What if we stopped talking about superpowers?
Opinion, By Becca Williams
The opinions presented in the following article are not representative of Startup Colorado.
As an independent and many-hats-wearing technology consultant, I’ve spent the last several years onboarding with a new client every 3-6 months. I’ve seen the inner workings of a number of organizations, teams, Slack groups, Confluence spaces, wikis, and training checklists (or lack of thereof).
I’ve been fully remote for more than five years and have noticed that few organizations do a great job cultivating spaces where people can show their full humanity. Many companies create work environments where employees are expected to silo their identities, regardless of world events, and show up as if the only thing that matters is moving tasks on the Jira board to the next column, often forgetting why they’re doing it, and whether or not it’s valuable.
There are too many workspaces where it’s not enough, or even allowed, to be human, with all the imperfections, emotions, traumas, experiences, biases, and challenges that come with that.
I’ve also experienced a damaging culture of hustle that further perpetuates a need to be greater than human, where 80-hour work weeks with few hours of sleep are worn as a badge of honor, rather than seen as unsustainable WTFs.
That brings me to superpowers and superheroes. Is it a novel, playful, and fun way to celebrate ourselves and what we bring to the table? Or is it subtly or even blatantly harmful? How is it we got to a place where it isn’t enough to be human and we must describe ourselves in superhuman terms in order to stand out, impress colleagues, potential employers, and gain social media followers?
Let’s look at one angle on where superpowers began and revisit the history we might or might not have ever learned in that high school US History class.
It’s tough to track down when "superpowers" leapt into the business lexicon along with many other terms, phrases, and modern conveniences rooted in military and political history. There is a WIRED issue from August of 2003 called “The Super Power Issue: the Impossible Gets Real” and a Harvard Business Review article called “On Managing Information Overload and Extremely Lame Superpowers” from May of 2010. Both seem to focus more on a superhero-related use of superpowers and less as a substitute for business-focused skills. Recent years bring countless examples of the use of superpowers as skills.
But, the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian logs “The Birth of a Superpower” back to 1898.
“In 1898, U.S. domestic support for the independence of Cuba enmeshed the United States in a struggle with Spain over the fate of the island nation. The decision to aid the Cuban resistance was a major departure from the traditional American practice of liberal nationalism, and the results of that decision had far-reaching consequences. The 1898 Treaty of Paris ending the war gave Cuba its independence and also ceded important Spanish possessions to the United States—notably Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the small island of Guam. The United States was suddenly a colonial power with overseas dependencies.”
With this context in mind, I think describing and promoting ourselves in terms of our superpowers is problematic on a number of levels.
To begin with, it’s packed with privilege. If we’re going to celebrate anything in terms of its superhuman capabilities, why not pivot our focus from qualities like an “ability to optimize xyz obscure process,” “content strategy that converts 10x,” and “outcome-driven, creative and entrepreneurial etc...” to the folks who are holding together households on an inconsistent minimum wage job? Or parents trying to keep their kids educated remotely during a pandemic when they might not have a home to go to?
Next, what are we really trying to say when we talk about our superpowers? Why is it not enough to talk about skills, talents, passions, contributions, and the essence of us?
Let’s also think for a minute about what it means to hold power (in systems long designed to oppress.) Do we really want to tout being an “ecosystem builder” as a superpower without unpacking all that it actually means in creating fair, equitable, and accessible systems?
How might we stop talking about our unique gifts/talents/strengths/hobbies/passions in terms of their power? We are not seeking to hold power over others when we describe how we artfully populate a marketing funnel, or design graphics that sell, or write clean code, or scale our startup to unicorn status. (At least I hope not.)
Next time you find yourself about to ask or answer the question, “What are your superpowers?" think about what you really mean, why you’re asking, or who you’re responding to.
Instead of asking the question, consider framing it around a person’s unique strengths and gifts to the world, talents, interests, what lights their souls on fire, what they can’t wait to share with someone else, core values, or what is their favorite positive ripple effect they have created in the world?
Real humanity over unreal, siloed, unsustainable expectations. Contributions over accomplishments.
Becca Williams is the Principal Consultant and Founder of Thought Distillery, a technology consulting small business, and the Founder of Like Hearts Lab, a social enterprise focused campus in the forest. She is a pragmatic and creative product and project strategist who has worked with globally-distributed software teams for more than a decade, primarily with a focus on B2B. Becca’s ideal clients integrate equitable and inclusive practices into everything they do, building values-driven organizations, products, and services, and a lasting legacy in honor of social good.