People sometimes tell me that I should follow in the footsteps of author Tim Ferriss, given my penchant for travel and remote work. I have a couple of qualms with this:
In my opinion, Tim Ferriss often comes off as a douche – in both speaking engagements and in writing. I’m sure he has good intentions to help people – but his delivery of advice is a mix of humblebragging (look at all this cool shit I’m doing) and light condescension of people living “normal lives” (what you can’t pull this off?). I was looking for a clip of him speaking that exemplifies this, but I think this will do:
I know I can be pretentious at times, too – but at least I try to catch myself and would hope I never get to Tim Ferriss’ level of aggrandizement.
Tim Ferriss advocates for a world where no one actively works on building or maintaining anything. He would have you create something once and passively sell it forever, thinking as little as possible about improving it or creating new products. All while outsourcing your tedious tasks to some poor folks in India.
This bothers me mostly because I am a product manager – and no half-decent PM would release a v1 without some sort of long-term vision or roadmap for where the product should go. I am also a very hands-on PM, so the idea of letting someone else manage my inbox makes me nervous.
I don’t often write about my day job as a product manager, mostly because I feel there is already so much good content from blogs like Learning by Shipping or podcasts like This Is Product Management. But recently I came across a few studies that I thought I could chain together into a theory – something that I haven’t seen covered before by any of the product managers I’ve been exposed to.
This theory is about social media and its impact on product managers specifically. I believe there is an inverse correlation between the use of social media and the effectiveness of a product manager, and here I’ll outline why.
Social media use linked to narcissism
It is clear that there has been a sharp rise in narcissism (at least in the US) over the past few decades. It is not yet clear that social media is a definite cause, but it has been shown that social media accentuates narcissistic tendencies and provides the platform to exercise them. We’ll have to keep monitoring the research on this, but for now it can be assumed that social media is just not helping with the narcissism crisis we are seeing – and could be making it worse.
Narcissism leads to a lack of empathy
If there is one hallmark trait of a narcissist, it is that they lack the ability to emphasize with other people. By default, narcissists just don’t care how others feel – and this ambivalence scales along with the severity of narcissism. Sure, there might be a category of empathetic narcissists, but even they have trouble applying their empathy to make real changes in behavior towards others.
Empathy is essential in a product management role
It’s hard to overstate the importance of empathy in life, regardless of whether it is used at work. It is well documented that empathetic people are happier, have longer-lasting relationships, and excel in their professional aspirations.
Empathetic people also have the ability to understand the unique needs of individuals they interact with, which is coincidentally a huge part of what makes a great product manager. The needs of customers, teammates, and project stakeholders are all critical to consider in order to deliver the right product in the right way – and this is all powered by empathy! Case in point – I have personally seen my own work shine or suffer depending on how deeply I was able to empathize with the people around me. Hence, I am convinced empathy is the one skill to develop and look for when seeking PMs for any product.
So social media use exacerbates narcissism, narcissism suppresses empathy, and that lack of empathy hampers a product manager’s ability to deliver the best possible product to market. The thinking is fairly straightforward, but there are a few points that can be poked at and/or researched more:
Does social media actively introduce narcissism in those who don’t historically have it? Or does it just amplify the narcissism that already exists?
Is it possible for certain types of people with narcissism to force themselves to empathize, if only to fulfill a certain job role?
Does some effect of narcissism outside of empathy (e.g., self-confidence) perhaps benefit people in product management roles, countering the negative effects?
Too much for me to tackle on my own, but for now I plan to take my new theory to heart and work at growing my own empathetic abilities while being more cognizant on how I use social media.
If you have any thoughts or counter-points to this theory, I’d love to hear them!
P.S. Shout out to Barking Up the Wrong Tree, one of my favorite blogs on human behavior, for inspiration and many of the references to studies mentioned here.
So I’ve just resettled back in San Francisco after living and working 5 months in Sydney and 7 months in Ho Chi Minh City. It has definitely been a challenge to readjust to life at “home” and I’ve struggled to accurately convey this to folks who have asked about it. Some common sentiments that are shared:
“It must be nice to be back after so long!”
“Did you miss life back here?”
“Your family/friends must be so happy to see you!”
To all these well-meaning sentiments, I’ve only been able to respond with a hesitant, “Well, yes and no…”. Here I’ll try to shed some light on what it’s like to come back to a place after extensive time abroad.
Everything is dull in comparison
Especially if you’ve been travelling to places with cultures much different than your own, there is a very real “crash” when your exposure suddenly stops. You get bored extremely easily. Nothing excites you anymore. Food tastes bland. All buildings start to look the same and blur together. Even within the most beautiful cities in North America (e.g. Vancouver, San Francisco), you can’t help but get the sense that there’s nothing interesting going on anymore.
It’s all in your head, of course, but that’s what this “reverse culture shock” feels like.
You feel like it was all a dream
As memories of your time abroad start to shift themselves into the long-term part of your brain, you start getting the sense that they could have all been manufactured. The places you went, the people you met – were they real? Did you really live like that for so long?
Looking at pictures helps, but only so much. Those fond memories seem like a world away – and in a way, they were.
You want to leave, but then you don’t
It’s common for frequent travelers to report a “travel bug” they get if they stay at home too long. It’s this wanderlust that drives some to continue travelling for years on end. (Everything being dull on their return certainly contributes to this.)
What is not so commonly reported is that extensive travel has some real downsides – and if you’ve felt them before you’ll stop and think twice before committing to another round so quickly. You’ll remember that the lifestyle includes isolation (a.k.a. “crippling loneliness”), a lack of routine that the body craves (including exercise), and a longing for familiarity that serves as the cruel antithesis of the boredom you’ll feel when you return.
This conflict of feelings may be enough to put you into analysis paralysis – when you realize you can’t be happy at home and you can’t be happy abroad either.
No one fully understands your story
When you try to tell your friends and family about all this, they are most likely going to respond with blank stares or platitudes on how great it must be to travel all the time. And you really can’t blame them – most people think of travel as infinite upside and are unaware of the downsides.
It’s rare to find someone who can truly relate to the entirety of your experience. You’re more likely to be perceived as spoiled or entitled, as this sketch clearly shows:
And it’s a completely fair perception. The lesson here is that it’s important to not take your experiences for granted and do more internal reflection rather than expecting others to understand everything that’s going on.
You’re more alone than when you started
Extended time away from the people you love means that you will start drifting – there is no avoiding it. Despite your best efforts to arrange visits or draw them into your world, the fact is that most people will assume you are “gone” the minute you declare your outbound flight. (They may not even be aware when you return!) You will most likely be left off invite lists to birthdays, housewarmings, etc. as the operating assumption is that you will not be able to make it – and that’s totally fair. But it also results in fewer and fewer opportunities to stay caught up between friends, which ultimately makes it harder to reconnect when you return.
Do you even know what is new in these people’s lives? Not everything is posted on social media. When you meet up again, how much of their story can they catch you up on without omitting the colorful details that make the memories stick? Be aware that your relationships will be reset – most of them shallower as a result.
This is unfortunate, but there are exceptions to be found – notably with those you hold the deepest relationships with. Old, lifelong friends are those that you can meet up with and continue as if you were never away. Hope that you have some of those waiting for you.
I believe it’s important to share these experiences, despite them being incongruent with the typical glamorous thought pieces about travel. My hope is that highlighting these challenges will help me overcome them myself, as well as encourage others (like Charlie Guo) to share their own. Feel free to share your thoughts here as well.