We love superheroes.
And we all have our personal team of Avengers on social media, in our family, or at work who seem larger than life, drawing us in with their massive gravitational pull as we ogle at their every move. They can do no wrong.
Over the past few years I’ve taken a deep-dive into the lives of my real-world Avenger team, which is generally comprised of the following: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Tony Hsieh, Ben Franklin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Mike Krzyzewski among others.
What I discovered among various books, podcasts, documentaries, interviews, and commentaries was not entirely what I expected.
None of these names have or had “super powers.” They were not bequeathed superhuman abilities from their immortal ancestors. The clouds did not part upon their arrival. They didn’t graduate college at the age of five or melt their teachers’ faces with knowledge bombs every two seconds. In fact, there was little I found particularly super at all.
What I did find were three commonalities:
The first two are pretty intuitive. We expect our heroes to have to work through tough times, slay a dragon or two, and stay true to their oath of defeating evil at all costs. We expect this because grit and conviction are two key components to good storytelling, and thus are central themes to any self-respecting success story. But we never really talk about help.
Here’s the truth.
Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak, never wrote a line of code, and was fired from his own company for being a megalomaniac. Things worked out pretty well, though, when he introduced the iPhone and gave us a reason to hate Millennials forever.
Elon Musk teamed up with a star-studded cast to make PayPal a breeding ground for Silicon Valley titans, which then helped him finance his other billion-dollar projects.
Tony Hsieh pioneered the idea that customer service could actually be good. But starting Zappos wasn’t even his idea.
Ben Franklin’s relatives owned the print shop where he learned the ropes of a well-crafted message (the modern-day equivalent of owning the only TV station in town).
Malcolm Gladwell was a self-described “basketcase” when he started out in journalism, attributing his success - in true Canadian fashion - to lots of practice and help from editors.
Mike Krzyzewski played and coached for Bobby Knight, one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time. That experience put Krzyzewski in position to take over a fledgling Duke program, where he has become the best coach in college basketball history.
SO WHAT’S THE POINT?
It’s easy to think our personal superheroes are cut from the cloth of exceptionalism because it fulfills the narrative we see in our favorite fiction while also exempting us from feeling like we don’t measure up. I don’t have their superpower, therefore I shouldn’t expect myself to accomplish something great like that.
In reality, where there is greatness, there is usually lots of help.
Our Western individualism doesn’t like to highlight this in history books. However, if we truly desire to unleash our own potential and the potential of generations to come, we cannot continue to build our own mental fences around our ingenuity and expect greatness to emerge.
Instead, we should intentionally seek the help of others. And perhaps more importantly, we should intentionally seek to help others.
Superheroes can teach us many useful things, like how just wearing a mask can completely conceal your identity and landing a punch on any part of a bad guy will knock them out cold every time. Noted. What they fail to convey, though, is the important truth that we are at our best as humans when we take the talents and abilities baked into our individual genome and allow ourselves to be refined by others, then find a way to return the favor.
The writer Jon Donne summed up this idea about four centuries ago:
No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
You're not an island, so don't put on the pressure to act like one. Take time to discover where you need help. Be willing to return the favor. Greatness awaits.