I wanted to talk about something I’ve quietly struggled with over the years. It made me feel amazing in the moment, but over time it sent me into a tailspin that led to hurting myself and others. I know that many others struggle with the same thing. We rarely talk about its negative effects, which we treat as a shameful secret.
It starts with… H… E… R… O… I…
I’m talking, obviously, about heroics.
This might surprise you. Heroics is something that we almost uniformly celebrate, especially in the tech industry. Heroics is one of the greatest goods …right?
People think of heroics as just “working hard.” Working hard on things that create durable value — that cohere into things greater than the sum of their parts — is something worth celebrating. But heroics is a particular flavor of working hard. Heroics is fire-fighting, in-the-moment, nothing-else-matters, adrenaline-pumping action.
Heroic work felt absolutely amazing to me in the moment. I was battling an existential threat, pushed to the absolute limit of my ability. Adrenaline was pumping, and when I vanquished the threat, everyone cheered and celebrated the miracle I accomplished. I got promotions, I was showered with praise. There was a never-ending stream of fires I could fight. It was hard not to become addicted.
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but when I looked around and saw how much more heroic I was than those around me, I thought that the reason was because the others weren’t as strong or capable as me (an ego-inflating thought!). I came to resent the people who weren’t also constantly heroically sprinting, who it seemed to me were just being whiny or lazy. Over time I found myself pointing fingers, or pushing those people away, closing myself off to their perspective or insights.
When I would put on blinders and go on a mindless fire-fighting binge I’d inevitably look up later and realize I had run over someone, backed myself into a corner, or ran off a cliff. I had hurt myself and others in the pursuit of that one quick hit. I had ignored the indirect effects of my actions that over time smoldered unnoticed, in the rat’s nest of past heroic fixes, until they combusted into full-blown fires. As I descended in the spiral of heroics, where my past heroic fixes were indirect causes of my current fires, the only way out seemed to be more heroics. I was applying linear effort against superlinear forces that over time inevitably overwhelmed me.
In retrospect, the problem with heroics is clear. Heroic tactical work is the lowest leverage work I could have done. Once the problem was a firestorm I had no options left but to throw 100% of my effort into knee-jerk reactions using whatever tools were at hand. Problems that could have been avoided entirely with a teensy bit of preventative investment in the past turned into huge, five-alarm fires that required all hands on deck. There are no super-linear returns from fire-fighting.
Worse, my heroics, when I tally up their direct and indirect effects, often destroyed more value than they created. My heroics directly created coherence in a small pocket, but indirectly destroyed coherence for the teams and people around me by kicking up clouds of dust and randomization. It created messes for other people to clean up after I’d gone sprinting off to the next fire — clean up work that was largely invisible to me at the time. Heroics is a crutch that actively weakens the systems and people around us. Heroics makes it impossible for those around us to plan, build, or grow, which makes the system weaker, which will then require your heroics even more in the future — a dangerous codependency that can spiral out of control. You can’t build things by fire-fighting.
Heroics can work fine for small, isolated pockets for short periods of time to build temporary things. But if you need to create something that endures, heroics is the wrong approach. The small pocket of coherence that is created will likely be dominated by the net incoherence it created in the wider system. Heroics is a force of entropy that erodes the value of the whole.
So why do heroics persist?
First, because the impulse comes from a place of deeply caring about the outcome. I didn’t do heroics just because they felt good, but because I earnestly thought they were the right tool to create the most value.
Second, when you’re faced with an urgent existential threat, heroics truly are the only way to go — it’s fight heroically or die. However, remember that when we’re stretched too thin, every problem feels urgent and existential, so we will tend to reach for heroics too often. When there is a true existential threat, the problem is not so much using heroics, but becoming over-reliant on them and indirectly causing more situations that will need them in the future. The necessity for heroics should be treated as a last-ditch option, a failure mode. After each situation where heroics were required, you should debrief and figure out why they were required and what systemic investments would help lessen the need in the future. If you don’t, the default is that you’ll be more in need of heroics next time.
In addition, non-existential-threat heroics really do work well in certain, limited contexts: small isolated teams, doing quick, 0-to-1 style work. However, as the context changes (e.g. you grow to a 1-to-10 or 10–to-100 phase) they cease to work, but at that point you’re already reliant on them and there’s no good time to wean yourself off. Slow growth is strong growth, and growth via heroics will be fragile and a dangerous foundation to build on. The problems with this approach will be hidden during good times when things are growing, but will become suddenly obvious when things stop growing during challenging times.
Finally one of the reasons heroics persist is, that they are uniformly celebrated, both directly and indirectly. It’s nearly impossible to see the indirect negative effects of something that you are being celebrated for. If you’re out of the 0-to-1 phase and are spending 100% of your effort in heroic tactical fire fighting, that isn’t something to be proud of, it’s something to be embarrassed about. You are likely creating net-negative value for your organization. The higher up you are in an organization, the farther the indirect effects of your heroics will reach, and the more likely that they are net-negative. Worse, the higher up you are, the less likely people are to feel comfortable flagging the indirect effects of your heroics to you in the first place.
As companies scale they struggle with the problem of heroics en masse. In very small organizations, heroics are often net-positive. Surely more heroics is the way to counteract the laziness that seems to develop in bigger companies? However if you lean into celebrating heroics even more as the company scales, you make the problem worse. Ripple effects in large, interconnected organizations spread far and wide, and if everyone is at full capacity and has no time to absorb changes, those ripple effects will propagate in chain reactions. That’s bad enough with one hero, but if everyone is being heroic it will create a tumultuous sea of thrash and churn. In the limit it leads to situations where everyone is working harder than ever before but 90% of the overall effort is going into waste heat. The answer is not for everyone to be more heroic, it’s for everyone to be less heroic. That’s not to say take it easy or not work hard. Remember, heroics is just one particular flavor of working hard. The flavor of working hard that is most productive will change as the organization grows and matures.
I used to be fully addicted to heroics. I told myself that heroics were hard, and that I was better than people who clearly lacked the ability or the will to be as heroic as me. But I was wrong. Heroics are easy. Yes, they require you to sprint around, sweat shimmering on your brow. But what really takes courage, when everyone around you is running around with their hair on fire, is to take a step back. Everyone needs at least a few hours a week to step back, take a broader view, synthesize all of the cacophony of inputs they’ve received in the last week, and make sure that the hard work is cohering into something valuable. Taking a step back can feel almost self indulgent in the moment. But when I reflect back on my career, all of the super-linear returns came from insights generated by taking a step back and realizing which small tweaks could put things on a significantly better path. When you identify the right tweaks, you make something go from default-decohering as more time and effort is invested to default-cohering: a small change that makes an infinite difference.
I can see now that I was addicted to heroics, and it’s something I still find myself slipping back into. It’s easy to see this problem in others, but it’s hard to see it in yourself. It took me a long time to look myself in the mirror and realize that my actions were the problem. I’m sharing my experiences in the hopes that others might benefit from my hard-won knowledge, recognize the anti-patterns in themselves, and do less damage than I did.