On Fake Superheroes

This is part of a collection of random essays and jots written on coffee-fueled Sunday mornings. Each is inspired and informed by a passage from something I’ve read recently. Hope you enjoy :)

From Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“The true purpose [of Zen] is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes… Zen practice is to open up our small mind.”

From Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are:

“Everybody should be quiet
near a little stream and listen.”

Over the past few years, I’ve observed a very strange pseudoscience about people’s specific “roles” and “functions.” To anyone with an ounce of introspection, all of this may be painfully obvious.

In general, this is what this bullshit sounds like:

In business, there’s a concept called sales. This is very often viewed as the practice of convincing people to buy what your selling. When you think of a salesman, you probably imagine a dashing fellow with a quick smile, a sharp suit, and some magical lines. He ensnares people with his hook-line-and-sinker delivery. This mercenary is essentially handed a product and told to go do his thing.

In business, there’s a concept called marketing. This is very often viewed as the practice of showing people how desirable your product is. When you think of a marketer, you probably imagine an artsy extrovert with a penchant for pop culture. He wows the masses with well-produced, heartwarming campaigns. This maestro is essentially handed a product and told to go do his thing.

In business, there’s a concept called product development. This is very often viewed as the practice of pulling all-nighters to finish a new feature in time. When you think of a “product developer” (well,software developer”), you probably imagine an incredibly awkward yet ridiculously misunderstood genius. His ability to keep track of the entire codebase in his head makes him the glue of the company. He is essentially handed some specs on what the product should be and told to go do his thing.

These three archetypes are myths. They are myths that people working in situations of high uncertainty crave in order to feel like superheroes.

The competitive fist-bump types do sales like our mythical salesman because it makes them feel like they have a superpower — the Gift of Gab. Too bad this style (on its own) is largely ineffective.

The exuberant types do marketing like our mythical marketer because it endows them with a particular superpower, as well — the Renaissance Man. Too bad this style (on its own) is largely ineffective.

And the nerdy quant types work on product like our mythical developer above because they like the idea of that superpower — the Mastermind. Too bad this style (on its own) is largely ineffective.

In reality, these highly sought-after “superpowers” are mere appendages that grow from the same source. Before the sales calls and the marketing campaigns and the coding and design work come the following questions:

  • Do people even want this thing?
  • Do you understand your customers at a level so deep that you know their needs better than they do?
  • Have you tried?
  • Are you spending most of your time having these conversations?
  • …You sure? Or are you bullshitting your way through them?

No amount of wireframing, debugging, Excel modeling, prospecting, and Tweeting will change how essential these questions are.

In the startup world, a surprisingly significant percentage of teams don’t understand this. It’s the error of mistaking motion for action.

This has probably reached a pandemic level in the entire professional world.

Why?

Because “listening” doesn’t really feel like a superpower. It’s tiring, and most people don’t notice it when it’s done well.

Adapted and reposted from ammarmian.posthaven.com