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What product development teaches us about self-improvement

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While the digital revolution has brought with it many conceptual changes, one of the most pronounced is that of the version release.

Your phone is considered outdated if it’s a year old, and obsolete if you bought it three years ago. Whenever you connect to Wi-Fi your apps undergo a version update. The Facebook you’re using today is not the same version you posted to last week. Tesla cars run version releases overnight. And software is updated regularly — just as you manage to wrap your head around the latest iPhone UI, a new version is out. Chock-full of new features! A new interface! New functionality!

Change for the better

Products are not the only ones prone to constant change and improvement. So are work processes (e.g. from waterfall to scrum), team dynamics, organizational structures and business functions. In Japan, the concept of kaizen — literally, “change for the better” — has been applied to the workplace, referring to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve employees from the CEO to assembly-line workers. It is a concept now deeply embedded in the collective consciousness — and it can’t help but filter into the realm of the self.

Self-improvement is nothing new. All religions call for personal development, as did the ancient Greek and Roman techniques of epimeleia. Aristotle was all for it, as was Confucius. But never have these ideas turned into such a sprawling industry as in the age of version releases. Self-help, coaching, fitness, beauty enhancement, workshops and motivational speaking are all aligned to bring out the next version release of you.

The pressure to improve and evolve has never been greater.

But the crux of the matter is that improvement is easier said than done: It demands both a will and an ability to change, but also a strong enough backbone as to not lose your identity or sway to the wind of every passing buzz.

And it demands an ability to cope with the fallout of change, because moving things around often uncovers a weak underbelly. But most of all, it requires you to take honest stock of where you are and where you want to go. Not to mention the stamina to work your way through the obstacles that surely will come.

Personal lessons from the product world

Eventually, I heeded my dad’s advice and hired a developer. The thing is, I never let him go. On the contrary: I hired more developers and product people, who have since released the first version of our software, and then improved on that for version 2.0 and have been going on ever since, soon to release version 5.0 to our growing cadre of more than 200 clients. In the interim, there were dozens of smaller releases, coming out monthly, and a constant buzz of ongoing version updates.

What is the essence of human life but continuously striving to become the best version of yourself?

Along the way, I also released new versions of myself: versions better able to cope with change, better adapted to the turbulence inherent in building and running a startup on three continents, and, as life demanded, better suited for marriage and fatherhood. And I did this by implementing in the realms of the self the hard lessons I learned from my work in product.

Here they are, in a nutshell:

Rely on user feedback. Product teams look for new features to build based in part on user feedback. In the context of interpersonal relationships, we often tend to scoff at criticism or negative feedback, but those are actually golden opportunities for growth. Just as developers sometimes have blind spots concerning the product, or misunderstandings regarding the ways people will be affected by different features, so do we as individuals regarding ourselves. We should seriously and open-heartedly listen to feedback from those around us (co-workers, friends, family) to identify areas for self-improvement.

Set deadlines. Similarly, product teams are typically held to deadlines. The optimization they’re looking for is not some vague idea, to be considered when the time is right. Deadlines demand a serious, concentrated effort that yields results, and is a great tool for focusing. In the same vein, people should set their own deadlines for self-improvement. Goal setting is a crucial element in both product and personal improvement.

Identify unique differentiators. Products are also often created or updated to fill holes in the marketplace with a unique differentiator. This demands an understanding of the product’s identity, of what needs development and, no less important, what not to develop. This same idea could apply to people too, especially in the workplace, where employees should look around and identify what no one else in their company is doing and then build the skills and expertise to help their company succeed in a certain area. And it is no less relevant in a social and interpersonal context.

Go agile. As you progress with the methodology of your self-improvement, the tenants of “agile marketing” can also come in handy. For example, develop small, incremental releases and iterate. This is a very optimistic concept for personal development: The goal you’re aiming at doesn’t need to happen in full tomorrow morning. It’s enough that you take small steps toward it, one after the other, to ensure that you will get there eventually.

Relearning what we forgot

Soon after my son was born I realized that version releases are actually built in to human development. It was as though he was releasing a new version of himself daily, with a major release every couple of months: The first smile — a killer feature! The roll over — an audience grabber! The first step — now more user-friendly than ever! And in order to do this he was relying on user feedback, sticking to hard-coded deadlines, carving out his unique differentiation and running the most agile show in town.

This age of the version release carries with it a trade-off. On the one hand, nothing is ever finished, everything is temporary and the new quickly becomes outdated. Staying relevant is becoming ever harder. On the other hand, it carries the sweet and hopeful promise for betterment. There will always be the next version release — of your favorite app, of that annoying bug in the software, of the camera on your phone — and, if you work hard enough, even of you.

What is the essence of human life but continuously striving to become the best version of yourself, ultimately achieving your full potential?