Poe’s Heroic Dilemma

The following is an excerpt from chapter one of Do Better Work, which is now available as an audiobook.

Late one Friday night, I discussed entrepreneurship with a small group of students. Some were just starting college, others were about to graduate. All were refugees who had fled the rule of a dictator in hopes of a better life in the United States. They’d invited me to their gathering to hear what I’d learned in my attempts to start businesses.

Asking for help in moments of need was a topic that got a lot of airtime. I told the group about times when I’d done it well, times when I hadn’t, and what I’d learned from the experiences. I shared how vulnerability increases communication in my life, so I can see more perspectives and come to better decisions; how it gives me room to show my teammates what I need, so they can support me more precisely; and how it encourages my teammates to do the same, so I can return the favor. I explained that good leadership is not predicated on intuitively knowing what to do. It’s predicated on taking responsibility for learning what to do. Being vulnerable enough to ask for help accelerates that learning.

The session was open-ended, so we spent a lot of time going back and forth with questions. All but one person participated in the discussion. Poe, who I’d only met that night, didn’t say a word and spent most of the session with his arms crossed. This drew me toward him. I asked Poe what was on his mind.

“About asking for help,” he said, “I disagree with you. I get what you are saying, but I want to do this like a man.”

I asked Poe what he meant by that, and he said a man should be able to handle pain and challenges by himself.

“He doesn’t need help,” Poe said, “if he’s a real man.”

“Where did you learn that?” I asked.

“Heroes,” he said.

“What heroes?”

“Heroes in stories.”

— 

As the night came to a close, I learned a lot from Poe. Most of the celebrated protagonists he’d watched or read about were lone rangers with tremendous talent and destiny. Poe looked up to these characters like role models. He wanted to be as bold and brave as they were. Since he wasn’t impenetrable to bullets or resistant to gravity (Poe particularly liked superheroes), he tried to model the more attainable parts of their repertoire—stoicism and self-sufficiency. Poe’s heroes showed him that indecision, shame, and trauma were for the rescued, not the rescuers. Poe wanted to be a rescuer and go it alone.

You might recognize Poe’s desires. I know I do. They are rooted in the Western mythos, which implies that great people dominate life, have the answer, and know the way. If you’ve ever modeled your behavior in pursuit of these qualities, you, Poe, and I have something in common. We feel pressure to live up to idealistic notions of heroism and human achievement—even though they are unattainable. Carrying these burdens, it’s clear why so many of us struggle to acknowledge our confusion, concern, and failure. Doing so would imply we are not cut out for greatness, so we default to hiding our weaknesses. We become ashamed of our humanity. We bury the very thing that makes us accessible and motivating to others.

If we want to make progress and remain sane, we need to embrace a different model. The lone genius who blazes through difficulty unphased can no longer be our standard for excellence. Teamwork, communication, shared intelligence—these are the profoundly human activities that propel us forward. We owe it to ourselves, our teammates, and our children to send a clear message that it’s okay to be nervous, to not know the answer, to need guidance and advice. Our camaraderie and clarity are built on these behaviors.

If we perpetuate tales of dominating life, having the answer, and knowing the way, we are not leading—we are misleading. But when we demonstrate that we struggle, too, that sometimes we need help uncovering what to do or say, we can positively change people’s perceptions of themselves. To struggle is to live. To learn is to live. To need one another is to live. Let’s do more living.

—Max

Not once, not twice, but twenty times
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