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From Bricks to Castles

What happens when our heroes come up short? Common wisdom around heroes, role models, and mentors is incomplete.

Robert Greiner
Robert Greiner
3 min read
From Bricks to Castles

Never meet your heroes.

Several years into my software development career, I found myself working alongside a hero in the industry - we’ll call him Simon. A published author and well-regarded technologist, Simon’s expertise was undeniable. His craft and intellect were universally regarded as world-class. I saw this as a serendipitous moment, a rare opportunity to take my skills to the next level - as if Gordon Ramsay happened to take over the restaurant you were working in. Having read one of Simon’s books before, I knew I would benefit from him as a mentor. I did everything possible to jump into his scrum team and learn from a master. My mistake.

It turns out you can be really good at your craft and still be absolutely horrible with other people. Simon was toxic. Needlessly rude. Constantly belittling others publicly with the same tactics as a schoolyard bully. Engaging in borderline harassment. I ended up leaving for a new job pretty quickly. Life is too short to work with antagonists.

We put our heroes on pedestals, expecting perfection. When they inevitably fall short, we’re disappointed and often write them off completely. But we still need role models to learn from. If we sit around waiting for someone without flaws to teach us something, we will deprive ourselves of wisdom in an endless cycle of waiting. 

What do we do?

Building Your Castle

I recently came across an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson that resonated with me. When asked about his personal role models, he suggested assembling a list of people who possess attributes you admire and emulating those specific traits à la carte. Take what’s useful and leave what’s not, like building your own LEGO masterpiece - use the bricks that are most appealing from the pile of pre-built sets and build the structure that is an expression of your goals.

“I assemble my role models ala carte... I found the scientist who had a total command of cosmology and the universe, and I said “One day I want to be that smart and want to know that much” and an educator who taught with such enthusiasm and humor and with such a sense of care. That’s the kind of educator I want to be.” -Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Hero Series

Over the next several months, I will explore Dr. Tyson’s advice and write a Hero Series focused on the most valuable and helpful wisdom, lessons, and practical advice I have learned from a wide array of role models. Upgrading my LEGO structure, building a stronger foundation, and, over time, ending up with a castle.

These are the heroes that I will draw my LEGO pieces from. Each has impacted my life, and I’m excited to revisit their work with fresh eyes.

  • Chris Voss - Communication & Negotiation
  • Brene Brown - Vulnerability & Authenticity
  • Peter Attia - Systems Thinking & Longevity
  • Seth Godin - Clear Communication & Building an Audience
  • Annie Duke - Embracing Uncertainty & Mental Models 
  • Cal Newport - Cultivating Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose
  • Angela Duckworth - Growth Mindset & Cultivating Interest
  • Patrick Lencioni - Organizational Health & Team Dynamics
  • Peter Drucker - Management @ Scale
  • Daniel Pink - Motivation & Decisions
  • Jeb Blount - Relationships & Sales
  • Jocko Willink - Leadership & Responsibility

Reflecting on my above situation and thinking through some wisdom from the Hero Series, I would have handled it differently today. Channeling Jocko’s philosophy, I would “play the game,” adopting a strategy of detachment to navigate better working with a challenging personality. I’d also employ Voss’s tactical empathy to treat Simon more like a hostage taker and try to negotiate a path forward to get what I wanted without taking things so personally and affecting my emotional state.

Who are your heroes? What do you admire about them? What perspective and insights resonate with you the most?

Reach out on X/Twitter or LinkedIn to continue the discussion.

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Robert Greiner Twitter

Professional optimist. I write a weekly newsletter for humans at the intersection of business, technology, leadership, and career growth.

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