The Perils of Hero Worship

It has never been easier to reach and connect with those people that we look up to and model ourselves towards.  Everything is so much closer these days.  The heroes of yesteryear that were so distant and mysterious are now at our fingertips, a mere tweet away.  That's what global communication and publicity has led to.  Everyone is within reach.

In addition, the fascination with the 'celebrity' mindset has sparked dozens of media platforms who spend their time deconstructing the lives of successful, famous or the interesting - probing deep into every facet of what makes them who they are and what they are about. Interviews day after day constantly seek to uncover new tidbits about these people, showing us how they operate, what they think and how they got to where they are now.  It's safe to say that this obsession is growing with every new star that is born.  Their whole life is available for scrutiny.

So, as a result - the path is just that much more tangible for those of us who aspire to live up to a similar level of success.  We are no longer in the dark with regard to the steps necessary to emulate such success - but rather, it is right there for us.  It is no longer a mystery as to how someone climbed the ladder in their respective field, it's available for us in black and white.  So that is a good thing right?


The trap that ambitious people often fall into however, is that of hero-worship (for lack of a better term).  With all this information and a profound opportunity for connection - it is easy to simply model your life on that of another - following everything to a tee, with the expectation being that you will get the same results.  It is tempting to think of it as a recipe to follow, a sure fire way to achieve success.  Unfortunately, reality isn't quite as simple as that, there are many other pieces at play here.

The best articulation of this thought process I can find is from Tim Ferriss in the 'Four Hour Chef'.  He identifies two significant reasons why these reproducible steps don't provide the expected results:

  1. Firstly, the top 1% often succeed despite how they train/act, not because of it.  It's easy to confuse correlation with causation here - these people have something extra special, so they probably would have succeeded no matter what they did!  Thus it might not be the way that they prepared or acted - but that was just a happy coincidence that had no true bearing on the results.
  2. Secondly, specialists/experts often can't externalise what they have themselves internalized.  Second nature is very difficult to teach.  For example, when you are trying to teach someone to drive, after having driven yourself for years - it is really difficult to articulate exactly how you do it so that a novice can relate.  There are a lot of things you process simultaneously through habit/muscle memory that is nigh impossible to explain.  So as a result, if you're not a trained instructor who knows how to cater to beginners - it often ends in anguish for both parties.  The communication gap is simply too complicated to get across.

Lastly, a point of my own, the careers of the ultra-successful are, more often than not, situational.  They depend on various factors outside the control of the hero.  For example, the state of the industry at the time, proximity to various people, ideas or technologies and a great a deal of luck.  Things come and go in cycles across almost almost everything - so getting the right timing is often the secret sauce.  For example, the time for building a new social network is probably over, as we sit here today.  Mark Zuckerberg got in with a great idea at exactly the right time - whereas now the market is somewhat saturated.  The league of followers have built on his work and developed plenty of different solutions for so many social constructs.  Thus, if you looked to reproduce Mark Zuckerberg's success - you would not necessarily be able to do it by building a social network - the timing is off.  It's not going to work that way.


So for those of us out there who are looking to do big things in the world, I hesitate caution when aiming to emulate the lives of those you aspire to be.  I think that if you are aware of the perils I have detailed above then you are halfway there.  The true skill is to be able to isolate the principles, values and tactical thinking that made the career of that particular person and transfer those to your specific situation.  Many of the reasons that some are successful is because of transferable character traits and perceptions.  So if you can isolate those and apply them to whatever you want to achieve - that's how you can use their experience to enhance your own.  That adaptation is what makes it so difficult to really make a dent in the universe.

The moment you start trying to reproduce their career, step by step, that's when you will struggle.  It's simply not enough.  Sticking with my previous metaphor, its not about following a recipe line by line, but rather it's about having the right ingredients and making your own dish - according to what works at the time.