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  • Malcolm De Leo

What's your Superpower?



We are all good at stuff. We also all suck at stuff. This is just a fact of life. And throughout our time on the big blue marble, we are taught from an early age to strive to learn. This is the cycle of life in a way. Learning helps us to be satisfied as a person, successful in what we do and ultimately how we feel. And while we spend most of our lives in this learning cycle, let's face it, there are some things we learn to do that we wouldn't bet our lives on being good at. In fact, I think we are taught to spend more time working on the things we aren't very good at or don't know, as opposed to embracing our innate superpowers.


What is a superpower?


As a stickler for operational definitions, I would define one's superpower as an ability we have that is like breathing. It is the thing that we do without thinking that others seem to marvel at without us knowing. It is the ability we have that we think nothing of, but others often try hard to replicate, and while they might be good at it, they just can't operate at the level that comes natural to someone else. Superpowers are something that are often developed and honed over time. They are the things we have inside that makes us shine as we apply that innate skill with the external task that must be done.


Why is the concept of a superpower not obvious?


Everyone is probably thinking as they read this, "I am great at this and this and this...", but if you stop and think about it, is it really a superpower you are listing right now? I would argue we don't slow down enough to actually recognize them. We all have superpowers but being good at a task and doing something like you are breathing are two different things. And while some people think of a superpower as some giant skill, they can often be subtle things that allow us to operate in a unique place where others only dream of going.


Another reason this idea is not obvious is due to the nature of business in general. Take a step back, in most circles when one writes their resume they are forced to use a vernacular of skills that are normalized and recognizable to those looking to hire. In fact, the very nature of applying for a job is predicated on systematized operational definitions of what a role entails, what the generic skills should be, and what experiences one should have based on the past people who have done the job. What these personal structures are missing is what lies between and these are often the superpowers.


If a superpower is subtle what do they look like?


Sure some superpowers are obvious, like being an expert in a field that no one has studied, but most of the time the success we have accomplished is usually lined in two things; knowing what situations are good fits for our superpowers (which we may not even know we are using) and being able to apply them in any given situation to drive things forward. I like to think of superpowers as abilities that are applied to a job rather than the skill to actually do the job.


For example, can you write on your resume that I can look at 100,000 lines of code in 1 hour and find all the errors that most people miss with 10,000 lines of code? This example highlights a superpower underneath a skill. In this case, the skill is being a computer engineer who is tasked with writing code. The superpower is the ability to produce amazing, clean code faster than anyone because this person can look at haystack and find all the needles quickly. And this superpower, if recognized, opens up this person's ability to help others in so many ways because they can easily and quickly find errors in large volumes of information like they are breathing. This is a superpower. Being a great computer programmer isn't; it is merely something many people can learn to do, but not all of them will be good at this particular angle of doing it.


How do I figure out my superpower?


As it is discussed in the example, your superpower isn't the skill or trade you learned but something in the way you actually do it. Think of your superpower as a subset of the training you have. That training may teach you to be able to see the world in a way others who aren't trained do not, but your job is to look deeper. In fact, your job is to look beyond the job you do and see in all aspects of your life where you apply this ability over and over. Frankly, figuring it out takes a bit of personal sleuthing on your part. If you are willing to think about it then your superpower will become obvious because it is already in you.


So what? Why should you care in the end?


I once had a friend who helped me try to make a major change in my career. At this point, I had been working in innovation based jobs for over 12 years. Innovation was part of everything I did everyday. In fact, all of my jobs were strange off kilter titles like prototype developer, technology broker, and global VP of Innovation. As I was looking to move from being at large companies to working in startups, my friend suggested that I look for a "regular job" at a start up like sales executive or customer success leader. These were standard roles that were easy to understand and define. He suggested to me you are great at being an innovator so why don't you get a regular role because you will always be more innovative than everyone else. Bring those skills to the job rather than make that your front line skill. I thought about it and I honestly tried to follow his advice.


Fast forward 10 years and you know what? I did make the move to silicon valley as I hoped, but I have held the title Chief Evangelist two times and am now the Chief of solution strategy. I still laugh that I tried so hard to get a regular job in a more innovative environment but I still ended up in the crazy box with my job titles. And many of you might say, well being innovative is your superpower so what's the problem? Well, actually being innovative isn't my true superpower. So what is it? My superpower is centered on being able to bring people and ideas together to help move companies towards a vision they can't see. Driving culture change by helping people see how they work better together is like breathing to me. I love to know people. I love to create new ideas and over the years the skills I have built around negotiating, creating great operational definitions, facilitating groups and managing expectations are the foundation that have unlocked my real superpower; evangelism. Every day, I can see where people want to get to (business leaders) and have embraced that it takes everyone working together to get there. It is that love of people and creating new ideas that are the abilities that are innate. Everything else is just a job or skill that allows me to bring it to life each and every day. My superpower inspires me to keep going because seeing people bring their new ideas to life is the fuel that drives my journey.


What is going to drive yours? And how will you let yourself look inside to find those abilities? Without curiosity and self reflection you may continue to think you are learning what you need to succeed when the truth is your superpower is in your DNA like the mutant gene in the X-Men waiting to express itself.



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