Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in something known as a Brain Trust. During a weekend earlier in February,
Six diverse people (with little to no previous relationship) gathered together to ask for and provide candid feedback over the course of two days.
What this means: you enter the arena with a challenge you’re facing and over the course of an hour, the others provide feedback live over a call with added written notes. This is repeated until all members have gone through the exercise.
This article by Achim Rothe, explains the concept in further detail through his own experience and lessons he learned with Brain Trusts. It was so compelling, I immediately signed up because the concept was fascinating and I was curious what the outcome would be from an event like this.
But I’ll be the first to admit: I walked into the session with mild trepidation.
I’ve attended feedback sessions before, but there was one illuminating factor to this event that differed from others:
How do you exhibit radical candor with diverse people you have no prior existing relationship with?
AKA strangers on the internet?
I mean it when I say diverse.
We were spread out across six different time zones (India, Italy, Germany, UK, Denmark, and US), six different age ranges, with six different cultures, languages, and life experiences.
And I mean it when I say candid.
One of Achim’s top priorities for this session was an emphasis on radical candor: kind and clear, specific and sincere guidance.
There were moments during the session I was taken aback by the level of brutal honesty and felt uncomfortable at times.
In an attempt to better educate myself, and educate others, I’d like to break down what radical candor means to me, and how it can be applied to others.
First of all, what’s in a word?
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
— Romeo & Juliet
It’s funny how sometimes we hear a word, but don’t really think of the specificity or meaning behind it.
Example: Ted Mosby and the word “bowl”
In this clip, Ted Mosby is demonstrating something known as “semantic satiation” — where a word slowly loses its meaning as it is repeated.
In the span of 14 seconds in this video, we see Ted repeat the word “bowl” five times (yes, I counted), and he continues repeating it further throughout the rest of the scene. In fact, I’m going to go back and count the number of times in the entire scene he says it, because it’s intellectually important and I won’t be able to close this mental open loop unless I do so.
03/17 Edit: For the sake of creative integrity, I’ve confirmed that Ted Mosby says the word “bowl” 52 times straight in that single scene.
When watching this episode for the first time, I felt the same strange sensation that Ted demonstrates here: the word eventually lost its meaning…and devolved into just a strange, gutteral sound.
But when you expand on this simple word, like physicist Richard Feynman explaining the mechanics of a rubber band, you begin to realize the complexity and elegance a single word (or concept) can hold.
A bowl is a beautiful demonstration of gravity, where due to the spherical cap shape, the contents of a bowl naturally collect at its center due to the Earth’s gravitational pull.
Moreover, as our ancestors transitioned from forages into agricultural farmers, they began to create vessels from wood, stone, and clay to hold food and supplies. Since then, the bowl has evolved to symbolize domesticity, generosity, and ritual.
Radical candor: clear and kind criticism
The word “radical candor” was thrown around a number of times during the event (nowhere near the Ted Mosby count), and while not a true example of “semantic satiation,” I did feel like the meaning of the word began to lose its power.
After our event, it dawned on me that like the concept behind the word “bowl,” I did not truly understand what really radical candor meant.
Without understanding the specificity of radical candor, in hindsight, I realize that the feedback or advice I offer can be more harmful than it can be helpful.
Radicalcandor.com shares an interesting visual to better understand radical candor and it’s cousins, when different spectrums between caring and challenging are crossed.
Radical candor is the intersection of caring personally and challenging directly. Caring personally means you care about the other person, not whether you are winning a popularity contest. Challenging directly means sharing what resonated (and did not resonate) as well as inviting the other person to do the same.
Diplomacy wins you popularity.
Caring personally earns you trust.
At it’s core, caring personally equates to common human decency: of self-sacrifice and thinking of others, to put their success and needs ahead of your own. It is not about taking, it is about generosity.
Like the fox in Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince explaining the meaning of “to tame”, caring personally is key to developing a relationship:
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“What does that mean–‘tame’?”
“You do not live here,” said the fox. “What is it that you are looking for?”
“I am looking for friends. What does that mean–‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox.
“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
It does not mean that whatever you think is the truth. That there is a right, and there is a wrong. It means to share (humble) opinions directly. In fact, it is a sign of disrespect when kind honesty is not expressed.
Radical candor, a case study:
Kim Scott, founder of Candor, Inc, shared her first experience of radical candor that led her to devote her life to this work:
Scott recalls a specific moment after giving a successful presentation to Google executives, when her former boss, Sheryl Sandberg, asked to take a walk.
Sandberg told Scott about what went well during the presentation and then shed light into areas of improvement. Finally, Sandberg said, “You said ‘um’ a lot in there, were you aware of it?”
Scott made a brush off gesture and responded, “Yeah, no it’s verbal tic, no big deal really.” At that moment, Scott describes how Sandberg stopped, looked right at her, and said her needed to be a lot more direct with her.
“When you say ‘um’ every third word, it makes you sound stupid,” said Sandberg.
— Matter App
Criticism that is kind and clear is the fundamentals of radical candor. When you operate in a setting like a Brain Trust, it is not just your “role” to offer feedback and advice.
It is a moral obligation.
It is only when radical candor is done correctly that events like the Brain Trust can flourish.