Steve Jobs was recognised as a hero when he returned and saved Apple in the late 90s. Bob Igor went and revived Disney. Isaac Perlmutter is the CEO who saved Marvel from bankruptcy.
Like all heroes, these people changed things, righted wrongs, and made lives better. Their recognition as visionaries, successful entrepreneurs or legends is very well deserved.
However, a different kind of recognition exists as well. Artists like Vincent van Gogh belong to a category of artists, musicians, and writers who were recognised for their work, and held as pioneers in their fields only after their deaths. Alas, the recognition came a little too late. Only death could give them their much needed career boost.
Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Johann Sebastian Bach, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Franz Kafka and many others belong in this category who got posthumous recognition. We are a superficial race, and we’ve always been unjust to this category of heroes and pioneers.
But this is the injustice that we are able to see. There are even more mistreated heroes—the very sad category of those who you do not know were heroes.
They who saved our lives, and helped us avoid disasters. They left no traces of their deed, and did not even know that they were making a contribution. These are the heroes nobody knows of, including themselves, precisely because they were successful.
Consider this thought experiment.
A house in your neighbourhood catches fire. The parents along with their three kids are able to get out, but they forget the family dog in a hurry. The little dog remains stuck inside. The father, upon realising it, rushes into the burning house immediately. Seeing him dash through fire, a local teenager takes out her phone and starts recording. He is caught in action when he saves the dog. Both the man and the dog suffer some minor burns, but nothing very serious.
TV and media soon get hold of the video and local channels start talking about this heroic dad. After garnering enough media attention, the video goes viral. The man is epitomised as an example of a compassionate person. His wife gets extra respect and recognition among neighbours in her next kitty party. His kids are proud, and their friends are jealous of them for having a superhero dad.
Now consider a flip scenario. Just a week before the fire breaks out, the father becomes adamant about installing better quality fire detectors in the house. He also decides to spend a good amount of money redoing all the old electric circuits. There’s noise in the house all the time because of all the electric work. His kids don’t like it. He also decides to keep the dog unleashed so that he is free to roam around. The neighbours aren’t very happy about that.
After he does all this, most likely there won’t be any fire, the dog won’t get stuck, and nobody would know that he is actually a hero. Instead his wife would pester him for spending so much of money and taking precautions for something very less likely to happen. He’ll go on with his life not knowing what he has actually prevented.
Similarly, if John Scully, Michael Spindler or Gil Amelio had run Apple properly after Jobs was gone, and had gone against the board to stop the launch of the Apple Newton (and all the other products that Jobs eventually slashed after coming back), Jobs wouldn’t have had to return to Apple at all. All these business mistakes became obvious only after they were made.
In movies, heroes arrive only after adversity strikes. All heroes are rectifiers. They are reactive. Proactive people are seldom recognised as heroes.
In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about this injustice through a thought experiment regarding 9/11.
Assume that a legislator with courage, influence, intellect, vision, and perseverance manages to enact a law that goes into universal effect and employment on September 10, 2001; it imposes the continuously locked bulletproof doors in every cockpit (at high costs to the struggling airlines) — just in case terrorists decide to use planes to attack the World Trade Center in New York City. The legislation is not a popular measure among the airline personnel, as it complicates their lives. But it would certainly have prevented 9/11.
This legislator wouldn’t know himself that he is the hero, because he successfully prevents 9/11 from happening.
The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statues in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary. “Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease.” Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office. Vox clamantis in deserto. He will retire depressed, with a great sense of failure. He will die with the impression of having done nothing useful. I wish I could go attend his funeral, but, reader, I can’t find him.
But who do we consider to be the the heroes instead?
Now consider again the events of 9/11. In their aftermath, who got the recognition? Those you saw in the media, on television performing heroic acts, and those whom you saw trying to give you the impression that they were performing heroic acts.
Who gets rewarded, the CEO who prevents his company from bankruptcy by taking a couple of unpopular decisions, or the one who comes later to correct his predecessor’s faults, or just happens to be there during its automatic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one and is lucky enough to win?
Everybody knows that you need more prevention than treatment, but the act of prevention is rarely rewarded. We glorify those who left their names in history books at the expense of those contributors about whom the books are silent because no one knows who they are.
Humans are not just a superficial race; we are a very unfair one too.