Early in my career, I prided myself on my technical skill. I was pretty fast at writing pretty good code. I conceived more efficient algorithms more quickly than many of my peers. I took creative approaches to expressing ideas in code that were at least interesting, if (with the benefit of hindsight) not necessarily as elegant as I thought at the time.
It was a real struggle for me, then, when I met and started collaborating with other people who were simply better than me at the thing I thought was my differentiator. I met folks like @silentbicycle and @JobVranish—unbelievably good programmers who easily did things that blew my mind.
It was a humbling and frustrating experience. I questioned my value as a practitioner and entertained notions that I just wasn’t all that good at what I did… until I realized I was actually a superhero.
I’m saving the world one software project at a time. Once I started looking at my skill this way, I suddenly had a new frame for thinking about my hero journey and other superheroes who could teach me.
With this one insight, I smote five personal challenges in a single KA-POW!
Consulting Lessons From Superheroes
1. Superheroes save the day.
Aside from leotards, it can be difficult to nail down exactly what makes a superhero. “Superpowers,” you might think, but no. Batman has no super-human abilities, just wealth, intelligence, and the diligence to train to the limits of human endurance and combat ability.
What really makes a superhero is saving the world. Spider-Man, Batman, and Wonder Woman all have different strengths, weaknesses, and abilities, but in the end they get the job done.
The same is true in the world of software consulting. Results matter more than anything else, and that’s how people will judge you.
2. It’s okay to compare your stats to others.
Super-heroes aren’t measured by their max, but by their combined strengths and abilities. What’s more, super-heroes grow and mature over time. The fact that Iron Man’s already fought intergalactic beings in the past helps situate him well for a fight with Thanos, but in time, young Spider-Man will get there, too.
So when it comes to your career, don’t measure yourself by an individual max. Instead, figure out your own stat matrix and abilities, and develop those into your own flavor of hero. The grizzled veteran can help guide you on that path.
For me, that meant realizing I wasn’t quite a Hulk, but more of a Spider-Man. Sure, I am technically strong, but I also have a more-agile-than-average design sense and a spider sense for project risk that makes me well-rounded.
Identifying and accepting this about myself helped me focus on developing my broad set of strengths and learning to build complementary dynamics that outshone what I could do with raw technical strength alone.
Sure, other developers can do things I can’t, but I can do things they can’t, too.
3. It’s important to explore your powers.
As every mutant discovers when their powers first manifest (whether they’re destined for the X-Men or not), superpowers can develop in fits and starts. You often can’t control them at first, and you likely won’t understand their full potential for several years.
Take Jean Grey, for example, whose initial shakey telepathy and telekinetic powers developed over time to make her one of the most powerful superheroes in the world.
One of my superpowers is nerd hypnosis. This superpower isn’t always fully reliable. However, when deployed effectively, I can leverage a mix of detailed technical knowledge, enthusiasm, compelling insight, and spoken language to implant a sense of excitement, expertise, and confidence in other developers. This renders them prone to suggestion on architecture, code, and development practice matters.
Not all superheroes have nerd hypnosis, and that’s OK. With your honest accounting of your personal superhero stats and time to experiment, you can develop your own powers. They won’t be the same as mine or Jean Grey’s, but in the end, what makes a superhero is saving the world.
4. Protect your weaknesses and augment your strengths with cybernetics.
Just as you explore and augment your superpowers, you should also take stock of your weaknesses. All superheroes have them. It just comes with the territory. Nothing to be ashamed of.
But while a superhero shouldn’t be judged by their max stat, their weaknesses are very important. How you adapt and protect against your own personal weaknesses is critical to being an effective superhero.
It takes an honest accounting of those weaknesses (whether it’s Kryptonite, distractedness, or absent-mindedness), plus a willingness to try new disciplines (e.g. Jujitsu or note-taking) or technology (e.g. robot arms or Things) to save the world.
You’ll have temporary setbacks and lost battles. A lot of them. Mine those experiences for empirical data about your weaknesses. Sometimes awareness is the best inoculation to future exploitation of a weakness, but look to all available ways to guard your flank.
5. Team up with other heroes.
One of the most effective ways to avoid a crucial hit from Kryptonite is to team up with other superheroes whose strengths offset your weaknesses.
A superhero team such as the Avengers or Justice League is not a competition, even if it can get a little competitive. Superheroes team up because they, of course, can do more together, but also because a team’s weakness is the greatest of the minima in each area.
I’m personally absent-minded, but I’m mostly protected in a fight by leveraging alien technology (Things) and martial arts (GTD). But when I team up with another superhero whose superpowers include conscientiousness and prioritization, like Brittany Hunter, our overall team is stronger.
Learn about your team members’ superpowers. Share your weaknesses, and enlist their help in protecting you from those vectors or developing compensation strategies. A team working together is stronger than a lone hero.
Are you a superhero? You just might be. Start taking steps to inventory your stats, explore your powers, and compensate for your weaknesses. Then enlist support from your team for a long and rewarding career in the world-saving (or software development) business.