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Modern Meditations: Scott Belsky
The Adobe CPO on innovating from within, shipping slow, and AI.
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here’s what investors, operators, and founders should know about Scott Belsky’s meditations.
Innovating within a big company. When Adobe acquired his startup Behance for $150 million in 2012, Belsky struggled to see his long-term future at a big corporation. Eleven years later and the former entrepreneur is Adobe’s Chief Product Officer. Working at the $227 billion software behemoth, Scott discovered he was a mission-driven entrepreneur rather than a serial one. Rather than restricting his entrepreneurial urges, Adobe has given Scott a platform to tackle them from a new vantage.
The virtues of slow shipping. The prevailing dogma is that startups should ship and iterate as quickly as possible. Scott believes that’s often counterproductive. You need to “surprise and delight” your customers to create a product that grows organically. You can’t do that by simply meeting a user’s expectations; you must surpass them. Doing so takes time and polishing.
Investing in a great mentor. Scott Belsky counts entrepreneur and author Seth Godin as a friend and mentor. Once a year, Scott visits Godin in upstate New York to discuss his plans, relying on his host to pick them apart. This productive inquisition helps Scott allocate his time and effort more thoughtfully. Investing in this relationship has proven fruitful, both personally and professionally.
The coming age of hyper-personalization. We live in a “generalized” world, per Scott. When we visit an online store or look at a menu, we see the full range of options. The Adobe executive expects future generations to have more personalized product experiences that filter out unsuitable or unwanted options. They will also have far less choice, as a result.
The overstated AI threat. Reports of AI’s dangers are exaggerated, according to Scott. Though he expects new models will increase the sophistication of scams and other frauds, he doesn’t foresee humans being made subservient to an almighty algorithm. Instead, we should worry about the fragility of modern society, under threat from war, dictatorships, and corruption.
Not all practitioners can describe their craft. Even the most skilled entrepreneurs, engineers, or product managers can struggle to articulate how, exactly, they operate at such a high level. Why rely on one framework, language, or process over another? Impressive execution rests on implicit knowledge that may be difficult to express.
Scott Belsky is one of tech’s great exceptions. The founder of Behance and Chief Product Officer of Adobe is not only a successful entrepreneur and executive, he is a gifted product philosopher; a translator of innovation. Scott’s two best-selling books, The Messy Middle and Making Ideas Happen, represent thoughtful studies of the entrepreneurial process in all its complexity., the Adobe CPO’s newsletter, is a living feed of Scott’s thinking.
I have admired Scott’s work and public thinking for some time, largely because of his twin gifts for execution and articulation. Add in his investing track record – he backed Pinterest, Uber, Ramp, Flexport, and many other unicorns – and Scott has the bonafides of a “super-generalist,” someone with multifarious gifts. More compelling than Scott’s accolades and achievements, though, is the sense of care and craft in his output. In an industry that often tends towards impulse and hyperbole, Scott gives the impression of a considered and generous thinker. Our conversation was one of my favorites of the year for precisely these reasons.
Today’s piece shares that discussion with Scott advancing his views on mentorship, cultivating self-awareness, building products that grow organically, raising emotionally resilient children, and the splendor of space.
What would you be doing if you didn’t work in tech?
Two things come to mind. The first is being a fine artist. I’ve always been interested in pieces that use unorthodox materials. For example, I can imagine making a series that uses pipe cleaners or an especially viscous kind of paint that you could create dimension with.
More than using particular materials, I’d be interested in using art to help contextualize the magnitude of things. I’ve always had this fascination with numbers. Art feels like a particularly good way to understand the meaning of infinity or the juxtaposition between something small and something extraordinarily large. Creating something that captures magnitude would be fascinating to me.
I could also see myself owning and operating a small boutique. I’ve always wanted to make or carefully curate a series of products. There’s a small shop in Amagansett, New York, called E-E Home that does that really well. So many objects have been carefully selected from Japan or other parts of the world, and you feel a certain aesthetic and quality. I love the idea of curating products from different places that customers might never discover on their own.
And then, of course, I like thinking about what type of products I’d want to make to sell alongside them. I’ve found stationary fascinating, for example. In the early days of Behance, we launched a line of paper products called “Action Method” as a bootstrapping mechanism. They were dot-grid notebooks designed to help capture actionable items from a brainstorm. Dot grids are widely used today, but I wasn’t aware of others in 2006. We got out of that business when Behance sold to Adobe, but the brand lives on today. Building something so tangible, working with production partners, thinking through the packaging – I just love that stuff.
Which current or historical figure has most impacted your thinking?
Seth Godin has always been a mentor of mine. I visit him once a year in Hastings-on-Hudson, the town in upstate New York where he lives. Seth picks me up at the station, and we’ll grab a cup of coffee and walk. And then, Seth tears my ideas apart. Everything I think I’m going to do next, he challenges me on.
Seth has a unique ability to help me rethink things because of our differences. If I were going to be self-critical for a moment, I’d say that I have a hard time saying no to opportunities. I’ve always had so many interests and tended to explore too many at once. I was never a great student in one area because I studied so many different things. When I graduated from college, Cornell didn’t know how to classify me – I’d taken classes from all of these different majors. Ultimately, my degree was in “General Studies,” which means nothing.
Seth is very different. He’s both extraordinarily creative and very disciplined. He’s great at saying no to things. He knows what he will and won’t do anymore and sticks to that. Seth’s discipline and pragmatism help me think through the opportunities ahead and whether they’d fulfill me. He prompts questions about life choices that I don’t naturally ask. Our relationship has come to mean a lot to me professionally and personally.
Tim Urban is another person that has made me think a lot. I always admired his writing, illustrations, and frameworks. I’m enjoying his latest book on humanity’s problems quite a bit.
What is the most significant thing you’ve changed your mind about over the past decade?
That’s easy: the prospects of innovating within a big company. If you’d told me eleven years ago, when Adobe acquired Behance, whether I could be happy at a large organization, I wouldn’t have believed you. I bootstrapped Behance for five years, then ran it as a venture-backed company for two. I was an entrepreneur, and most of my friends were, too. I never thought I’d end up staying at a big organization.
When I joined Adobe, I learned something about myself. I was a mission-driven entrepreneur, not a serial entrepreneur. There’s a big difference. The mission-driven entrepreneur starts a company because they feel they have to, not just because they want to run a business. I discovered I could continue that mission at Adobe, returning to some of the problems we worked on at Behance and serving the same creative communities.
What craft are you spending a lifetime honing?
Writing and product. They’re related to me since I write about products. Writing is how I digest, understand, and remember what’s important. That process has yielded two books, Making Ideas Happen and The Messy Middle, and my monthly newsletter,. The newsletter holds me accountable for writing about what interests me and networking around it. Whenever I publish a new issue, people reach out, making connections and sharing their thoughts – it’s so valuable to put ideas into the ether and see what resonates and doesn’t.
Crafting product experiences is the second thing I’ve devoted my life to improving. Understanding onboarding, user psychology, why a user engages with a product that could be a waste of their time – that’s so fascinating to me. I think product experiences reflect what we want and long for in our lives, more than we might admit. Even though we might talk about digital products as “advanced” or “sophisticated,” a lot of the time, I think we’re yearning for things we once had: a life that was simpler and clearer, the ability to walk into a store and be greeted by someone that knows your name.
I’m interested in how we can make digital product experiences simpler, more relatable, and more personalized. That’s an endless pursuit.
What is your most contrarian, high-conviction opinion?
The value of building slowly. The popular belief system still centers around the “lean startup,” A/B testing, and shipping quickly. There are two reasons why I don’t think that’s necessarily the ideal approach.
Firstly, teams tend to underestimate the gravity created by shipping their first product. Once you share something with customers, you naturally start to think in iterations of that product; it becomes infinitely harder to change direction and climb a different mountain entirely. Shipping too quickly can become a prison – a team can get trapped, iterating on something far longer than they should.
Secondly, moving too quickly can limit the benefits of product-led growth. As advertising has become more expensive, having a product that customers talk about is critical for acquisition. One of the key principles of product-led growth is to “surprise and delight” – to build something that customers will talk about with their friends. It’s easy to forget that people don’t tell their friends about a product that does exactly what they expected; they talk about products that surpassed their expectations.
If you need people to be talking about your product, you shouldn’t just ship a minimally viable product. On the contrary, you should polish and push beyond the core requirements to create something customers don’t expect and that can grow on its own.
What piece of art can you not stop thinking about?
Three things come to mind. First, a pair of scissors. They’re made by a Japanese company called “Craft Design Technology,” and they’re just the most beautiful, performant, long-lasting scissors I’ve ever had. I’ve bought maybe a dozen of them over the years, giving away several of them to friends. They’re a beautiful piece of design.
Second, teamLab’s immersive experiences. I’ve been a huge fan of their work over the years, visiting several of their installations. They use technology to create these rich visuals of flowers and light, for example, that show the relationships between all of us. They’re very deep. I went to one of their experiences in Tokyo recently where you stand in a foot of water, and there are these projected fish around you, and when they bump into you, they turn into flowers, and then those flowers become food for the fish. It’s a beautiful recursion.
Finally, the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Most people know them for their furniture but perhaps aren’t aware of their other extremely dynamic work across design and technology. For example, they worked with IBM to help showcase their “information machines” at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. They also created an incredible short film called “The Powers of 10,” which helps you understand numbers and relative magnitude. Their work is a source of endless inspiration for me.
What trait do you value most highly in others?
Self-awareness and introspection. I love people who can identify their hypocritical tendencies.
I try to do this myself. When I’m driving, for example, if another driver does something that annoys me – switches lanes without putting on their blinker or veers off the highway at the last second to catch an exit – my first instinct is often to say, “Oh god, what a crazy driver.” But then I catch myself. Haven’t I done something like that myself before? Of course, I have. Recognizing it helps create empathy, compassion, and honesty in the moment.
I like people who try to do that across every aspect of their lives. In some respect, these people are still learning rather than getting stuck in their ways. I enjoy working with people like that, and it’s also very clear to me when I’m working with someone that’s stopped learning.
What are you obsessed with that others rarely talk about?
I’m a super obsessive geek about space science. At night, I’ll often indulge that interest, staying up to read some recently discovered black hole that’s leaving a trail of stars 200,000 light-years long.
Stuff like that just blows my mind. Here we are on earth dealing with the minutiae of politics or even the fervor around breakthroughs like ChatGPT – and somewhere out in the universe, a black hole the size of, say, a billion suns is meandering through the universe. It’s unfathomable.
Learning about these things is a source of humility and empowerment. It’s good to be reminded that all that earth – and all that fascinates those of us living on it – is just a speck on an impossibly grand canvas. It also encourages you to think bigger. It’s easy to look at the most successful, innovative people in history and wonder, “Could I do something that significant?” And from the cosmos’ perspective, the answer is: of course, you can. You’re just a series of atoms like everyone else. All of us are just these biological Petri dishes of mistakes. Why can’t you achieve or surpass what others have?
What contemporary practice will our descendants judge us for most?
The reasons we find to divide ourselves – whether that’s religion, race, or another prejudice that results from ignorance. Things like parents telling their children they can’t marry someone because of their gender or religion, for example.
We all carry biases that permeate our judgment. Over time, I believe we’ll recognize how wildly unfortunate, traumatic, and destructive these artificial divisions are. Perhaps not on a decade-by-decade basis, but century-by-century. As I said, we’re all little organisms on a random planet in a random solar system in a random galaxy. The fact that we choose to capitalize on these sources of division is such a waste of energy.
What will the next generation do or use that is unimaginable to us today?
The next generation will have far fewer choices in their everyday lives. We live in a world generalized to the masses. When you go to an e-commerce website, you navigate by size, color, fit, style, whether it’s marketed for men or women. When you sit down at a restaurant and look at the menu, much of it may be irrelevant to you – maybe you’re allergic to something or have an aversion to something else.
I think future experiences will be personalized for each of us in a very dramatic way. It will affect how we eat, buy, engage, and navigate the world. It will be one of the most profound differences between how we live and the next generation grows up.
What risk are we radically underestimating as a species? What are we overestimating?
We underestimate the fragility of society. Growing up, when you learn about atrocities like the Holocaust, you’re told that these tragedies must never be forgotten. As a younger person, I remember feeling some resistance to that. Didn’t we live in a modern society? One in which you could travel anywhere in the world with a passport? You can start to believe that your era is immune to the forces that led to the catastrophes of the past.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rise of dictatorships, and nepotism in American politics – as these events unfold, you see how quickly they create divisions and cause strife. And then, you begin to realize that our age isn’t miraculously free of those old risks. All of those things could happen again. We’re more fragile than we think.
Conversely, I believe we overestimate the threat of technology. I don’t think, for example, that artificial intelligence will become autonomous and attack us. It won’t be a global overlord. That said, it will be used by bad actors, of course. Scams, for example, will become more sophisticated. Instead of a Nigerian prince trying to take your money, it will be something much more personalized and harder to detect.
If you had the power to assign a book for everyone on earth to read and understand, which book would you choose?
Good Inside by Dr. Becky Kennedy. My wife works with Dr. Kennedy, and I’ve learned a great deal from her. It’s about parenting and how so many of the norms society has adopted may be totally wrong. The idea of punishing children when they have a tantrum when their feelings get bigger than their bodies – Dr. Kennedy argues that those practices may impede healthy development.
What happens if we teach our children to self-regulate their emotions instead of punishing them? Maybe we could create a generation of adults better able to deal with life’s challenges and a world with less crime, fewer insecurities, and fewer negative tendencies. A lot of these issues seem to trace back to parenting.
Good Inside changed how I parent my children, and when I think about a book that could help future generations navigate their lives, parenting feels like a natural choice.
How will future historians describe our current era?
As a struggle between our natural human tendencies and a better way of living governed by technology. Our innate inclinations have driven us for the entirety of human history. That humanness creates prejudices and biases that compel us to do stupid things with our time and money. We act in these ways to protect ourselves, stay safe, and for other reasons.
Technology doesn’t care about these things. It doesn’t care about our religion, where we went to school, or our gender. By default, it sees us as just a data point or a cluster of them. As we look ahead, technology seems likely to play an increasingly important role in our lives, making more of our daily decisions. When historians look back on this century, I think that transition – away from human, emotional governance towards technological reasoning – will be a profound theme.
The Generalist’s work is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, business, investment, or tax advice. You should always do your own research and consult advisors on these subjects. Our work may feature entities in which Generalist Capital, LLC or the author has invested.