind is something that seems easy while actually being very important.

I have interacted with many colleagues in the past year, and from this, I found that those with an ordinary mind are more relaxed and observant. They also have a less distorted inner self and have more patience. They regularly do things better. Most of the time, people can exercise good judgment if they are not paranoid or distracted. As the saying goes, everyone is already self-sufficient. We can only achieve extraordinary things if we have an ordinary mind. Our anniversary theme this year is “being grounded while reaching for higher goals.” I believe this theme is similar to that of having an ordinary mind. Only if we have an ordinary mind can we strengthen our roots and from then on have the courage and imagination to take on more difficult things.

“When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep”

Whenever we discuss any topic, we first need to understand what the topic is. Most concepts are abstract, which makes it easier for biases to arise.

An “ordinary mind” is a phrase that originated in Buddhism. Many other phrases in Mandarin have similar [Buddhist] origins, such as “dreaming wildly” and “diligence.” In the encyclopedia, an “ordinary mind” is defined as remaining steady and unbiased in all circumstances and in all of one’s behaviors. There are similar suggestions in modern psychology, which broadly translate to “doing your best, going with the flow, and being calm.” If you search on Toutiao, you will find many articles, concepts explaining the ordinary mind as: let it be/let it go, having common sense, having intuition, and being honest. The [Mandarin] adage “the supreme principle is buried in one’s mind” actually refers to intuition. The Internet industry also refer to this as “reverting to [one’s] essence and seeking truths from fact,” in addition to accepting uncertainty.

The most straightforward way of saying this is: eat well when you eat, and sleep well when you sleep.

“Everyone is an ordinary person”

The first thing I want to say about having an ordinary mind is this: use an ordinary mind to appraise yourself. It is fundamental to recognize that every single person, including yourself, is an ordinary person.

When reporting on startups and individuals, some media outlets like to dramatize their reports by dramatizing events and personalities. In previous interviews,  I was asked to share the twists and turns of my story. I often say that there is nothing special about it. I actually think that there are principles and reasons [leading to] most events. There is nothing especially difficult to explain or particularly unusual about any part [of the journey].

It really is the case. I met more and more people, including exceptionally talented and capable individuals, as the business grew. My own feeling is this: there might be differences [between individuals] in terms of knowledge and experience, but most people are still very similar. Most of us have ordinary minds. But one thing that sets apart those who can achieve success, is that these people can always maintain an ordinary mindset. In other words, maintaining an ordinary mind, accepting who they are, and doing what they do well, will always help [these people] succeed: ordinary minds make extraordinary things happen.

“Expectations or labels are all constraints”

It is unlikely that you will perform well if you are exceptionally concerned about your final result.

In archery, for example, we aim for the bullseye. But if you constantly think, “I want to hit the bullseye,” it will be difficult to execute it. The same is true for work and for life. When we are filled with expectations, it is easy for our actions to be distorted and overcomplicated.

“What should I do?” If you mind the expectations that others and you [yourself] have, your reasoning and judgment will oftentimes be impaired. [Being aware of] all kinds of labels will be a psychological burden to you.

For instance, being labeled as an executive might make people too embarrassed to ask simple questions. They might also be unable to delve deeply into the user journey of a product like a normal user. If you position a company to be a big company, you might wonder how large companies should organize things, [assume that] they have grand strategies and should organize large meetings. Actually, our company emphasizes that titles should be downplayed. Titles make people compare themselves, [on issues such as] how many people a vice president should manage, what reporting format to follow, and which peers of similar rank they should associate with. This can give rise to all sorts of constraints.

Being labeled as a young person might also make you too afraid to raise ideas, give suggestions, or make criticisms. If you position yourself as a front-end engineer, you might think you do not need to possess any knowledge of machine learning technologies. When I was working at Kuxun, I worked in the back-end, but I also got involved in problems related to the front-end, got involved when there were problems with the product, and got involved when there were problems with sales. I thought that there was no need to accept any self-imposed constraints. In my view, these experiences helped me greatly.

“Sometimes, going all-in can be lazy”

In particular, I want to emphasize: don’t rely on shortcuts, and use less leverage. Here are two examples.

Many people say that when they do business, they will go all-in to end the battle in one swoop. I think that there is a big problem with teams that imprudently announce that they will go all in. Sometimes, going all-in can be a kind of laziness. There is nothing wrong if you have thought through something, and know what the strategy should be. But I feel that oftentimes, [the only rationale behind going all-in is] “I don’t want to think anymore, so let’s just take a gamble.”

Another shortcut: excessively abstracting things and methods. I feel that methodology is actually not very useful, and oftentimes, can be completely useless. Because you are abstracting a situation, you are propping up your thinking. Going a little off the mark now, can [later] generate very big mistakes.

This is actually formally referred to as “the fatal conceit,” or [the pitfall of] one’s ego. Because the limits of knowledge are obvious, much [of what we know and use] is unstructured data. Excessively conceptual thinking is actually not conducive to our understanding. Avoiding excessive abstraction is also one way of having an ordinary mind.

When I participate in various discussions with our colleagues, I often tell them not to rush to conclusions. Do not say “I understand, this is the case” too easily. When we are drawing conclusions, we also need to consider other possibilities and keep an open mind.

The use of increasingly abstract and advanced terminology is also another [reflection of a] bias to methodology. Let me read a paragraph that I cobbled together using words extracted from materials used at our bi-monthly meeting.

“In the past, we mainly relied on information distribution capabilities from our recommendation technologies, cross-terminal interactions between Douyin, Xigua Video, and Toutiao, internal product research to achieve deep co-construction, and formed a closed-loop content ecosystem, so as to empower and create value for our customers. In the future, we want to increase our value across different horizontals and extend our service chain. Simultaneously, we want to meet our users’ needs and leverage demographic momentum to penetrate into younger customer bases. Aside from this, we want to strengthen our investment in infrastructure construction, establish operational links between products with different market positionings, and build up a lasting influence on our users.”

Actually, many of our important decisions do not need to be described in such a complicated way. Many complicated judgments arise from keeping an observant eye for our users and facts, so remaining sensitive, empathetic, and open-minded is important. I found some past photos of me and our management teams in Delhi in India, Qingyang, Chongqing, and Zhangjiakou, having casual user interviews. Even before this, we had encouraged all employees in the company to take the time during their holidays to interact with friends and relatives, see what software they used on their phones, and ask them why they used these.

I often discover counter-intuitive design elements in our products. I also often wonder why these counter-intuitive designs were created. If you don’t bring in methodology, casually using a product will [enable you to] understand that actually, some parts are not right. It might be because we wanted to prove a certain idea or were too tied to a certain concept, hence design mistakes were made. Oftentimes, children can locate these counter-intuitive design elements, so why are our highly educated product managers unable to identify them? Is it because we want to prove a certain concept or are too wedded to a certain dogma?

Here I have three good products. One is Google Earth, which I often use to learn geography. This product is great but not profitable. [Another product is] Scratch, a coding product for children. I do not know if the product makes money, but it is a great product. [The third product is] Roblox, a UGC sandbox game, which is very different from our normal understanding of a game.

What is special about these products? First, they are very imaginative. Second, they required patience and time. I wonder if our company can come up with similar products. I am not saying that it is better to do things slowly. Speed should be determined by the [specific] matter, but if an issue requires a lot of imagination, even if you have only worked on it for two years, many people will tell you that [your idea is] not possible because, at that point, the strong external pressures will affect their ability to continue investing.

“Do not internalize external causes, and do not mistake luck for capability”

I was left with a deep impression from one particular business meeting. A team said that our competitor was growing quickly, and we should swiftly do something to react. I said, actually, when we fell behind our opponents, we had many ideas to improve our standing, and lacked the psychological baggage [preventing us from] imagining and acting. But now that we are ahead, we have become unable to exercise an “ordinary mind” because we are too afraid of failure. This has impacted our ability to act.

I asked him, have you played games? In games, you come across similar situations. You might have to overcome 100 challenges [in games], and once you get past the first 99, it is easy for your hands to start shaking. You think, “It wasn’t easy for me to overcome those 99 challenges,” and “I definitely cannot make a mistake,” and usually, end up failing [as a result].

An ordinary mind’s ability to confront successes and failures also includes the ability to correctly attribute [cause and effect]. Do not mistake external reasons for internal reasons or mistake luck for capability, as it is important to seek out the real reason for your failure or success.

Initially, we did not manage to retain many urban users when we focused on short videos. During our discussions, a colleague thought that this was definitely because white-collar city workers were mentally exhausted and were therefore inclined towards expressing themselves via [simpler] photos or text [rather than short videos]. Overall, the logic seemed to make sense. [But], we now know that this was not the case.

I am not saying that coming to a conclusion is always wrong. Just admit that there are things we do not know. People really do not like uncertainty and always try to attribute success and failure to reasons that fit within their own narrative. I hope that we become increasingly able to employ an ordinary mind [instead].

I have a four-step method when dealing with mistakes. The first three steps are taken from a book, which says that when you encounter a problem, there are always a few things you need to do. The first step is to really recognize it, [an act which will] make you less vexed, [because] recognition is also a kind of gain. You then can correct the mistake, which is another kind of gain. You can also learn from the underlying causes behind the mistake. The book mentioned these three steps, but after this, I also added one more: forgive it [the mistake]. If you have already accomplished the first three steps, then you should let it go. When we confront mistakes, a lot of people emphasize the pain of the experience. My suggestion: do not blame yourself for too long.

Two years ago, there was a very popular documentary called Free Solo. I met the protagonist of this movie, Alex Honnold, in California. His stories have been retold by multiple people, but what left the deepest impression on me was: going forward and going backwards are both dangerous, but the most dangerous thing of all is having weak legs and a capricious heart. While rock climbing, you cannot look back too often, become afraid, or fear a previous misstep; but you also cannot look ahead [and think], there is still a really arduous road I need to confront ahead. One thing that we can all learn from Alex: at these moments, he focuses very much on the present.

Freehand rock climbing is a highly risky experience that few people have. I have a not quite comparable, but more relatable experience. When it comes to running and swimming, I found it really hard to maintain these activities in the past, [to the extent that] going for two kilometers was difficult. Later, I thought, what is preventing me from running on? Actually, it was my weariness and disgust towards running which made me anxious. Later, I tried not to think of anything while running, except for the necessary adjustments I had to make to my breathing and whether I was exerting muscles that I did not have to exert. I tried to relax as best I could and ignored the aches and soreness, and it became really easy to run 3 or 4 kilometers. Later, I employed the same practice in swimming. Originally, I could only swim 500 meters, [but later] it became really easy to swim 1 kilometer. It is not because my physical fitness has improved. I feel that it is because I eliminated the losses in the middle. I eliminated my fears of not finishing the swim, [my fears of] not having rested well enough the previous day, [my fears that] my present state wasn’t ideal, and consequently, swam better.

I especially like watching videos of sailing on Douyin. I am not saying that everyone’s work or life will have stormy seas. [What] I want to compare this to is a state of mind. Regardless of whatever challenges you meet in your work or life, and whatever difficulties you face, this is all external. When your external world is rocked by turbulence, what you can do is maintain an inner state of calm and normalcy.

That’s all for today. Thank you, everyone.

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