Why I believe in growth mindset
Jan 06, 2021, 10 min read
This is a memo I shared with our team last year about the importance that a growth mindset had in my life — also becoming a Brex value at the end of 2020. I reflected a lot about sharing such a personal essay outside of the Brex walls, but multiple people encouraged me to — thank you!
Subject: Why I Believe In Growth Mindset
Sunday was my birthday, and I had a great time with some close friends and my brother. Birthdays are an interesting time for reflection, and this weekend I spent some time thinking how fortunate I am to be where I am today. I’d like to share with you some lessons I learned about growth mindset over the past few years.
As I mentioned in the All Hands today, growth mindset played a big role building Brex thus far. But even before Brex, it has been one of the most influential ideas in my life, one of my personal values, and something that dramatically shaped who I am today. To understand why, I will tell you a story. I hope this provides more insight into how I see the world.
I was born in Rio, Brazil, in a middle-class family. My mother was a psychologist, and my father was a photographer. In reality, my dad was a true nerd. He was the type who loved tinkering with electronics. He wanted to tear them apart and “fix” them, even when they were not broken. Deep inside, my dad had a pleasure to learn how things worked. Computers were no exception, and I was fortunate to grow up with him messing around with computers from a very young age.
I had loving parents and was set to have a normal childhood. When I was 2 years old, however, my father found out he had cancer. It all started with a skin cancer that was highly treatable. My father got well, but a few years later his cancer returned. He now had lymphoma, which was a whole different story. He started an intense chemo routine, and his treatment was painful. I remember the impact it had on his health every time he came back from the hospital. Over the years, his health deteriorated and the cancer spread faster than the chemo could treat it. Right after I turned 8 years old, my dad passed away.
As I later learned, kids have unusual ways of dealing with trauma. I was no different. Around that time, I started to get more and more interested in computers. I found a safe space where, different from the external world, I could control all the variables, and be close to something my dad enjoyed. By reading these words, one may think I was a sad kid dealing with the fear of not having his dad around anymore. However, that wasn’t the case. In my mind, all I had was an intense desire to understand how computers worked. It wasn’t motivated by the trauma or fear of failure, as I had nothing to lose. All I had was curiosity and a deep desire to learn. I watched all those programs running on the screen, and I knew there was a lot of potential in what machines could do. This led me to start coding, which changed my life forever.
This is how I learned my first lesson on growth mindset. The best way to learn something is not from a position of fear, but instead of deep curiosity. While fear can work as a motivator in the short-term, only curiosity is self-sustaining. It can carry you for long periods of time and take you to unimaginable places, just like coding did to me. When you approach life from a position of learning, crazy things can happen, because the journey in itself becomes the reward. I had no other reason to code, but the journey in itself. So if you ever have to choose between a carrot or a stick as a motivator, go with the carrot. Follow your inner calling and focus on the things you’re curious about.
When you approach life from a position of learning, crazy things can happen, because the journey in itself becomes the reward.
A few years later, I met Henrique. I was 15, and, again, had everything set for a relatively normal teenagehood. I was working at a startup, which was exciting, and my plan was to go to college in Rio, work in a tech company and stay close to my family. My mom was incredibly supportive of me growing up, and I couldn’t imagine living far from her. Henrique, on the other hand, was much more independent. He also started coding as a kid, but unlike me, he had started two companies before, knew how to talk to investors, lived in multiple cities and wanted to eventually study in the US. We quickly became friends. A few months in, he somehow convinced me to quit my job, drop my perfectly crafted life plans and start our first company together. As you may have noticed, this is also the story of how Henrique changed my life.
As we built Pagar.me, we both started coding. We needed to build a product first, but as the product started to work, somebody had to go sell it. Henrique, the more sociable of the two of us, transitioned to doing Sales, and eventually managing the rest of the business and people. In my mind, I was meant to remain a purely technical person as CTO, while Henrique managed the company and the people as the CEO. But Henrique had bigger plans for me.
He started by suggesting I should manage the Risk team. I was skeptical in the beginning — what does coding have to do with Risk? I knew nothing about Risk, yet alone how to manage a team. He insisted I should try it, and I was convinced by the fact that it was mostly a data problem, and as a good engineer, I could write SQL queries fast. Similarly to coding, my motivation didn’t come from the fear of failing at Risk, but from curiosity. I was very interested in the data behind bad actors, so I spent two months learning the Risk job myself. I then taught someone how to do it, and then taught this person how to teach another person the same. This team, then, noticed that some of our customers had the same Risk challenges themselves, and taught customers what we had learned (this was, also, the first time I saw the impact of helping growing companies, which eventually morphed into our Mission statement). My first non-technical team was born, and yet a few months before I didn’t know much about Risk.
From there, I went on to manage Finance, Customer Experience and eventually Sales. They were all challenging in different ways, as I had to learn how to interact with customers and people, which was initially very uncomfortable. In fact, I started by failing at my job in each of these functions. I remember when our first investor asked to see our Balance Sheet and P&L, and I thought these were synonyms. He laughed, and taught me the right way. But now, I knew it was a matter of time until I learned. Failure didn’t mean “I failed”, but simply “this is something I haven’t learned yet”.
Failure didn’t mean “I failed”, but simply “this is something I haven’t learned yet”.
Two years into Pagar.me, I started managing all the internal teams, and we transitioned to the co-CEO model in which we operate today. This got me to my second lesson on growth mindset. Don’t assume your potential is limited by the qualities you have today. I was never meant to be a CEO, but Henrique somehow believed in me. He showed me I could do things I didn’t think I could, and if it wasn’t for him, I’d be living in Brazil right now working as an engineer. The views you adopt about yourself, and how quickly you’re willing to rethink them, profoundly affect the way you lead your life.
The views you adopt about yourself, and how quickly you’re willing to rethink them, profoundly affect the way you lead your life.
In 2016, Henrique and I decided to sell our previous company and come to the US for college. Back then, this was a crazy idea. Why sell a company that was doing well, profitable and growing to take the risk and come to the US alone? No one understood it, and honestly, neither did I. But Henrique somehow did, and pushed us to do it. So we moved to California, and after six months in college, we dropped out to start Brex.
The early days of Brex (should I say Veyond?) were hard. We knew that the mental model for building a company in Brazil wouldn’t work in Silicon Valley, so we had to rethink a lot of things. There are no extra points for learning things on your own, so we were not afraid of asking for help. We used our previous investors in Brazil to connect us with our first advisors and investors here in the US, and we learned as much as we could from them. This, in turn, enabled us to have the original idea behind Brex, raise money, get to product-market fit, grow fast and, most importantly, hire many of you.
There are no extra points for learning things on your own, so we were not afraid of asking for help.
Moving to the US led me to my third lesson about growth mindset. Do everything in your power to surround yourself with people who you can grow from. Henrique understood this incredibly early, and that’s how he knew that moving to the US was the right decision. It was always about the people. Brazil was a great starting point for us, but we were limited by who we’d learn from. In the US, we had a chance to not only learn, but also hire the best people in the world and work alongside them. I still remember the first time I saw Michael using Excel, the first time I saw Cos recruiting engineers, the first memo I read from Zach, or the first time I saw many of you doing the things you’re exceptional at. Here we were, learning from the best of the best, and still have them joining us in the journey of building a company that would transform us all for the better. This is, by far, what makes me the happiest about building Brex with each one of you. I feel very emotional about this.
Here we were, learning from the best of the best, and still have them joining us in the journey of building a company that would transform us all for the better.
Henrique and I didn’t really know the path to where Brex is today, and we don’t exactly know the path to where we want to be in the future. What we do know, though, is that a growth mindset is a big part of the answer. As we look around the company, there are a lot of things that could be better. Our product is not as polished as it could be, we can do a better job in diversity and inclusion, remote work could be less draining, and we can always improve our decision-making processes. It’s easy to look at each of these problems and be self-critical about them. After all, one of the biggest challenges of being growth-minded is managing your own expectations of yourself.
After all, one of the biggest challenges of being growth-minded is managing your own expectations of yourself.
However, we shouldn’t forget how much the company and each one of us improved over time, and will continue improving at an even faster rate over time, as more growth-minded people join us. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that only nine months ago we had zero memos, zero written communication and all decisions were made in conversations during meetings (and this email wouldn’t exist :) ). It’s not that we failed by not having a written culture in the first place. It was just something we hadn’t learned at that point yet. Since then, we’ve gone a long way to grow into a completely new way of working that was more scalable, sustainable and inclusive. The exact same way of thinking is applicable for every challenge we will ever face. With a sufficiently growth-minded approach, we will solve each one of our problems. So there’s no point in being overly negative about them. These are just things we haven’t learned yet, but will. And as I learned through coding, starting with an optimistic, curious mind is the best way to learn anything new.
For Brex, though, a growth mindset is much bigger than “just” a way of learning. Growth mindset is at the very core of why we exist. A mission of helping every growing company realize their full potential is, at its heart, a mission about growth mindset. It’s not just about who we are, but also about who we serve. Growing companies are, by definition, growth-minded. Although each one of us and our customers are very different, life is not about the values we differ; it’s about the ones we share. A growth mindset is what unites us. We’re all here, together, pursuing the best version of ourselves.
So this is what I learned: approach life with a curious mind, don’t assume your potential is limited by the qualities you have today, and surround yourself with people who will make you grow. A growth mindset is worth it, I promise. After all, I wasn’t even supposed to be here in the first place. :)