Why Success Is Not About Being A Superhero

For 20 years, Jean Oelwang successfully climbed the corporate ladder and broke glass ceilings, but she says, “With each shattered ceiling, I felt more and more alone and less and less myself.”

Her life partner, Chris Waddell, is a world-champion mono-skier who set Paralympic history. As he achieved each new physical feat, though, he said there was a sense of isolation that kept him feeling separate and alone.

At the TEDWomen conference in New Orleans last month, Oelwang and Waddell shared the stage to describe their realization: they each wanted to let go of their “superhero mentality” which prioritizes individual success and can be quite lonely. Instead, they wanted to invest in the art of meaningful partnership.

While their professional paths are strikingly different from one another, their stories provided a new approach to success.

It’s Not About Being Right

One of Oelwang’s first bosses gave her The Art of War to help her survive in corporate America. He also gave her The Joy of Cooking in the event that she did not master the “art of war” in business. The books were a not-so-subtle symbol that she needed to stay on her toes.

Often the only female at the table, Oelwang felt that she couldn’t show any flaws or vulnerability.

“For women, there’s a feeling like we can never make mistakes in our careers and that we have to have all the right answers,” Oelwang says, “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more senior we get, the more it becomes a sacred thing: you worry that if you make mistakes or don’t have all the right answers you will no longer be taken seriously.”

Oelwang’s perspective changed after helping to incubate a collaboration called the Elders, a group of independent leaders founded by Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel working for peace and human rights. In her TED talk, Oelwang explains that, “What emerged was a beautiful epiphany that these remarkable people were the people they were only because of the long-lasting partnerships they nurtured, and that nurtured them.”

She started recognizing the value of collectives, of people in partnerships which allow each partner to make a much bigger difference in the world and their own lives than they ever could have on their own.

In partnership, they were less fearful of being wrong and more able to take risks because they had someone they trusted to bounce ideas off of and to catch them when they stumbled. These leaders shared a commitment to something bigger than their partnership.

Oelwang now integrates this approach to partnership into everything she does.

No One Climbs A Mountain Alone

Waddell’s path toward partnership came in a completely different context – on the side of a mountain.

After a college skiing accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, Waddell says the superhero mentality intensified and left him worried he would end up alone. He says, “To be equal, valid, viable or even attractive to the opposite sex – which was kind of important – I felt the need to be a superhero, and I became the best in the world at what I did.” After the accident, achieving independent success became an even greater priority than it had been.

He felt that if he could summit Mt. Kilimanjaro solo on a handcycle, “People would have to see me, and the hundreds of millions of people in the world like me, who are often invisible because we’re taught that it’s impolite to stare at someone who looks different.”

Waddell had hoped that achievement would come a certain level of impenetrability and sense of protection. He says, “It felt like, if I can get to this point then I can achieve a level of equality.”

With the exception of a very small, particularly treacherous part of the climb, Waddell successfully summited the tallest mountain in Africa without assistance. Still, he felt like a failure for the support he needed in those 100 feet. As he talked with his trusted guide and friend Dave, he shared his frustrations, “You let me lie to all those people. You let me tell them that I could do it unassisted, and you knew I couldn’t do it.”

Dave responded, “No one climbs a mountain alone.”

That climb shifted Waddell’s viewpoint. He now says, “I needed to separate myself from the superhero, the lie that required me to tell more lies to the point that I didn’t know where that image stopped and I started – that kept me separate and alone.”

Losing the Super Hero Capes

When I first heard Oelwang and Waddell’s TED Talk, I felt inspired and knew I wanted to share their stories with my readers, but I felt stuck. My challenges as a writer felt almost trivial compared to those of Oelwang and Waddell, a tremendously accomplished executive and a record-setting world champion skier.

Then I had to laugh, to remind myself that the entire focus of Oelwang and Waddell’s TED Talk is on the crushing pressure to achieve and compare, juxtaposed to the value of vulnerability and meaningful connection. The universality of that superhero identity is precisely what made the TED Talk compelling – we don't have to be record setters or ceiling breakers for it to resonate.

My superhero narrative is that a true writer thrives on solitude. If I were “really” a writer and speaker, I should be able to sit down alone at my computer and churn out articles and speeches that are refreshing, honest, and advance the conversation without any human interaction. This narrative is particularly problematic given my natural state of being, which I describe as a “Level 11 Extrovert.” Invariably, when I’m stuck, if I take the time to pause, ask for help, and bounce ideas off of a friend or family member, the project becomes more enjoyable, and the results are far superior. It’s the difference between a life-giving, joyful collaborative process and what my friend Shannon Garrety calls “success by brute force”, which can spiral into a berating self-doubt that prompts me to question all of my professional identities.

During a particularly challenging writing project, I taped a reminder to my desk that said, “You like writing.” It can be difficult to remember when it feels like I’m sitting in isolation fighting with my laptop. Alternatively, when I bring others into the conversation as thought partners and editors, or later in the process as readers, I’m reminded of what I love about writing: connection.

One of my greatest joys as a writer comes from readers who share that they’ve connected to what I’ve written or that my article made them feel less alone.

For Oelwang, her epiphany came when she realized that, ”The true measure of success is not how many glass ceilings I shattered but how I nurtured the loving relationships that make me who I am.”

For me, Oelwang and Waddell’s speech exemplifies the ways that the all-too-pervasive superhero narrative can lead to self-doubt and isolation. It’s a powerful reminder to look proactively for opportunities for meaningful partnership, whether it’s in the corporate boardroom, on the side of a mountain, or at our desks.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.