Addicted to MeTH

When I was but a wee young project manager, I had to order my best developer not to come to work for three days.  The fact that this was over a weekend was not lost on either of us.

"Frank" was a rockstar.  He only typed with two fingers, but he claimed he could still type 80 lines of code a minute.  This claim was never questioned by any of his peers, mainly because they were afraid of what he would do to them if they did.  That claim notwithstanding, Frank was one of most talented and prolific coders I ever worked with.  We became good friends, so I say this with all love: he was also a royal pain in the ass.  He never had a thought he didn't feel like sharing, he got into shouted technical debates with other developers before storming out of the room, and he regularly insulted our clients' intellectual capacity, during sales calls.

Don't get me wrong: I was grateful to have Frank on my team.  He saved several projects for me, and the team never ran as well as it did when Frank was in charge.  Point him in the right direction and God help whatever problem stood in his way.  He worked nights and weekends, he stayed up all night to meet deadlines, he even rewrote the software from the ground up when it was clear it couldn't meet our needs.  He was our office hero.

But Frank couldn't stop.  Even when work was calm and the project was on track, he looked for problems.  He would grab me in the hall and pull me into a conference room to tell me that someone was dead weight and needed to be dropped from the project.  He came in on weekends to rewrite perfectly functional code because "it wasn't running fast enough," complaining the whole time about how hard he was working.  He was hooked on being the hero and in danger of burning out.

That's why I sent him home.  I would have locked him out if I could, but he'd been using the office as his apartment for a month or so, so he had keys squirreled away all over the place.  I'm pretty sure I threatened to punch him if he came in over the weekend, though, and since I outweighed him by a good 50 pounds that might have helped.  Frank needed someone to tell him to stop, though, and if punching him would help, I was willing to do it.

I thought Frank was an edge case, that kind of crazy developer that you read about in Wired magazine, the genius who rewrote the Internet for fun.  Over the years, though, I realized that every workplace, or at least every interesting one, has a Frank, an office hero who's there every weekend saving everyone else's sorry butts.  The software industry was built on the burned-out husks of guys like Frank. Heck, we've raised heroic office martyrdom to an art form, complete with stock options.

These people, and the companies they work for, are addicted to MeTH: Me, The Hero.  The heroes are hooked on the rush of the last-minute escape, the high of achieving something no one thought possible, the buzz of receiving praise from their saner peers.  Their employers are hooked on their output, that sweet, sweet free overtime and the knowledge that, no matter how much they overpromise, the hero will come through or die trying.

I'm convinced that hero addiction, while less likely to provide a plot device for a very special "How I Met Your Mother" than an addiction to that other meth, is just as deadly to a company and its heroes.  No one can maintain this pace forever, nor can someone repeatedly save a group of people without coming to despise them for their weakness.  Save the day once and you're a hero; save it twenty times and you become a menace.

How do you know if you’re addicted to MeTH? Let’s look to my favorite hero, Mr. Incredible, for clues. Does any of this sound familiar?

“I’ve got time!”

In the opening sequence of The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible is on his way to a formal event when he sees a crime in progress. Muttering, “I’ve got time,” he jumps into the fray, simultaneously saving a cat from a tree and stopping an armed car chase. He continues getting involved in various heroics until he finds himself facing a bomb-toting mime (Bomb Voyage, bien sur), caught mid-heist.

“Monsieur Incroyable!”

When Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan, Buddy, charges onto the scene in his self-proclaimed role as Incrediboy, Mr. Incredible forcefully tells him, “I work alone, Buddy!” Buddy’s inept attempts to help result in Mr. Incredible losing the bad guy after he’s forced to save Buddy’s life. When the police come in to clean up the mess, Mr. Incredible rushes off as we learn that the formal event to which he’s now late is, of course, his wedding.

“I work alone, Buddy!”

So what can we learn from our hero’s adventures?

There's always time for one more rescue
The hero, by definition, needs to save someone.  The addicted hero keeps trying to save everyone, regardless of the size of the need.  Interrupt a high-speed chase to pull a kitty from a tree?  Mr. Incredible says, "I've got time."  Take on the office move and the documentation on top of the high-profile client project?  The office hero sighs, rolls his eyes, and says, "OK, I'll do it, since no one else will."  In pursuit of the buzz, the addicted hero will forsake family, health, and happiness, even when the payoff isn't worth the effort, or when waiting for someone else to do it really wouldn't hurt.

You're surrounded by morons
To Mr. Incredible, everyone looks like Buddy.  The office hero inevitably perceives that everyone around him is a complete nimrod.  If they weren't why would he have to keep saving their bacon?  So he jumps in the minute someone starts to struggle and does their work for them, because it's easier and faster to do it himself than to try to explain it to someone again.  As a result, no one else learns how to do the work, so the hero is needed the next time as well, completing the circle from hero to martyrdom and back again.

Now, it's entirely possible that everyone in your office actually is dumber than a bag of hammers and you're the only person who remembers to wear matching shoes every day.  But if that's truly the case, why are you still working there?  Take those heroic talents and find a bunch of other brilliant people work with.  Or is it possible that you just need more damsels in distress, so you make them wear the dress whether it fits or not?

You work alone
Mr. Incredible's final words to Buddy -- "I work alone." -- come back to haunt him, his family, and his city.  Look around.  Is anyone else left in the office?  Do your weekend plans include a pile of documents that you haven't had time to get to and no one else has bothered to look at?  Do all of the takeout places withing a 5-mile radius of your office greet you by name when you call?  You might have a hero addiction problem.

Everyone needs heroes occasionally, and it's not only right but commendable to jump in where you're needed and save the day once in a while.  But when you do it constantly, when you jump from one crisis to another, doing everyone else's work while they sleep or play with their kids, you're not only harming yourself but the people around you as well.  You're creating a cycle of dependency: the company needs you because you're the only one who knows how to get things done, and you need the company and its crises because your whole self-image is based upon saving the day.  Meanwhile, you grow more tired and bitter with each new emergency, wondering why you're the only person who sees how everything is falling apart.

Fear not, brave hero, for there is still hope!  You don't have to spend the rest of your nights and weekends eating takeout food and cursing the lazy idiots around you.  Just follow my simple three-step process and you'll be on the road to recovery before you can say, "Augh! I can't believe I have to come in on the weekend again!"

Step 1: Decide whether you have a problem
Before you can break an addiction, you have to realize that it's harmful.  If I'm addicted to eating healthy food and exercising, it's hard to argue that I need to stop.  If you're really helping everyone and you're happy with your role, go right ahead and keep doing it.  We'll check in with you in a few years and see if you're tired yet.

Step 2: Redraw your boundaries
Heroes have a hard time saying no.  In fact, it's their fatal weakness.  Like Kryptonite to Superman, a pleading face peering around the cubicle wall set's a hero's heart racing and shatters his defenses.  He's powerless to resist the temptation of one more rescue.  As Mr. Incredible says, "I've got time."  You need to redraw the boundaries that you've demolished over the years.  Start with a small step: try going home by 5:30.  On a weekday.  Now try it for a week.  Next week, leave the office for lunch once or twice.  Step outside and see that "sun" thing that everyone else has been talking about.  Now, repeat after me: "Sorry, I can't do that right now.  I need to get home."  Very good.  You're getting there.

Step 3: Move from hero to mentor
You have valuable knowledge.  In fact, it's likely that you're the only person in the company who know where all the bodies are buried and how to get things done quickly.  After all, you're the only person who's done it for years, right?  That knowledge is valuable, but it's also a trap.  Hoard it and you're stuck doing the same rotten jobs over and over again.  Share it, and someone else can do the rotten jobs while you go learn how to do something else!

This may be the hardest part.  You may feel like you're losing a bit of yourself when you finally give up the secret code that unlocks the copier on weekends.  The first time the new guy tries to build a new business rule in the system, you'll want to strangle him and then climb over his body and do it yourself in two minutes.  But be patient: it's worth it.

Becoming a mentor has all kinds of rewards: people will still come to you when they need help, but you'll be able to go home at the end of the day while they go and do the work.  You get the prestige without the pain.

And the best part?  When they completely screw it up, you can still jump in and save the day.
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