I posted this internally to Medium employees on Jan 22, 2014. See Hatching Inside Medium for more context.

Why the Company’s Success Should be Your Focus

This is a startup. That’s a bit of a loaded word these days — and a confusing one. What I mean is simply this: Our business is not sustainable yet. We are not simply trying to grow something or optimize something, we’re trying to jump-start an engine of growth and goodness from scratch.

Our success is not guaranteed. In fact, statistically speaking, it’s unlikely. As cliche as it sounds, we really are all in this together. There is no room for ego battles, infighting, or putting one’s own interests ahead of the group’s. In fact:

Your interests are the group’s.

While any company would want their people to act this way, startups are different. In a larger, established organization, it may actually be rational for an individual to put their own interests first — to compete with others internally for credit or status or control. That may work as a strategy to “get ahead,” and there is often little that one individual can do to measurably affect the success of the whole company. So, even though selfish behavior is bad for the organization, it has a minuscule effect globally. In a big organization, the net effect of putting one’s interests first could benefit the individual, especially in the short term.

But you work here. Which means: 1) You can affect the success of the whole company. 2) The most fundamental element that will impact your personal success — your career, your income, your (work) happiness — is the company’s success. On the downside, that means if we fail (yes, still possible) you have to find another job and your options aren’t worth anything and you have a non-impressive (if fondly remembered) chunk on your resume. Plus: You have to live with the grief of knowing what could have been. That will suck.

On the upside, helping build any part of a great company from an early stage (especially a wildly super great one) basically says you’re successful. If you were one of the first 100 people at Google (and were there for longer than just a bit), it looks great on your resume, made you money, and created huge opportunities for learning and growth. Also:

You can legitimately say you helped millions of people and changed the world.

The same is possible here.

So, here’s your job: Do whatever it takes to make Medium successful; don’t worry about yourself.

I don’t mean burn yourself out. I don’t mean don’t say anything if you’re not happy or feel like you’re not being treated well. That actually wouldn’t be helpful to Medium, because the best thing for the company is that you’re happy and healthy and productive for a long time.

What I mean is work hard, help others succeed, and don’t worry about personal glory or credit or “climbing the ladder.” There is no ladder in this boat. It’s small, and we’re all just paddling. If you’re worrying about the other people in the boat with you, instead of the people in the other boats trying to beat us, you’re worrying about the wrong thing.

Besides, it’s a great feeling when you’re part of a group that’s paddling like hell in the same direction. It’s the best.

Furthermore, when you’re in a small boat, you can see who’s paddling hard and who’s looking around. Meaning, in a small company, people generally know what those around them are contributing — at least over the long run. So ego-less pitching in, inglorious grunt work, and complaint-less doing whatever it takes actually is rewarded with status and credit in a well-run company. (Remember: You are surrounded by mindful and appreciative people.)

There is nothing wrong with wanting recognition, wanting to impress your co-workers, and being ambitious — as long as that energy is channeled in ways that help us succeed. But in general:

The selfish thing to do is to be selfless.

More about what this means in practice:

Don’t focus on your status, role, or rank. Humans are wired to compare themselves to those around them. But where you are on the “holarchy” is not a reflection of contribution, and everyone knows that. Be defined by how much you help, not your title.

Be supportive. Any way you can help another person at the company succeed — whether it’s by teaching them something, respectfully offering honest feedback, or simply offering encouraging words — you’re helping us all.

Be flexible. Things change. Constantly. You may be given a big opportunity and then that opportunity may go away through no fault of your own. Maybe even the wrong call was made. That happens. Things will change again, roll with the punches.

Think long term. If we succeed, there are infinite, expanding opportunities to lead and do big things. Build your reputation as a helpful, low-ego contributor, and you’ll have myriad options.

Take responsibility. This is your company; act like an owner. If something is a problem, it’s your problem. Help identify problems and do what you can to solve them — maybe that’s raising a tension; maybe it’s washing a dish.

Don’t complain. Raising tensions and concerns is helpful. Complaining about other people or departments or decisions: Usually not helpful. If you do need to complain, take your complaint to people who can do something. Don’t spread negativity; it’s toxic.

Be careful about external activities. Those who are overly focused on building their personal brand are usually not putting the company first. There are valid reasons for speaking gigs, press, etc. in that they can help the company (esp. with recruiting). But your co-workers will see through it when that is a rationalization rather than primary reason, and you’ll start to sow seeds of resentment.

Illustration by @Biz Stone

CEO of Medium, partner at Obvious Ventures, co-founder of Twitter, aspiring motivational speaker 🤸‍♂️