Jazz, Malcolm X, and Building World-Class Teams

There's no speed limit on personal growth.

If you missed part one of this series on Shopify and Tobi Lütke on decision-making at Shopify, you can read it here. If you’re a first-time reader, subscribe below to have next week’s edition delivered to your inbox.


Jazz Music ➡️ Team Building

Listen to Tobi Lütke speak and you’ll realise how deeply entrenched his love for learning is. He wants to learn from every situation and every person he comes across. It’s the bedrock of Tobi's belief system. As he says, "Our job in life is to acquire knowledge and wisdom and share it."  

In an interview, Tobi was asked if he had any regrets from childhood. He responded that he wished he would’ve learned an instrument. Speaking about the question, he says: “I was sitting down and thinking, ‘Hey, I can't outsource the blame of not learning an instrument to my thirteen-year-old self. My thirteen-year-old self was busy with whatever my thirteen-year-old self prioritized.’ I need to own that I didn't practice or learn an instrument. If I actually want to learn an instrument, I can't complain about it, I need to go and learn an instrument. I’ve befriended a bunch of musicians along the way, and I’ve learnt so many amazing lessons from them.”

Tobi goes on to say that figuring out how jazz music works has probably been the single best lesson he’s ever come across in building world-class teams, before explaining:

“I found jazz hard to penetrate initially. I've grown to like it because I have an appreciation for how certain parts of it work. There’s a very, very fine set of rules. Basically, people show up with a mastery of certain instruments. Someone ends up being the jazz director and the rest of the band follows. What I love so much about this is that it’s such a great analogy for how someone has a vision for a piece of music that didn't exist before. It's not that there's a full agreement or operational perfection. It’s not that everything is spelt out and that there’s a song sheet and everyone's practising. It's that everyone brings their own skillset to the piece of music. It's an exploration into a piece of music and you don't know where it's leading.”

The connection to building world-class teams becomes obvious when he says (emphasis mine):

It's trust in a particular, designated person who is not telling everyone what to do but is just taking everyone on a journey that explores a space that befits the situation and the context. Every note that everyone hits is not something that someone who is long dead told them to hit. It's the best note they can hit based on all the learning they’ve done as a musician in their entire lifetime. I think that's beautiful as a metaphor for how great products are created. We find that when organizing teams, explaining this creates a lot of comfort around a little bit less structure and prompts a more open mindset. It enables creative exploration into complex and difficult spaces.

This story acts as a perfect example of the transfer of learning. Transfer of learning occurs when people apply information, strategies, and skills they’ve learned to a new situation or context. Prior learning assists new learning, meaning the more you learn, the quicker you learn. You begin to identify patterns and lessons that are consistent across a variety of domains. More importantly, you develop the ability to take arbitrary ideas and apply them to your conditions. 

“I find that the first 80% of every field is pretty quick to learn—it’s equivalent to the Pareto principle—and I think that creativity is generally people using lessons from one field in another field in different ways. - Lütke

Every field has core principles that you discover by learning from and talking to people that have mastered it. Going wide and learning the best lessons from the people who have dedicated their entire lives to a certain pursuit gets you really, really close to mastery.  


Learning To Navigate Uncertainty

In the first part of this series, I identified the four foundations of Lütke’s decision-making toolkit. One of them was navigating uncertainty and doing it consistently. Let’s look at how someone might go about understanding and developing that skill.

Games are powerful learning tools because they’re non-deterministic. There’s always someone attempting to stifle your plans in an unpredictable way. In StarCraft, the way to handle this is to have enough defence to protect against it, but not so much that you spend too many resources on it since that harms you in the long run. You learn to manage your finite attentional and physical resources to obtain the maximum amount of information that is to your unfair advantage, and then incorporate it into your game plan. 

You get better at learning new things, navigating new systems and adjusting to new rules. You get better at overcoming the frustration games are designed to make you feel. You have to adapt and get better. As you do, you build confidence in your ability to navigate uncertainty.

The importance of learning and resiliency isn't unique to Tobi Lütke. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek shares his sentiment: 

“I value agility and learning way more than I value the fact that you're really good at your job, or that you’re really good at doing a few things. If you create an environment where you can fail, that is transparent and where you're allowed to iterate and learn on the job, you create a learning organism that keeps getting better and better and better at a higher and higher pace than ever before. As a culture, that feels a lot more resilient than one that relies on someone having a godlike ability to see the future before anyone else sees it. I've never been that type of entrepreneur. I wouldn't know where to begin in inventing the next iPhone, but I do know how to make something a bit better.”  - Daniel Ek

It’s on display outside of tech, too. During his time in prison, Malcolm X began to learn. He explored religion. He taught himself to be a reader by checking out a pencil and the dictionary from the prison library and not only consumed it from start to finish, but copied it down longhand from cover to cover. All these words he’d never known existed before were transferred to his brain. As he said later, “From then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading in my bunk.” He read history, he read sociology, he read about religion, he read the classics, he read philosophers like Kant and Spinoza. Later, a reporter asked him, “What’s your alma mater?” His one-word answer: “Books.” Prison was his college. Learning was his gateway to a new life.

In a world that changes as quickly and as frequently as ours, your ability to adapt, remain agile, and continue learning, is the key to your success.


On Growth

In various interviews and podcasts, Tobi makes reference to a growth mindset, which is connected with his growth as a leader and Shopify's growth as a company. 

Carol Dweck shows convincingly that the most reliable predictor for long-term success is having a “growth mindset.” To actively seek and welcome feedback, be it positive or negative, is one of the most important factors for success (and happiness) in the long run. Conversely, nothing is a bigger hindrance to personal growth than having a “fixed mindset.” Those who fear and avoid feedback because it might damage their cherished positive self-image might feel better in the short term, but will quickly fall behind in actual performance. 

“I really love failing. I feel good when I do something, and it just doesn't work, especially if I get feedback about why it didn't work. That gives me a project to work on to improve.” - Tobi Lütke

Personal growth is a focus throughout the company. I asked on Twitter what it’s like working at Shopify. One of the replies showcases this: 

Shopify has a unique and powerful perspective on personal growth. Many companies encourage employee development, but few facilitate it as well as Shopify.

“I have seen so many people at Shopify experience 10 years of career advancement in a single calendar year. Partly because the student was ready and partly because the teachers appeared at the right moment. There is no speed limit to personal growth. It depends on your interests. It depends on the environment.” - Tobi Lütke


In this series:

Part 1 - Thinking Like Tobi: A Sneak Peek into The Shopify Decision-Making Machine

Part 2 - Jazz, Malcolm X, and Building World-Class Teams

Part 3 - Is Shopify The Most Intoxicating Company on The Planet? (Coming next week)

Part 4 - Understanding the Shopify Product AKA Why Shopify isn’t Amazon