Don’t Be a Superhero©

Today is the opening of Age of Ultron, the next installment in the Avengers superhero series. While I’m sure it will be a megahit at the box office, I wonder what its impact will be on the people who see it, both young and old. Superheroes have always been looked up to as role models in our culture. For decades, superheroes were nearly always men and served as role models for little boys (and, secretly, for men). It is only in the past 50 years that female superheroes came into vogue and, frankly, most of them have been created by men for male audiences (e.g. Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Bionic Woman). Whether male or female and whether for men/boys or women/girls, superheroes usually share common traits – traits which may no longer serve us (if they ever did at all).

Here’s a list of the common traits for most superheroes:

  • Strong
  • Confident
  • In control
  • Always have it together

In short, superheroes always have a mindset of “I’ve got it.” While the reassurance that everything will be okay and that they shouldn’t worry can be helpful to those in danger or distress, this “I’ve got it” mindset has become so prevalent in our culture that it is now not only a detriment, but often dangerous.

I was recently meeting with a coaching client, and we were discussing some of his key traits. No coincidence, he mentioned nearly all of the above listed traits for himself. I guess that makes him a superhero, and that certainly must feel good. Certainly, these can be good and positive traits. We would all likely want our children to have some or all of these traits (or at least we think we would). However, when I asked him the following question, I got an interesting answer: “For most of the people that you know that have these traits, what do you think is actually true about them?” This was his answer:

  • Weak
  • Insecure
  • Hesitant
  • Afraid
  • On the edge
  • Lost

I then asked him this question: “How do these traits sound to you?” He answered, “That’s me. The rest is just an act.”

Look, if you believe the first list of traits describe you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the second list of traits is the real truth, but there is no question that our culture has created a desire or need to be perceived as strong—and that cultural definition is no longer working and is potentially dangerous. When many of my friends and business colleagues face challenges and setbacks, their typical response is some version of “I’ve got this.” They put on the mask of unafraid and unfazed, and then they take action – often just working harder – so that no one will ever see them sweat, which they believe is a sign of weakness. They don’t ask for help or support. They don’t share their uncertainties or fears. They don’t explore the beliefs or stories that are likely creating the fear, hesitation or internal struggles. Instead, they remain in control (usually false), suck it up and handle it. The problem is that it generally doesn’t work. [Side Note: Avengers is actually a really interesting superhero movie in this regard because they all have to come to the realization that they can’t succeed alone and learn to support each other in order to move forward!]

This superhero approach doesn’t work because it keeps us from dealing with the real or core issues, which would help us eliminate or minimize the same kind of problems in the future. It also doesn’t work because it keeps us from asking for help. It doesn’t work because the people around us see us as cold, so they never experience our humanness. It doesn’t work because people don’t trust people who always claim to have it together – it doesn’t seem real or believable. Finally, it doesn’t work because it separates us from everyone around us.

It’s also dangerous because burying our fears, challenges and uncertainties often pushes us to unhealthy choices, decisions and addictions. The United States is the most medicated (in terms of prescriptions) country in the world. Depression rates are rapidly rising in the US, and that doesn’t even count the high rates of undiagnosed depression. In order to medicate our uncertainties rather than deal with them, we turn to a wide range of addictions including alcohol (not just for alcoholics), drugs (prescription and otherwise), pornography and infidelity. Of course, the fastest growing addiction in the United States is directly related to the superhero concept of “I’ve got it”: work and staying busy. Rather than admit our challenges, we work harder, work longer and stay busier.

What’s a superhero to do? Be willing to be vulnerable. Be willing to ask for help. Be willing to admit that you don’t always have it together. Be willing to admit when you are overwhelmed. Be willing to admit that things aren’t working rather than leading people to believe that everything is always perfect or great. We need a fundamental shift in our culture, both personally and professionally, to recognize that real strength and courage is demonstrated when we are willing to be vulnerable and to ask for help. Superheroes were great for us when we were kids and they make for great movies, but the superhero mindset is no longer serving us in business or in life.


  1. Mark Moore says:

    Great article . I really enjoyed it and some part of this should relate to everyone.
    Thanks for the continued great articles.

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