Taking a shot at tough love – wondering why it might become a good mode to operate in, why it might not be such a good mode, and how do we get over it. Contemplation triggered by some tweet storm everyone’s favourite man Naval retweeted – you’ll find it in the end of this post if you like to read it. And first I’d like to note that this isn’t a contemplation about discipline or self-discipline.
In that tweet-storm was one or two tweets in particular that brought me back to this tough love attitude.
“Just give me the raw feedback without all the shit sandwich around it.” – Tobi
When it was all Work and Games
It resonates with me strongly because I have said this without having read it from elsewhere, too. Some years back, living my 4 hours as a hermit playing an online game, you could say my life consisted of teamwork and competition only – no friends, no family, no romance, no sex, no good food or hikes in the nature. There, I put it out here, now we have context: I was a super competitive to keep my place in the raiding team – that was on my time-off; but I was also being super-competitive at work – and I must say I pulled off some wonderful projects there, doing everything I could possibly think of to prove that I was being a valuable cog in the tiny system.
Now, in order to actually work well, have good synergy with a team, the people must have good chemistry. And I say good chemistry not in the sense that it is something mystical – but chemistry because it’s a little more than just one or two compatible traits between people, but also more than what you could explain in a Linkedin course – and on the other hand, it’s still less than to call it actually mysterious – it’s a gut thing.
But back at that time I was a withered form of myself, there was no such thing as a reliable gut, I was looking for answers from things like rationality, logical fallacies and what else you have in the post/modern disposition. What I’m trying to get with all this – when there was some issue with any team member or coworker – I took it very personally.
I think I took it personally because that’s where all my stakes were – everything I had on me, I had invested into these two things – the work and the game. All the time and energy I had went there – I was all in. So yes, if someone had a problem with something, or someone imagined there was a problem with something I’d done – the problem wasn’t only personal, it was of cataclysmic magnitude to me. If someone said their stupid opinion, it was an earth quake.
And naturally – I’d over-react. I’d never owe a word. And that, in essence, made me a “bad team player.” When someone wanted to jam with me – they’d find no better opponent, I was most proficient in returning words that pushed all the wrong buttons. So, someone offended me with a whimsical comment (I don’t know if it really was, but to my mind it was a put-down in broad daylight), and I’d retaliate and knew what to say to get the other person to back off.
“You’re being too sensitive,” was the retaliation to my retaliation. “Jeez, learn to handle criticism.” My boss took me to the back room back then and told me he feels like he needs to walk on broken glass around me. What the fuck man – I am LIVING for your company. And I really was – anyway, however I got so entangled living for a self-absorbed lousy business owner is a whole tale on it’s own, and maybe for another time – BUT getting back to broken glass and criticism…
I got confused. I thought to myself that I can handle feedback just fine, and on the other hand – what people comment on, often upset me. But having gone trough the list of fallacious argument types, I guessed there was something wrong with the commentary these people tried to pass off as “feedback.”
Pls be Brutally Honest™
So, my attitude became, “I can handle criticism, please be brutally honest with me.” I was taking it very seriously – IN THEORY – I’m going to listen to everything they say and assume what is being said is done so with good intentions.
Over time I even managed to detach myself from the team and the company, I started reading more and getting interested in some things, I was starting to look for myself, trying to find something that would capture my interest – in short – I stopped giving a fuck about some shit.
But conflicts came up again, and there I was paying more attention to what was going on. My intent of listening, trusting the other person can be brutally honest with me evaporated quickly – because it became very clear to me other people, clashing with you in conflict do not really give a shit about being “brutally honest” in all fairness.
Turns out I wasn’t all that Special
Because just like me – they had all their stakes in the game, in the company, just like me, they had no other life but that, just like me they were competing in the background, trying to prove they had earned their place, or worked hard to gain more status and be trusted with more responsibility. I learned that it was always personal for everyone, and nobody was being brutally honest.
Tough crowd! Those days are behind (with a few exceptions in people I might have to cooperate with from time to time – but I don’t bother myself with their personal motivations – it’s fine).
Clash of Emotional Titans
“You’re being too sensitive.” That’s a big fucking lie. Shortly after trying to change my attitudes into tough love I figured out those who commented on my sensitivity or inability to handle criticism were actually the most sensitive of them all. They were surprised about getting their feelings pushed back into their throat, that’s what it was. They flung some shit and started crying when someone dared to fling it right back at them. And those who didn’t start crying brought a trebuchet and loaded their lifetime supply of shit on it – they catapult it over so I find my self in neck deep trying to navigate my way out from someone else’s fucked up fantasy about how the world works.
Now, I intended to end the story there, but as I’m writing, the handsome Wittgenstein comes to mind. And while what people tries to pass as criticism or honesty was in most cases just a load of shit – one thing I did keep over-looking: it was still feedback. While I was looking for feedback in words and logic and rationale, when I dreamed of one day meeting people who can give me a beautiful honest opinion, expertly articulated, a rhetorical miracle – criticism or compliment, I missed out on what’s really here, what’s really going on, what was the signal I was really getting – what were the actual contents of the feedback I was completely oblivious to (but that’s alright, because everyone else was completely oblivious to it, too)…
The feedback was emotional, and there were really strong signals there. Conflict emerged out of as if nowhere often times – and today I think it wasn’t rally “from nowhere” – but from the fact that people were rotting inside, giving their time, life and energy to a cause that wasn’t really calling to them; grunting and rolling that idiotic boulder up the mountain – as soon as you dare to rest, it falls down and you have to start over. A roller-coaster and a running wheel – misled to believe if you stop, your life is over.
And none of us wanted to die. But while we were proverbially keeping our necks out of the shit, we were withering away. That was the signal.
When someone offering you shit sandwiches and you’re either happy about them or want to turn them down – I think it says nothing about your capability of handling criticism. Applying tough love on yourself or wishing others did more if it, or wishing others showed more of it to you – that’s not discipline, that’s self-torture. And that might say something about you trying to come to bloom in the wrong kind of fertiliser.
Tough Love is NOT Discipline
So, this is why we can’t conflate discipline and tough love. And as soon as we do – it confuses the soul! Sometimes I come across people who are in this sort of phase, and they put out a very proud display about it. And they seem to understand that it doesn’t vibe well with other people, and it makes them even worse as team-players, but they keep telling themselves this beautiful lie: “they are too sensitive, they can’t handle my toughness.” But no, I think they vibe the wrong way because when the shit hits the fan, all that toughness evaporates – tough guy won’t be around to save you. Turns out he might even rely on someone else to save him! Not that there’s anything wrong with getting help from someone else – but trying to make it look like anything else in good times is nothing but deceptive. Worse – it’s self-deceptive.
With tough love we don’t improve ourselves or the world, but demand people discard their emotions; we assume those other people are in any position to give us any relevant feedback about our situations – tough love, in this case – signals extreme self-centredness – nothing but selfish and naive in all the wrong ways.
Spank me Daddy
Besides – rarely will you find a person who isn’t too concerned about their status to have it skew what comes out of their mouth any given second. Gurus as father figures are quite a common sight these days. And tough lovers looking for those signal yet another problem – they do not want to own themselves, and keep it that was for as long as they can get away with it…
Cheers babes o/
Tobi Lutke (@tobi) is the CEO of Shopify
He's one of my favorite CLEAR thinkers
I spent some time in lockdown going through his interviews
Here are 6 mental models I got from it
— George Mack (@george__mack) May 18, 2020