Be a Shaper.

Unpacking How You Can Become One

I’m working my way, slowly, through Ray Dalio’s Principles. It’s not a book you skim through. Nor is it a gripping narrative that drives you from beginning to end. Instead, it is a collection of meaty concepts that require thought and processing.

Ray Dalio is a hedge fund manager, having created the largest ever, Bridgewater Associates. In this book he documents the concepts and the principles which led to his success.

One concept he discusses is that of a shaper. Examples of shapers include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Reed Hastings.

A shaper, according to Dalio, has a strong mental map of how things should be done, and at the same time a willingness to test those mental maps in the world of reality and change the ways they do things to make them work better. They are extremely resilient, because their need to achieve what they envision is stronger than the pain they experience as they struggle to achieve it. Perhaps most interesting, they have a wider range of vision than most people, all are able to see both big pictures and granular details and synthesize the perspectives they gain at those different levels, whereas most people see just one or the other. They are simultaneously creative, systematic, and practical. They are assertive and open-minded at the same time. Above all, they are passionate about what they are doing, intolerant of people who work for them who aren’t excellent at what they do, and want to have a big, beneficial impact on the world.

That’s dense.

Let’s unpack it:

“They have strong mental maps of how things should be done…”

  • This is a concept Dalio uses a lot. A mental map is that clear image you have of where you want to go. It’s not just a goal. It’s a clear view of how to get to that goal.

“…at the same time a willingness to test those mental models in the world of reality…”

  • A shaper engages in endless feedback of their ideas and their mental map. This ensures the ideas are tested, challenged, and improved upon. In the meantime, by sharing your model, it becomes understood by others. Others, hopefully, adopt that model. At least, others understand where you’re coming from, so when decisions are made with that model, your teammates understood what drives them.

“They are extremely resilient, because their need to achieve what they envision is stronger than the pain they experience as they struggle to achieve it”

  • A shaper will face pushback. In addition, he or she will face something worse: inertia. The shaper needs to have strength and resiliency to continue to advocate that vision and find new ways to communicate it.

“They have a wider range of vision than most people. They all are able to see both big pictures and granular details and synthesize the perspectives they gain at those different levels, whereas most people see just one or the other.”

  • This is key. A shaper understands the details, but doesn’t get bogged down by them. Simultaneously, he or she can zoom out and see the overall picture. This ability to go back and forth, between the big and the small, is vital.

“They are passionate about what they are doing.”

  • This is a must. Passion will the shaper through those dips and through the times where the pushback and inertia are strong.

“They are simultaneously creative, systematic and practical.”

  • This is classic Steve Jobs. Jobs had the mind of an engineer to envision and build the products, but at the same time had the soul and creativity of a designer, to ensure those products are delivered in a way that’s easy to use, with the knack for marketing to spark passion. (Think: “1000 songs in your pocket” for the iPod).
  • Some theorists classify each of these characteristics as distinct intelligence traits, suggesting that we are inherently one or the other. I doubt it. I’ve seen many examples of where people hold more than one trait. And you don’t have to be Steve Jobs. It’s not easy, but you need to be diligent about trying a new discipline.

“They want to have a big, beneficial impact on the world.”

  • Shapers think beyond themselves or their own reward. Instead, the shaper is genuinely passionate about having a real impact on their company, their customers, and the world.

So here’s the thing. Each of us can be a shaper. Even those of us who aren’t leading technology companies, building Hyperloops or leading massive hedgefunds. I’m an aspiring shaper. I’m involved in efforts to rethink how we engage with our customers. Our ideas aren’t perfect, but we’re continuously working to get the ideas out there, to test them, and make them stronger. We face pushback and inertia daily. But we’re working to be strong and resilient, and to incorporate the feedback we receive along the way.

technologist, cultural omnivore, book nut, father

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