I’m in the middle of reading Ray Dalio’s book Principles. I’ve just come on a part I really like where Dalio describes what shapers are. I’ve copy and pasted the entire text below.
Within a few decades, Ray Dalio built Bridgewater from a tiny investment office ran out of his apartment to the largest hedgefund in the world with thousands of employees. Dalio was, obviously, the force behind the company.
So, as he got ready for retirement, Dalio and his team had to figure out how to find someone(s) to replace him. In doing this, Dalio started to research “shapers,” which he defined as someone who comes up with unique and valuable visions and builds them out, typically over the doubts and opposition of others.
These are folks like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. People who’ve made huge dents in the world.
Anyway, here’s how Dalio describes shapers. I’ve highlighted my favorite parts:
It turns out they have a lot in common. They are all independent thinkers who do not let anything or anyone stand in the way of achieving their audacious goals.
They have very strong mental maps 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, either because they have that vision themselves or because they know how to get it from others who can see what they can’t.
All are able to see both big pictures and granular details (and levels in between) 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.
Take Elon Musk. When he had just come out with the Tesla and showed me his own car for the first time, he had as much to say about the key fob that opened the doors as he did about his overarching vision for how Tesla fits into the broader future of transportation and how important that is to our planet. Later on, when I asked him how he came to start his company SpaceX, the audacity of his answer startled me.
“For a long time,” he answered, “I’ve thought that it’s inevitable that something bad is going to happen on a planetary scale—a plague, a meteor—that will require humanity to start over somewhere else, like Mars. One day I went to the NASA website to see what progress they were making on their Mars program, and I realized that they weren’t even thinking about going there anytime soon.
“I had gotten $180 million when my partners and I sold PayPal,” he continued, “and it occurred to me that if I spent $90 million and used it to acquire some ICBMs from the former USSR and sent one to Mars, I could inspire the exploration of Mars.”
When I asked him about his background in rocketry, he told me he didn’t have one. “I just started reading books,” he said.
That’s how shapers think and act.
At times, their extreme determination to achieve their goals can make them appear abrasive or inconsiderate, which was reflected in their test results.
Nothing is ever good enough, and they experience the gap between what is and what could be as both a tragedy and a source of unending motivation.
No one can stand in the way of their achieving what they’re going after. On one of the personality assessments there is a category they all ranked low on called “Concern for Others.”
But that doesn’t mean quite what it sounds like.
Consider Muhammad Yunus, for example. A great philanthropist, he has devoted his life to helping others. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering the ideas of microcredit and microfinance and has won the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, and more.
Yet he tested low on “Concern for Others.”
Geoffrey Canada, who has devoted most of his adult life to taking care of all the disadvantaged children in a hundred-square-block area of New York’s Harlem, also tested low on “Concern for Others.”
Bill Gates, who is devoting most of his wealth and energy to saving and improving lives, tested low as well.
Obviously Yunus, Canada, and Gates care deeply about other people, yet the personality tests they took rated them low.
Why was that?
In speaking with them and reviewing the questions that led to these ratings, it became clear: When faced with a choice between achieving their goal or pleasing (or not disappointing) others, they would choose achieving their goal every time.
Through this investigative process, I learned that there are distinctly different types of shapers. The most important difference lies in whether their shaping comes in the form of inventing, managing, or both.
For example, while Einstein shaped by inventing, he didn’t have to manage, and while Jack Welch (who ran GE) and Lou Gerstner (who ran IBM) were great managers/leaders of people, they didn’t have to be as inventive.
The rarest cases were people like Jobs, Musk, Gates, and Bezos, who were inventive visionaries and managed big organizations to build those visions out.
There are a lot of people who look like shapers, in that they came up with a great idea and got it to the point where they could sell it for a lot of money, but did not shape consistently. Silicon Valley has many of these types; perhaps they should be called “inventors.”
I also saw that there were wonderful leaders of organizations who weren’t classic shapers, in that they didn’t come up with the original visions and build them out; rather, they entered existing organizations and led them well.
Only true shapers consistently move from one success to another and sustain success over decades, and those are the people I want to bring to Bridgewater.
My examination of shapers and my reflections on my own qualities made clear to me that nobody sees the full range of what they need to see in order to be exceptionally successful, though some see a wider range than others. Those that do best both see a wide range themselves while triangulating well with other brilliant people who see things in different, complementary ways.
This realization has been important in making my transition out of management go well. While in the past I would encounter problems, figure out their causes, and design my own ways to get around them, others who think differently than I do will make different diagnoses and designs.
My job as mentor was to help them be successful at that. This exercise reminded me that there are far fewer types of people in the world than there are people and far fewer different types of situations than there are situations, so matching the right types of people to the right types of situations is key.
Because Gates and Jobs had recently left Microsoft and Apple, I watched their former organizations closely to help me better understand how I could help prepare Bridgewater to thrive without me.
Certainly the most notable difference between them and Bridgewater was in our cultures—how we use the idea meritocracy of radical truth and radical transparency to bring problems and weaknesses to the surface to prompt forthright dealing with them.
I liked this passage for a few reasons.
It certainly helps me understand some people I know who are incredibly driven. I’ve had teachers who I thought were brilliant, driven and dedicated to helping others yet were complete assholes. I’ve had coworkers like that too.
It also helps me be more self-aware of myself. Not because I consider myself a shaper or visionary, but to be more aware of how others feel about me.
For example, in reading this I understood more about the shapers I knew. Often, I just chalk up their behavior to being an ass and not caring. But in reality it’s that they’re driven by the result, not necessarily selfishness.
I agree with that way of thinking. Results > other’s feelings. But after reading it’s obvious how important it is to communicate where I’m going from.
I’m only part way through Ray Dalio’s Principles. So far it’s pretty great. I highly recommend giving it a read!