Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men,
and anyone else that's interested.

My sons,

Ownership is one of the current day buzz words of the tech industry. Everyone seems to be talking about it. Amazon even has it as one of its Leadership Principles. And it’s generally accepted as an unambiguously good thing. But what is it really, and is it actually as good of a trait as we’re led to believe?

When we think about ownership, we generally think of the term in the possessive, the responsible. When it comes to something that we own, we think about the responsibility that we feel for it, the value we assign to it, and the care that we demonstrate in regards to it. We think about the joy derived from our ownership of it, of our uses for it, and ultimately for how it fits into the grand scheme of our lives.

Surely those are all good things, right?

Switching gears to our professional lives, ownership is generally associated with strong, positive behaviors on behalf of a team or an organization. When someone is said to demonstrate “strong Amazon ownership”, we associate all positives with the statement. We conjure images of the employee who demonstrates an almost devout sense of dedication to the team, the cause, and the product. We think, “wow, this person is consistently willing to go above and beyond”, and we sing their praises anywhere and everywhere that we can.

The converse is true as well. When we say people don’t demonstrate ownership, we immediately associate a number of negative connotations with them. They may be selfish, and do not do what is needed in favor of doing what they prefer. They may be lazy, not willing to go the extra mile. They may be not have backbone, preferring to back down from a fight rather than standing their ground for what’s right.

The challenge here is that there’s quite a bit more nuance when it comes to ownership than what meets the eye, and as such we should consider carefully the details that may not be entirely obvious at first glance.

We strongly overvalue the things that we have

Have you ever sold something in your possession? Whether it’s selling a car that you’ve outgrown, clearing out your dorm room as you prepare for graduation, or having a garage sale before a big move, we almost always overvalue the things that we have. This is because when we go to sell the thing, we immediately remember the great memories we’ve had with it. We remember the feeling of freedom that our first car provided, the sense of home and belonging the very first piece of furniture purchased for our first apartment brought, or the sense of accomplishment and adultness we felt mounting our first piece of artwork on the wall.

These feelings, memories, and experiences have shaped us, have made us who we are, and have left their strongly positive impact on our lives, and so we proceed to subjectively assign objective values to them.

The same is true in our professional spaces. We have incredibly fond feelings for the things that we’ve built, whether they be products, processes, teams, or even companies. The blood, sweat, and tears that we poured into delivering a risky feature in time; the long recruiting trips, lengthy conversations, and dozens of sell calls required to hire our team; the hundreds of walls we slammed our heads into before finally discovering the solution that beautifully brings it all together - all of these experiences have shaped us, grown us, and made us better professionals. They bring us joy at their memory, pleasure at their reminiscence.

And we overvalue them.

Whether it’s overvaluing the skill and effectiveness of our team, the importance of our project, or even our own contributions and impact, we have a very difficult time objectively assessing the true value of the things that are entrusted to our care.

We have a strong aversion to loss

When it comes to the prospect of losing something in our possession, our overemphasis of what we may lose is very strong. It is emotional, it is not rational. We intrinsically have a strong emotional attachment to things that we own, and therefore have a strong emotional aversion to losing those things.

This starts at a very young age. It is a very common sight to see a young child fiercely defend their toy from another, for fear of losing that toy. “Mine!”, they scream, only to put the toy down and race after another when they discover that the other kid has lost interest in their toy. The fear of losing what’s ours is incredibly strong.

This is again true in our professional lives. We have a strong aversion to the loss of whatever it is we’ve accrued; reputation, prestige, influence, team scope, headcount, even superfluous things like the bigger office, the better view, or the desk closer to the kitchen. While it may be somewhat positive to be protective of one’s team, and while there are times when having backbone to fight to keep strong value that we’re adding for our customers, our aversion to loss may often overpower those other benefits if we’re not carefully aware of ourselves.

We assume others see transactions from the same vantage point that we do

When it comes to transactional exchanges, we assume that others see the transactional targets with the same value that we do. Typically we are giving up something we currently own in exchange for something we currently do not, and we assume that the other party sees both objects in the same light that we do.

Since we tend to overvalue things we own, we are already prone to seeing our side of the transaction as having a higher value than it might objectively have, which our transactional counterpart will not see. Further, our counterpart will in turn see their side of the transaction as having a higher value than we will see, making this a double whammy and creating potential hurdles for us to have mutually satisfying transactions.

Overvaluing ideas

A final observation is that these quirks about ownership apply to the idea marketplace as well! We tend to overvalue our ideas and opinions, and will feel a sense loss when they are not valued, changed, or discarded. This too is natural.

Earlier in my career, I had a really great idea. I was working on the C# compiler at the time, and my buddy and I had this great idea to take the compiler and split it out into distinct phases, allowing those phases to be called at various times from the IDE. We spent a bunch of time building this, getting all our tests passing and all that. Then when we pitched it to our boss, he said no. I couldn’t believe it. How dare he! I couldn’t even hear his reasons I was so mad!

I made all of the mistakes we’ve been talking about. I overvalued my idea because it was mine. I overvalued the work that we had done on our prototype because I had poured my heart into it. I assumed he saw things from my perspective and valued the same things I did. Turns out, all those things were blind spots for me.

So what do we do with all this?

I believe that the key is to be aware of these quirks about ownership. There are undoubtedly many great outcomes to be had from demonstrating strong ownership, and it is without question a trait that is highly valued - required even - on great teams. But like most other things in life, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing, and these small quirks of ownership can rear their ugly heads at precisely the wrong moments if we leave them unchecked.

My hope for you is that you encourage one another to check that. That you never let your strong sense of ownership turn into competition, jealousy, overprotectiveness, or any of the other myriad of challenges that come from overcompensation of a good trait. Keep each other accountable in this, and be well.



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