Beware Your Superpowers

Part of what makes people great are their “Superpowers”, the things that they do at a level of excellence well beyond the norm. I see Superpowers all around me in the individuals and teams that I work with. Whether it’s the ability to hold on to massive amounts of detail simultaneously while coordinating something, or synthesizing ambiguous inputs into a clear direction, or just being able to rapidly identify a logic flaw in an argument, there are things being done at a level of excellence beyond the norm by people on all of our teams.

Identifying and building on your Superpowers is also one of the most common pieces of developmental feedback that people receive. This can be intentional or unintentional. A manager might identify that someone is good at systems-thinking (seeing interconnected processes and how they interact and influence one another) and encourage that person to continue to develop that skill through coaching and creating opportunities for them to contribute to architecture and design projects. That’s intentional development of a Superpower. But let’s say that an engineer provides excellent code review comments, and becomes a sought after reviewer. By participating in more code reviews this Superpower grows, and the manager winds up just encouraging her to do more code reviews because everyone is asking for her help. In this case the manager didn’t set out to deliberately help cultivate that engineer’s Superpower, it just happened organically. In both cases, managers are basically saying “do more of this thing because you have a strength here” and the result is that the strength gets stronger.

The flip side is that one of the most common pieces of developmental feedback that I personally wind up giving is “you are overusing your Superpower.” I often make the Incredible Hulk analogy: Hulk’s Superpower is his incredible physical strength, which comes in handy when you need to punch out a Norse god. But he is also constantly smashing shit and causing a headache for the Avengers. That’s what can easily come from overdoing your Superpowers. Here are some examples:

  • Superpower: Precision questioning and critical thinking. Overdoing it: Stifling creative ideas in brainstorming sessions.
  • Superpower: Communications and storytelling. Overdoing it: Mansplaining by rephrasing what other people said in your own style.
  • Superpower: Detail oriented process design. Overdoing it: Defining an inviolate process for everything, no matter how trivial.
  • Superpower: Data-driven design and problem solving. Overdoing it: Analysis paralysis when the data is highly ambiguous.
  • Superpower: Intuitive leaps and ability to navigate ambiguity. Overdoing it: Relying on intuition when there is clear data telling you something else.

I could probably list 100 more but you get the idea. So why does it happen that people wind up so often overdoing their Superpower? I think it most often comes down to 3 things:

  1. It feels good! If you have a Superpower, and you use it to solve a problem, there is a great dopamine hit that comes along with that. You get a feeling of accomplishment.
  2. People constantly ask you to use it! When you’re great at something people will likely ask you to do that. I’m guessing that Leonardo Da Vinci had a lot of people asking for portraits.
  3. You get recognized and rewarded for it! Reinforcement learning is not just for ML. In the scenario above, that engineer who was great at code reviews likely had many people singing her praises at review time and got rewarded for it.

So with all of those factors, it’s incredibly easy to wind up building and using that Superpower muscle all the time. There is a great scene in the mediocre movie Jumper where Hayden Christensen is laying on the couch, teleports himself to the fridge for a snack, then teleports back to being supine on the couch. He’s just so comfortable using his powers that he uses them for scenarios where it’s completely wrong to do so. That’s basically what I see happen with most Superpowers. The key I think is to be really self-aware of what your Superpower is and constantly check to see if you’re overdoing it. Be Smart Hulk. Learn how to use your powers for good without getting out of control. Like all self-awareness things there are a few good tools you can use to check for this:

  1. Accept that it’s possible to overdo it. I have talked with people who refused to believe that they could ever overdo their Superpower, often as they stared incredulously while I relayed the many complaints I’d gotten from people about them doing just that.
  2. Know your triggers. What circumstances are likely to cause you to invoke your Superpower? Make sure you identify those so when they happen you’re not just on autopilot but actually thinking about which skills to apply in each situation.
  3. Post-mortem your work. Think about what could have gone better, and whether there was a more appropriate skill to bring to bear.
  4. Ask for feedback. The most valuable gift you can get is feedback. Make sure you are actively asking people to share their perspectives with you.

Even though there are tons of incentives to pull you towards building and using your Superpower, I think it is way more rewarding in the long term to develop an array of powers that you can bring to bear on any problem you’re trying to solve. That means consciously trying to develop and strengthen the muscles you don’t use as frequently (don’t skip leg day!) which means using less frequently the muscles which are already strong.

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