A while back, my partner and I were given work space at a local incubator/accelerator.

As we went around introducing ourselves, we found environment was upbeat and everyone was pretty open about what they were working on.

We ended up talking to this great team and the work that they were doing. They were a smart and talented group of people. We had a good conversation about what our respective teams were doing and everyone seemed interested except their programmer.

He stayed at his computer and made it pretty clear that he could not be bothered. We assumed he was busy and so proceeded on our way.

Enter the Diva

Every so often this programmer would come by our space, look over our shoulders and make comments like “Oh, you’re doing that?” or “Hrm, that’s interesting”.

He would tell us about complex issues he was solving. He would make a big show of how he’d stayed there working through the night. There were vague mentions of all the funding and “media attention” he and his team were getting.

Every encounter with him was either about how great they were doing or about the massive technological hurdles that he had just overcome. He would make roundabout comments about his team being “just” for administrative this or PR that.

While never directly stated, there was no question, that in his mind, HE was the team. Without him, THE programmer, the team would be nothing. He was, and maybe still is, a programmer with a diva complex.

Cocky vs. Diva

The guy I describe above might sound like just some cocky programmer. What makes me say he has a diva complex? What do I even mean by “diva complex”?

A fine line can become a tall wall in three-dimensional space

To me, the difference between being cocky and having a diva complex is a fine line. A cocky person is someone who’s a little heavy handed with the confidence.

Someone with a diva complex however, has allowed that confidence to distort their reality. It’s an escalation of self-esteem and confidence. It’s a set of mental triggers or patterns that geared up to carry a life of their own.

The way that escalation happens might simply come from the misunderstanding of some good advice. It’s common to hear something along the lines of, “focus on achievements and don’t dwell on failure”.

The latter part of that, gets construed as DISMISS failures. This small twist ends up in a self propagating cycle that I call the “diva complex”.

The diva complex alters perception in a way that makes people believe that every success is due only to themselves. All failures or missteps are then pushed to any external force (the software, the team, subordinates, etc).

A person might find themselves saying and even thinking that an idea they just heard is a bad one. Later on, they come up with a brilliant idea that sounds an awful lot like the one from before. The similarity of course, will not be noticed.

The other idea was terrible (because it wasn’t their own), while this “new” idea is brilliant (because it is their own). This in turn, keeps the cycle going. They keep gaining more and more confidence and distancing themselves more and more from their own mistakes and ultimately, reality.

Acknowledging the Diva

We’ve all come across people that behave this way.

Often times in large enterprises, you find that as you get closer to the top, you run into this more and more. You see it in entertainment and in sports. These people with diva complexes exist in all types of professions.

People who believe that whatever success they achieve is because of only themselves. Yet, these same people will see any failures as not their fault but their team. With people in the media/entertainment business, you often see the massive fall from grace that inevitably occurs to these people.

How can this be avoided? Here are a few simple steps to help keep yourself in check.

Acknowledge your mistakes

Don’t dwell on mistakes, but definitely acknowledge them.

A simple “This, I” statement like “This failed because I forgot that”. Taking stock of your mistakes has the benefit of making it easier to recognize future failures. It might not prevent them, but it should help create markers in your mind that should set off alarms when you’re heading down a similar path.

More importantly, acknowledging mistakes helps to cement the fact that you are fallible. You make mistakes. Everyone does, and that’s okay.

What’s not okay, is repeating them over and over because you refuse to learn from them. Even worse, to pretend like they never happened.

Acknowledge the successes of others

By acknowledging other people’s successes you acknowledge that you aren’t doing it all by yourself. No one has ever done anything by themselves. There is always someone, somewhere that contributed to any success you’ve ever had.

This simple idea, should not detract from your success, but should help to keep you grounded in reality.

Think of any success and somewhere along the path to that achievement, someone else contributed. A runner had someone else make their shoes, a chef had someone else grow their ingredients, a programmer had someone else make their computer.

There is a long chain of people and events that leads to success. To believe that you’re the sole reason for your achievements, robs them of their efforts, of their successes.


You are not alone. You’re not alone in your success and you’re not alone in your failure. The burden of failure is heavy. Allow those around you to help spread the weight.

With that same mentality, the joy of success is great. Share in that as well. Acknowledge all those that helped to create that success.

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