Aside

Be Your Own Hero

When I was growing up, I looked for a savior in just about everyone.

There were too many fruitless visits from child protective services. There were too many police cars that arrived to “quiet things down” only to let them flare up again the next day. There were too many visits to the hospital ….The police men, the agency representatives, and even the hospital workers seemed unable to do anything about what they clearly knew was a problem. There were still too many holes in the wall from when the rolling pin aimed at me, missed.

Since those adults were unable to help me, it’s no wonder that I started to imagine a hero in my father, whom I did not remember and hadn’t seen since I was a toddler. I created a fantasy life where he rode to my rescue. Finally, when I was 12 years old, I met him again. And, of course, while the specific story is complicated, you won’t be surprised to find out that the person who had abandoned me when I was a baby wasn’t the person who was going to save me years later.

The day I met him, I realized something that would shape the rest of my life: there was no Hero (or Heroine) who was going to save me. I needed to save myself.

So, it’s with that life context that I am watching the beatification of Steve Jobs. Google the term, “Steve Jobs tribute” and you get back 5 million plus results. And I’m fairly sure that’s an undercount. There’s a good reason for this; the Hero Narrative has deep roots in our culture. We find it in history books and religions, in our sports teams and, yes, even in our corporate cultures. We obsess. We deify, as if there is a single defining idea of how innovation works, what makes a leader great, or how success happens.

This is not new. It is the idea of The One and it shows up in many ways: Who will be the next leader of the free world?  What nation will be the next superpower? Which visionary company is the single conqueror of industry? (It’s Amazon, it’s Google, it’s Facebook, it’s Apple!). And we have it in management disciplines with debates like: isn’t it better to have one smart person than lots of ordinary people working for our organizations?

But I wonder if this framework is wrong.

Let’s take another look at Steve Jobs’s own example. He didn’t study other people; he followed his own passions. He didn’t seek meaning by trying to emulate someone else’s life, or even emulating the winning business practices of his day – as I’ve written before, he created a clarity of purpose for himself.  The same principle can apply to all of us.

Certainly, we need inspiration to show us examples of clear purpose. But I wonder what happens in a world where we each figure out why we do what we do and we can live and work from that place. We might refocus on our own work and the community with which we get that work done. We might learn to define success in our own terms. We might even come up with our own mantra around this:

1: I shall not obsess over others’ success: not copying, idolizing, or mindlessly emulating.

2: I shall know my purpose and know why I’m doing something.

3: I shall ally myself to a tribe with a common purpose, though the tribe’s members may work in vastly different fields and forms.

4:  I will make ideas stronger by uniting with others to do great work, not by holding my ideas all to myself but releasing them into the wild.

5: I recognize the truth in the credo that the future is not created, the future is co-created and will do my part as a part of the whole.

In doing so, we might go from a culture of find-a-fits-the-mold superhero to a system of heroes- and heroines-next-door. We might create, rather than copy. We might initiate, rather than wait for permission. We might see ourselves as powerful enough. We might not believe that solving the many problems around us is someone else’s responsibility. We might each be willing to disrupt ourselves as Whitney Johnson suggests we do. We might reimagine our careers, with clarity of purpose, and this might show up in our work with others. We might just transform the organizing principles of the places we work. We might even end up reinventing our economy. We might recognize just how connected we are.

For my own situation when I was a kid, once I realized there was no hero coming to save me, I found ways to manage the situation. I said “enough” to what was going on. I also started to claim the things that mattered, like an education.  As a result, I was ousted from my family — but I also started developing the sense of purpose that has led me to the work I do today and the people I do it with.

The cultural change when people know their own purpose and their own power in creating change is what could change everything: for ourselves, for our organizations, and our economy. So, go ahead and buy that Walter Isaacson book. But, let’s not obsess over being the next Steve Jobs or starting the next Facebook or [whatever]. Let us, instead, be inspired to find our own purpose in the world, and a tribe of people to do it with.

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As is true for all my HBR posts, please make comments at that original posting. Many thanks for helping me have one conversation.

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10 Responses:

  1. John McSwain. November 5, 2011 at 4:08 pm  |  

    Your list mantras rang true from the moment I read them. I often find myself struggling to look for something or someone to rescue me from the abyss of responsibility and obligation that life has immersed me in. Truthfully, I’ll likely copy and paste this list into my moleskine, make a computer wallpaper, or whatever to remind myself of your post. It has made a huge difference in my thinking already!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. November 5, 2011 at 4:17 pm  |  

      That is awesome. Remind me when I fall off the wagon, also.

      Reply
  2. John Richard Bell. November 5, 2011 at 4:24 pm  |  

    One doesn’t necessarily have to come from challenging roots to appreciate the inspiration of this blog post. But clearly, the need to find inner purpose is even more important for those of us faced with challenges at any stage in life. Nilofer, I contratulate you on finding your own purpose and sharing your journey out of it.

    Reply
  3. SaraC. November 5, 2011 at 5:10 pm  |  

    Nilofer,
    Brava. I’m sorry you had to learn that at such an early age & I’m sorry for what sounds like a very unpleasant living situation. Years of therapy have helped but this is what I want you to give yourself now.

    “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood” – Tom Robbins

    I feel like a member of your tribe, we share the same beliefs.
    Together we are strong.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. November 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm  |  

      My friend Tara Hunt (who goes by @missrogue online) once said to me that people think I’m highly arrogant and that they think my confidence is false. She told me to start telling the back story of how I figured out the lessons I share today… so that people get that it’s not that I have it all figured out, but that I am a fellow traveler having lived some experiences that might shed light on situations. Without her prompting I might not have gotten as open about the backstory. I used to think it was icky to do what I call “oversharing”. I do realize now that it connects us more than offends. So thanks for your support and all that. I am not trying to make this about my life at all — but about how do we each figure out our meaning, and measures that lets us be most authentically powerful in the world.

      Reply
      • Tara Hunt. November 6, 2011 at 11:02 am  |  

        I’ve always been puzzled by the whole “Who is your hero/idol?” question, too. I never knew how to answer that growing up and I didn’t have a traumatic childhood. It took me until my mid-20′s to realize that nobody was going to save me. Prince charming? Nope. Some magical moment comes along and changes my life? Nope. It was up to me to look for opportunities and then have the bravery to seize it. However, what I have found is that I’ve ‘picked up’ heroes over the years. YOU. Kathy Sierra was, too. Caterina Fake. Cindy Gallop. And the list grows with the women I meet who I am inspired by every single day. In essence, I didn’t wait for a hero, I found many.

        And I’m glad that my sharing with you what I heard from ONE person (btw…everyone else I’ve met thinks you are amazing – just like I do) opened up that journey for you. I always have mixed feelings about sharing that information (but I know I’d want to know what the whispers are).

        Reply
        • Nilofer Merchant. November 7, 2011 at 1:46 am  |  

          ONLY 1 person. Well, then, I’ll go back to my old ways, shall I? Actually I thought your commentary was dead one. That if I shared my why, it would help me and others because we should have more shared understanding. SO thank YOU for inspiring me to come forward in this way.

          Reply
  4. Larry McKeogh (@lmckeogh). November 6, 2011 at 1:35 am  |  

    By not seeking a deity people have to take responsibility for themselves. The problem is that there seems to be so little of it today. When was the last time you heard of someone saying I messed up vs. it was this, that or the other thing.

    Those that do march to their own drummer are labeled as arrogant or aloof. The thing is, they know their path, they are on it, and they have the resolve to achieve it. This behavior is removed from the labels. They have clarity of purpose. Because of that they are willing to help anyone that wants to go to the same place. They become our servant leaders.

    Powerful stuff Nilofer. Thanks for sharing all of it.

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 4 Frivolous Thoughts That Could Derail Your Business | Bill Amesse - November 20, 2011

    [...] this question and give an honest answer.  I couldn’t help but mention “Don’t Give Up” by Nilofer Merchant on the Harvard Business Review website — one article that nails it, blows it and floors [...]

  2. Steve Jobs: Guru and Goon « My Perspective on Loving, Living, Learning and Laughing - June 28, 2012

    [...] The cultural change when people know their own purpose and their own power in creating change is what could change everything: for ourselves, for our organizations, and our economy. So, go ahead and buy that Walter Isaacson book. But, let’s not obsess over being the next Steve Jobs or starting the next Facebook or [whatever]. Let us, instead, be inspired to find our own purpose in the world, and a tribe of people to do it with.” Be Your Own Hero | Yes & Know. [...]

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