Frak Lopez image

Frak Lopez

Avoiding the Diva Complex

Jan 31, 2014

A while back, my partner and I were given work space at a local incubator/accelerator. The environment was upbeat and everyone was pretty open about what they were working on. When we went around introducing ourselves, we came across a team that had a programmer that didn’t quite fit the vibe. The team itself was a smart and talented group of people. We had a good conversation about what our respective teams were doing and everyone seemed interested except for their programmer. He stayed at his computer and made it pretty clear that he could not be bothered with such trivialities. We assumed he was busy and so proceeded on our way.

Enter the Diva

During our time there, we pretty much kept to ourselves. Every so often, this programmer would come by our space, look over our shoulders and make comments like “Oh, you’re doing that?” or “Hrm, that’s interesting”. He would tell us about complex issues he was solving and make a big show of how he’d stayed there working through the night. There were vague mentions of all the funding and “media attention” they were getting. Encounters with him were either about how great they were doing or about massive technological hurdles that only he could overcome. He would make roundabout comments about his team being “just” for administrative this or PR that. While never directly stated, there was no question, that in his mind, HE was the team. Without him, THE programmer, the team would be nothing. He was, and maybe still is, a programmer with a diva complex.

A fine line can become a tall wall in three-dimensional space

The guy I describe above might sound like just some cocky programmer. What makes me say he has a diva complex? What do I even mean by “diva complex”? To me, the difference between being cocky and having a diva complex is a fine line. A cocky person is someone who is, maybe a little heavy handed with the confidence. Someone with a diva complex however, has allowed that confidence to distort their reality. It’s an escalation of being self-centered. It’s a set of mental triggers or patterns that geared up, carry a life of their own.

The way that escalation happens might simply come from the misunderstanding of some good advice. It’s common to hear something along the lines of, “focus on achievements and don’t dwell on failure”. The latter part of that, sometimes gets construed as DISMISS failures.The subtle difference can make for a trajectory that may end up in a self propagating cycle that I call the “diva complex”.

What happens is that our perception is altered in a way that makes us believe that every success is due only to ourselves and all the failures or missteps that we experience are because of some externality (the software, the team, subordinates or anything else that’s beyond us). We might find ourselves saying and even thinking that an idea we just heard is a bad one. Later on however, we come up with a brilliant idea that sounds an awful lot like the one from before. The similarity of course, will not be noticed. The other idea was terrible (because it wasn’t our own), while this “new” idea is brilliant (because it is our own). This will in turn keep the cycle going. We will keep gaining more and more confidence and distancing ourselves more and more from our mistakes and reality.

Forgetting that you stand on the shoulders of others is a good way to ensure a fall.

We’ve all come across people that behave this way. Often times in large enterprises, you find that as you get closer to the top, you run into this more and more. You see it in entertainment and in sports. These people with diva complexes exist in all types of professions. People who believe that whatever success is because of themselves and whatever failures not their fault but their team. With people in the media/entertainment business, you often see the massive falling from grace that often accompanies these people. How can this be avoided? A few simple steps, can help keep yourself in check.

Acknowledge your mistakes

Don’t dwell on mistakes, but definitely acknowledge them. A simple “This, I” statement like “This failed because I forgot that”. Taking stock of your mistakes has the benefit of making it easier to recognize future failures. It might not prevent them, but it should help you to create markers in your mind that should set off alarms when you’re heading down a similar path. More to our topic though, acknowledging mistakes helps to cement the fact that you are fallible. You make mistakes. Everyone does, and that’s ok. What’s not ok is repeating them ad infinium because you refuse to learn from them.

Acknowledge the successes of others

By acknowledging other people’s successes you acknowledge that you aren’t doing it all by yourself. No one has ever done anything by themselves. There is always someone, somewhere that contributed to any success you’ve ever had. This simple idea, should not detract from your success, but should help to keep you grounded in reality. Think of any success and somewhere along the path to that achievement, someone else contributed. A runner had someone else make their shoes, a chef had someone else grow their ingredients, a programmer had someone else make their computer.


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