A few weeks ago, I wrote about the fake church of entrepreneurship, where I questioned why people seemed so hungry to listen to stories that had little relevance to their lives. As I thought about this more, it occurred to me that the tech industry has fallen in love with a fantasy. Truth be told, it’s a common story that, with minor changes in details, the entire world has come to worship.
Let’s deconstruct the basic hero fable:
- Our hero, the protagonist, probably had humble and/or outsider beginnings. They were an immigrant, or they were young, and nobody took them seriously. Oftentimes they didn’t know how to code, grew up poor, or grew up outside of the Valley.
- They had an idea, or if you really want to be dramatic, they had a dream to change the world that nobody else believed in, so they packed up their bags and headed for San Francisco or New York.
- There was a learning curve and a struggle against all odds, usually in a garage. Sometimes the struggle resulted in hunger and desperation that reveals character and ingenuity, such as Airbnb’s cereal boxes. Other times, as told by Uber and MegaUpload, the struggle was against some tyrannical force such as the evil government.
- There was either near defeat or actual defeat. But never fear, our hero picked himself up, dusted himself off and kept pushing forward.
- Finally, redemption and resurrection. Our hero rose up and found success.
If this sounds like the outline for a movie, that’s because it pretty much is. The basic story has been replayed a million times with relatively minor changes in the setting. Think about how many times we’ve seen a similar tale of struggle and redemption in sports or entertainment? Every Olympic athlete gets a mini-biography about how they overcame adversity to reach the pinnacle. Every episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” includes at least one of the following; drug addiction, bankruptcy, or a death in the family, before the band or singer finds their happily ever after.
In tech, it’s the struggle to raise money, get traction, and finally sell to Google. Same story, different details.
The hero fantasy is universal and easy to love because it allows us to see ourselves in the shoes of our protagonist. We look at Steve Jobs and think, “He dropped out of college, and I dropped out of college, so I’m going to be just like him!” In almost every variation, the story is one of a common man, even an underdog, overcoming challenges and finding success. At the end of these stories, sometimes explicitly stated but always implied, is the message, “You can do it too.”
The problem with the hero myth is that it paints an incomplete picture of the hero. The details of their struggle and backstory are often greatly embellished. And even in the best case scenarios, we don’t really know the character of the person. Consider Tiger Woods. There is no disputing his accomplishments on the golf course, so he became a hero. But nobody knew he was a serial adulterer. Or worse, almost all of us admired Lance Armstrong, whose story perfectly fit the hero myth, until we found out the truth about his doping.
In the process of worshipping the story, we’ve become too quick to idolize anyone who can reinforce the fable. We end up confusing a wonderful story with the person telling it, even when the story is filled with as much fiction as fact.
This is the danger of the hero myth. Our willingness to believe it leaves us susceptible to idol worship. In most cases we really don’t know anything about our heroes other than the well packaged message they’ve presented to us. But we still project on them the image and narrative of a role model and fill in the blanks with our imagination, picturing them without flaws. And while these people usually do everything they can to reinforce this image, it is our own failure to investigate the truth or attempt to see the complete picture that keeps us enthralled with questionable idols and the entrepreneurial fantasy.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]