Selena Delesie recently posted a couple of blog entries about her experiences with something called “the hero culture” and its pervasiveness within the IT and Software industry. You can read her posts here and here, and I suggest you do because they are really interesting. Out of that discussion marched several great comments from some of the usual Mötley Crüe. An interesting theme was advanced in offline conversations between James Bach, Matt Heusser, Selena, and myself. Okay, it was mostly me and James. So moving along … the theme was the general transformation or degradation of the term “hero” since the advent of the modern entertainment age. If you are a student of history, mythology, psychology, and/or anthropology you’ll know the term “hero” is nearly universal in its presence but not specific meaning. Scholars such as Claud Levi Strauss have posited these similarities represent the possibility of a common thought structure or pattern. Karl Jung debated them as universal archetypes representational of a common experience and share human nature. Probably the most famous scholar on the subject in the United States, Joseph Campbell, described these common structures as an attempt to describe and share common beliefs or experiences in the language of metaphor and poetry. In short, he stated the mythical archetype is an attempt to hack our conscious thought and wire it directly into the unconscious suggested by Levi Strauss and Jung.
So what is the “historical” definition of a hero and how is it different to the pop culture definition advanced by the literature, movies, comic books, and television shows of today? The biggest difference is a the nature of the hero his or her self. In modern interpretations a hero(or heroine) is someone who overcomes adversity or seemingly impossible challenges. The young soldier who lost both legs in combat but still dances at his wedding is considered “heroic” in his ability to overcome his disability. The comic book protagonist who battles through ever more dangerous and omnipotent threats is called a “hero” for defeating them at the possible cost of their own life.
Contrast this with the pivotal moments of the historical hero cycle as defined The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In Campbell’s monomyth the hero is called to adventure where they overcome ever increasing challenges or perils with assistance from a divine agent or a companion or both. These seem to line up with the modern interpretation quire well. Unfortunately that’s just the beginning for Campbell’s hero while it is the full definition for the modern one.
Campbell’s hero eventually fails, dramatically and spectacularly. The failure either causes the death of the companion or divine agent, or the death itself is the failure if the hero kills the divine agent or companion personally. The hero then feels epic remorse and travels to the realm of death to retrieve the lost one. In this they also fail. These failures are the pivotal moment in the monomyth, triggering the second part of the heroic cycle. In the second part, the hero must come to terms with their mortality, foibles, and limitations when they had previously thought themselves nearly immortal, infallible, and omnipotent. The period off reconciliation and atonement for their past actions raises the person of action into the realm of the hero. Eventually they are welcomed back into their village/tribe/city after they have achieved wisdom and humility to temper their might and valor.
So the historical hero is not one who overcomes insurmountable odds. The historical hero is one who fails to overcome insurmountable odds, and in doing so has to face their own death … the ultimate limitation we all must face. The hero is the one who faces their limitations, and becomes wiser for them.
So perhaps we don’t need to abandon hero culture in software development. From where I stand, we actually need to embrace it rather than simply remaining trapped in the adolescent or nascent part. Until we’ve embedded the entire hero, talk of abandoning him or her is a tad premature. I think we can learn a lot from them.