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Time to Retire the Rockstar

  • Ninja
  • Rockstar
  • Superstar
  • Genius
  • Guru
  • Unicorn
  • Stud

If you’ve been in IT any length of time you’ve heard people be called these things, called people these things, or been called these things. Why do we do that? What’s the impact?

The Myth of the Lone Genius

This is something that’s mainly an American cultural thing. The idea that the world is massively changed by some single person working by themselves in their garage or basement, toiling away at some amazing idea: the Lone Genius.

Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford..

Walter Issacson wrote a great book last year called the Innovators- a study in the people who built computers and the internet. What’s fascinating is the takeaway as highlighted by this essay based on the book: That it wasn’t individual lone geniuses, but a community either working directly together or building on previous advancements.

By continuing to promulgate this myth, we’re telling people the way to be successful is to eschew teams and communities and to work alone. This hurts innovation, not helps it.

What is the Connection?

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we re-enforce this myth on an ongoing basis by overly separating and elevating people for a multitude of reasons:

  • Trying to complement the person’s skills
  • Trying to impress a potential client or audience
  • Trying to use that person as an inspiration to others

So What?

The effect is often the opposite of what is intended. Instead of elevating that person and that person bringing the group up too, it can cause others to disengage. They don’t feel “worthy” and that they could “never be as good at that person.” It can even lead to cases of imposter syndrome within groups of colleagues.

I hear this very often in the tech community, both inside and outside of my current company. They don’t see a fellow engineer that has put in hard work, increased their skills, and excelled. They see some mythical uber-techie that is so much smarter than them, so why should they even try?

Let’s Fix This.

It’s ok to complement and single out a person for their abilities and achievements; it’s encouraged. What we need to do is stop using these over-the-top terms to do it.

We need to encourage and inspire others to great things. This is the real path to innovation and success.

Edit 3-24-15:

Scott Lowe has posted a counterpoint to this post on his blog here. I highly encourage you to check out his take on this topic.

After reading Scott’s post (and some great twitter feedback), I thought it would be a good time to expand and clarify my post.

My issue isn’t really in the terms themselves or what their direct connotations are (“This Guy/Gal is really good!”). To me, the issue is more the indirect connotation; I think people associate elite professionals like Rockstars and pro athletes as a status that’s unobtainable to them. For good reason too, the percentage of the population that are actual rockstars or pro athletes is incredibly small. That’s the part that I see as deflating and defeatist to other tech folks.

I think a much better analogy I hit on this morning was martial arts. You can recognize the people that have mastered the highest levels while providing a path to those who have not yet reached that level. If you’re a 4th degree blackbelt in taekwondo (I think I have this right, my familiarity with taekwondo is all google-based), you’ve reached the level of an elite performer. At the same time, a yellow or orange belt holder knows the path they need to follow to reach that level. They may not posses the drive or ability to reach it, but the path is clear.