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Heroism Should Not Be A Way Of Life

"What do you do?"

"I'm a therapist."

"What kind of therapist?"

"A marriage counselor."

"Who had the room before me, if I can ask?"

"My ex-husband. We're getting a divorce."

Even as a college student I thought, what an odd thing, to be a marriage counselor when you're getting a divorce.

In my youthful idealism I assumed there must be "something the matter" with her.

Little did I realize this:

You can be the best [whatever] in the world. But no matter how hard you try, there will always be some things you just cannot fix.

I was watching the HBO documentary about Gloria Steinem, "In Her Own Words." Steinem noted that one reason she chose "Ms." for her magazine name was that "women's marital status doesn't matter any more than men's does."

But she couldn't fix the fact that she was situated in an overwhelmingly sexist society that would remain so for many years. The documentary cuts to an interview between CBS' Dan Rather and Nixon:

DAN RATHER: Some have taken to not addressing women by Miss or Mrs., but they've gone to the Miss, Ms., why not do that with White House letters?

NIXON: I guess I'm a little old fashioned, but I'd rather prefer the miss or Mrs.

(and then we hear the audio of Nixon reacting, talking to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger)

NIXON: He asked a silly goddamn question about "Ms.," you know what I mean? Mr. or Miss, how many people really have read Gloria Steinem and give one s--t about that? You know what I mean? That's a silly thing."

For her part, Steinem was in it for the long haul. She knew that real change would take time. In her words:

"The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off."

This is an example of good problem solving - knowing when, how, and to what extent to attack a problem. For example, Toyota worked diligently and the brand overcame its devastating brake crisis.

Part of good problem solving is the basic understanding that there are limits to what you can do. In fact, sometimes giving up is the most rational option available.

But bad problem solvers never give up. This is contrary to what you might think, and contrary to what we commonly see lionized in popular culture. Countless books, articles, and speeches, television shows and movies hold up to us the people who overcame impossible odds to achieve impossible results. And if there is an acknowledgment that they did not do it alone, we are reminded of the assistance they received through the invisible hand of G-d.

The effect however is always the illusion that a single person can (and even should) fix unsolvable problems on their own. Which of course makes heroism tempting - who doesn't want to be the "Rocky" that ultimately wins the fight?

But if you saw the final installation in the series, Creed, Sylvester Stallone (in character as Rocky) warns his son Adonis that nobody is invincible. "Time takes everybody out," he says. "Time's undefeated."

Worse than time, says Rocky, is the egotism that can turn ambition into you being your own worst enemy. In one scene he points to the mirror where his son is looking at his own reflection and says: "That's the toughest opponent you're ever going to have to face."

People who try to fix the unfixable on their own are motivated by many things - personal tragedy, desperate circumstances, that quiet inner voice that pushes them to move forward. But there is a fine line between genius and madness.

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Homeland, in which the character Carrie Mathison inevitably solves the case but often while suffering a breakdown along the way. Her tendency to persist beyond normal rational limits is so strong, in fact, that it is portrayed as a piece of her mental illness, because she stops taking her meds in order to sharpen her mental faculties.

Of course, most of us do not see ourselves in Carrie.

But do we have enough sense to stop when passion has turned into pushing?

Because that kind of pace, and that mentality, is not sustainable. Steve Jobs is revered as the genius who built Apple, but he made many significant mistakes from a business point of view and was abusive on countless occasions as well. Additionally Jobs did not leave behind a pipeline of talent or even a methodology with which to develop it. Not surprisingly, today his once-transformative company struggles with an innovation problem.

The word "hero" sounds great to the ear and looks wonderful on the screen. But in reality, people who dance on the edge of a cliff are normally punished by the very organizations they try to help. Rebels at Work (for which I was interviewed) offers tips for those who want to be effective at driving change from within, without ending their careers.

There is another, larger problem as well. From an organizational dynamics point of view, relying on heroes means that the institution can paper over bad leadership, broken processes and outdated technology, relying instead on "heroes" who "somehow make things work." Street-Level Bureaucracy is a classic study of the ways in which individual public servants try to circumvent red tape and do their jobs - the hidden side of what should be a straightforward set of duties.

But there is a better, healthier, and more realistic way forward. To solve a stubborn and intractable problem, you need a network of motivated people. Art Kleiner's Core Group Theory explains how such a group is formed, and eventually coopts the dominant group into the service of its goals.

The bottom line is, it is noble but foolish to try and put out a forest fire with a garden hose.

But you can convince others to work with you to end future forest fires altogether.


Photo by Jan Truter via Flickr (Creative Commons). Screenshot via Fragments. All opinions my own.

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