The problem with being a hero

Here’s a moment brought to you by 3 preschoolers.

My daughter and son and niece are swimming. Floatie-laden. I’m sitting beside the pool, trying to read. Suddenly: screams. Terror. Flailing arms. Splashing. Lots of splashing.

I jump up and am about to launch into the pool when I realize no one’s drowning.

The waves calm, the screams quiet, and turns out that there was a spider.


I offer to get it out and am refused. They can handle it. I watch as, for the next 15 minutes, they wave the spider closer to each other, have a crisis moment, and take turns saving each other from the evil eight-legged beast. It’s fun to be the hero.

When you’re 3 years old, this is a good way to spend an afternoon.

As a mode of operation for life, it’s self-defeating.

You don’t need a crisis to do good work or have value. But many of us don’t know how to work without a crisis. We’ve so used to living in reactive mode that we’ve got nothing else.

Plus, being a hero is fun. People notice when you save the day: when the machine breaks down and everything stalls and you walk in and fix it all. People don’t tend to notice when you consistently do the work that keeps the machine maintained, oiled, running smoothly.

No crisis, no recognition.

At least that’s how it feels.

And we get addicted to recognition. That’s because we get caught in work that isn’t coming from who we really are. We get trapped doing other people’s work. We don’t enjoy the process and we don’t own the vision and we’ve lost our autonomy and identity and the only reward we have left is admiration, appreciation, recognition.

There’s a myth that if you consistently do the machine maintenance, pay your dues, keep your head down, work hard, pay attention, show up on time, come in early and go home late, etc., etc., etc., one day all your consistent quiet hard work will pay off and you’ll be rewarded for those years of diligent duty.

It’s a nice myth and there is some truth in it (the best myths are full of truth, of course, that’s why they are powerful). The truth part of it is that consistent quiet work has a reward. That’s true.

The rest is myth, though. You know and I know that you can put in 10 or 15 years of diligent duty at a company and still get laid off. You know and I know that waiting for someone higher up the ladder to notice your quiet day in, day out showing up is a long time waiting. And that’s the point. The point of the myth is to keep you doing the necessary daily work while you’re waiting, hoping that someone will notice and reward and promote and recognize you.

It’s a myth perpetuated to ensure job security for the company: they need workers doing those jobs. It does absolutely nothing, though, to ensure job security for you.

That’s part of why there’s a big pull to filling a hero role. We’re learning that the quiet, consistent, steady, hard-working people don’t have any job security, not really. So we’re trying to be rockstars.

The other part of it is what we talked about above. When you’re doing work you don’t love, when your job is forced instead of fulfilling, when there’s no joy in the process, you look for other ways to be rewarded. Of course you do.

But the rockstar route is no guarantee, either. You can create or find one crisis after another, jump in and be the hero, and still lose. Because there will always be a newer, fresher, faster, slightly more desperate rockstar coming behind you.

Just like there will always be a younger, smarter, more efficient and slightly more desperate person ready to take on that daily, quiet, maintenance work role.

The solution is to get out of the position you’re in. It’s a position that makes you feel like frenzied hero burnout or quiet desperation drudgery are the only two possible routes in life.

Not true.

That’s another myth, actually.

There are many other routes in life. The one I like, for myself, is the one that’s about me being who I really am. Growing every day. And doing work that comes from who I am and who I am becoming. That’s the work that is fulfilling whether I’m having a hero day or a maintenance day. There’s joy in the process, independent of any outcome. Strangely, when I’m focused on the process, working in joy without worrying about being recognized or feeling secure, I get better outcomes.

Go figure.