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Retiring the Rockstar: A Counterpoint

“You’re a rockstar!” Chances are, you’ve either a) been told this as a compliment for some work you’d done; b) heard this told to someone else for some work they’d done; or c) told someone this for some work they’d done. If you said this to someone else—I just told someone this quite recently—chances are also very likely that you had nothing but positive intentions behind this statement and your goal was to compliment them on what you saw as outstanding work. But is “rockstar” the wrong term to use? And if so, what is the right term?

Recently, Tyler Britten (a very talented professional and a former colleague when I worked as an EMC vSpecialist) posted an article titled “Time to Retire the Rockstar,” in which he draws a connection between the use of terms like “rockstar,” “superstar,” “genius,” or “guru” and the myth of the lone genius. I see his point, and don’t necessarily disagree with it. Something can be said that calling someone a rockstar (or any of the other terms listed) isn’t automatically encouraging them to “eschew teams and communities and to work alone”, but that isn’t the point of this post. Here I’d rather focus on two alternate aspects to this discussion:

  1. The term “rockstar” (and others) are well-known terms that are easily understood. With what do we replace these terms when we want to give someone a compliment?
  2. While I don’t agree with the myth of the lone genius—everyone’s success is due in some part to the work of someone else, a point I tried to make in this post some time ago—there is work that is better suited for those who mostly work alone. (And there are individuals who are better suited for such work.)

Let’s look at these two points.

If Not Rockstar, Then What?

When you call someone a “rockstar,” what are you trying to say to that person? When I use the term, I’m telling that person they went above and beyond—they did someone that really stood out and made an impact. The term “rockstar” carries a lot of positive connotations. Yes, there are a few negative connotations, but I contend that the vast majority of the time these positive connotations are readily grasped by the recipients of the compliments. Have you ever heard someone say, “My boss just called me a rockstar. What does that mean, exactly?”

It doesn’t usually happen. People generally understand what that term means, and the positive message that is trying to be sent. So if we are going to remove the term “rockstar” (or “superstar” or “genius” or “guru” or whatever) from the list of terms with which we will compliment others in our industry, what is the replacement? What term or terms carry the same types of success-related connotations? What other terms will, as Tyler mentioned, help encourage and inspire others to do great things?

As I said earlier, I don’t disagree with some of the points Tyler makes in his post. Tyler said we need to fix this. OK, awesome. How do we fix it? What words do we use? How do we convey the right meanings—complimenting people on their hard work while simultaneously inspiring others to also put forth their best efforts and not unintentionally fueling imposter syndrome?

(I suppose this is one way.)

Pioneers and Commandos

The second aspect of this discussion is that there are certain tasks that are better suited to individuals who tend to work solo. Now, when I say “tend to work solo” I’m not saying that they are the “lone genius”; recall that I’ve already established that we are all indebted to others for our success. Let’s face it, though: some tasks are better suited not to a large team, but to an individual (or a pair of individuals). Let’s also face this fact: there are some people who are better suited to work on these tasks and in these sorts of arrangements.

This makes me think of Cringely’s commandos/infantry/police (see here) and Simon Wardley’s pioneers/settlers/town planners (see here). Some people are best suited to the “cutting edge” stuff, and these people tend to work alone or in very small groups. Others are better suited to solidifying the beachhold the commandos have secured, and these tend work better in larger, more organized teams. Finally, some people are best suited to maintaining orderly arrangements within well-established boundaries, and these people tend to work best in very large, very procedure-heavy environments. There’s nothing wrong with any of these—they are all equally necessary.

The folks that are likely to be called “rockstars” are probably the commandos/pioneers. That’s perfectly natural and perfectly expected, and it isn’t a slight against the others. The other roles tend to work in larger teams, and in those cases the entire team gets recognition. Each role has its place and its unique value. Refusing the recognize the value of the commandos/pioneers (because they are the ones most likely to be called a “rockstar” due to the style of work that is best suited to accomplish something in that role) while emphasizing the value of the infantry/settlers and the police/town planners overlooks the unique value each of these three roles plays in the larger picture.

In Summary

Let me close by saying, once again, I agree with many of the recommendations Tyler makes in his post. However, I’m not convinced (yet) that simply retiring the use of “rockstar” is going to accomplish what we’re seeking—to inspire others to do their best, to encourage everyone to give credit where credit is due, to recognize that our individual success is built on the success and contributions of others. I look forward to working with others to foster these values in our community and industry, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I call someone a “rockstar” when their outstanding work and excellence warrants a compliment.

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