The heroic victimhood of garage

By Rodrigo Basco, Ph.D.

Why do successful entrepreneurs like to boast about their prowess creating a halo of victimhood at the beginning of their entrepreneurial careers? The story that comes to my mind, because I’ve heard it so many times already, is the story of Steve Jobs’ garage. The heroic victimhood is a common pattern in every corporate history.

This heroic victimhood can be found at the heart of any short story; the details in the story magnify the feat, the ultimate success of the hero. It’s with the tough battle of ten years in Troy and the adventures of ten more years till reaching Ithaca, straight into the arms of his beloved Penelope, that Ulysses forges the myth of the hero. The exquisite madness of a misunderstood Alonso Quijano is the final stitch needed to create the myth of Don Quixote of la Mancha. The pain of knowing his own ignorance leads Faust to bargain with Mephistopheles, and this is ultimately condemning.

The heroic victimhood is a cultural condition, and it plays a part in the formation of our own identity. Man builds himself through communication. Silent communication with oneself, and communication with others. Such ways of communication dictate how we recreate our identity, how we acknowledge ourselves and how others recognize us. Sometimes we are what we tell ourselves we are, but sometimes our story is told by others.

“I’ve made so many sacrifices for my son” – an entrepreneur told me – “I started from scratch to give him shelter, food, education, to give him a future” – he repeated. The businessman, using his heroic victimhood, justified his son’s duty to continue the family business. The businessman made it look as if it was his sacrifice the one that dictated the fate of his son. Needless to say, his son didn’t want to succeed his father in the business. The condition of victimhood, of the beaten-up hero who courageously rises again, seemed to give the parent the authority to unilaterally agree on the fate of his child.

In time, the entrepreneur understood that the succession of the company does not necessarily mean that his child needed to run the company: he may be a good owner without the obligation to actually run the organization. Of course, it has been a long learning process (for both parent and child) until they understood the duties and responsibilities of the roles each had to play. But the most significant thing is that they learned to eradicate the heroic victimhood created by the father and other family members in their own history as a family business.

There’s another story that I really like. Some time ago I was with a group of friends who had problems of heritage (both financial and emotional). The people who ran the company thought they were the only owners, while the ipso facto owners, who were away from the property, asked for their share and wanted an explanation about the current situation of the company.

Each of the parties argued for their positions using heroic victimhood. Those who ran the company boasted about how they managed to succeed on their own, and how much effort they had put into improving the business after the death of the leader, thus justifying why they had disinherited the family group. On the other hand, those who had been away from the business also based their reasons on heroic victimhood, saying the leader had psychologically displaced them, and other similar reasons. Each party had built their identity on heroic victimhood, and were now prisoners in intertwined stories.

Garage stories sound nice, moving and inspiring. Moreover, they may provoke strong emotional responses when paraphrased in a college graduation ceremony or in a classroom … But be careful. They don’t really reflect reality, and they may leave important details out. If we want our children to be entrepreneurs, if we want entrepreneurial students, we have to change the message. History is important but history is related to leadership, to the ability to create a different way of thinking, to the ability to discover opportunities where others have only seen problems, to the ways in which we interpret reality, questioning it and avoiding complacency, taking action instead of waiting for orders, seeing the collective benefit rather than looking at individual success.

Behind every success and the many failures, there’s work, passion, and a unique way of writing our lives.

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