How to harness the power of superheroes – and supervillains

jamie oliverAre there people in your life, alive or dead, real or fictional, who just thinking about make you feel happy – or enraged?

I recently read “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman” by Lindy West, who immediately shot to the top of my hero charts. She is a comic writer and activist, a combination I find irresistible: being a comic performer, journalist or artist requires great courage, perseverance and creativity, and if you can bring that to social issues that tend to make people switch their brains off and give up, and help people to change their minds and then act on those new perspectives, well, you’re my hero. Just thinking about her and the important social changes she has achieved makes me feel happy, energised and inspired.

On the other hand, there was a period 10 years ago when I was flying a lot, when thinking about Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, made me hyperventilate with fury. (This was when he was considering charging to use the toilet, and selling standing room only places on his flights, where passengers were already packed like sardines.)

How to pump up the energy

There’s a problem-solving technique I enjoy using with people who are managing change called Superheroes & Supervillains which involves accessing inner resources you didn’t know or forgot you had by thinking about people you admire – or who are the personification of evil for you. You identify your heroes and supervillains, living or dead, real or fictional, and list each of their characteristics and achievements, being as specific as possible.

For example, I admire Jamie Oliver, specifically, his curiosity, his endless experiementation, his enthusiasm for whatever he turns his attention to, and his cheerful  optimism and perseverance in the face of the many obstacles he encounters as a social activist, (for example, his mission to change the way schoolchildren eat).

My heroes include comedians (including this one), activists and cartoonists, (including this one),  journalists and writers. And Angela Merkel. Hero worship is a personal thing, and you need to identify who gives you that warm feeling.

My supervillains include white collar criminals, sociopathic CEOs (including this guy, and these) and politicians with scary influencing and persuasion skills.

Who are your superheroes and supervillains?

what would satan doIn the second part of this problem-solving exercise, you think of a challenge you are facing and ask yourself “What would [superhero or supervillain] do?” This can give you new ideas and insights into your situation.

This exercise is paricularly powerful with supervillains. I have done this exercise using Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, whose attitude to customer care made my regular budget business trips a misery for years, but who is also a real out-of-the-box thinker and innovator.  Using supervillains forces you to adopt a point of view which (you assume and hope) is not your own, and this is likely to produce new ideas and insights about your situation.

Some national cultural differences

However, I’ve found the Superheroes part of the technique doesn’t work well with my Italian or French clients, whose cultures don’t not seem to feature hero-worship. My French and Italian clients often find it difficult to come up with people they admire.  This is what happens when I use this technique with French or Italians:

French or Italian client: “I don’t admire anyone.”

Me: “Oh, come on. There must be someone you admire.”

French or Italian client: “…”

Me: “What about, I don’t know, Steve Jobs? You’re a fan of Apple products.”

French or Italian client: “Steve Jobs was arrogant. I don’t admire him. I admire Apple products.”

Me: “Ok. What about Gandhi? Mother Teresa? Were they arrogant?”

French or Italian client: “… No …”

Me: “So, do you admire Gandhi? Mother Teresa?”

French or Italian client: “ … Ok. The person I admire is my mother.”

I swear, I have had this exact conversation on 10 different occasions.


In the end, whether the person you admire most in the world is your mother, Pope Frances or Tony Stark, just thinking about the people and characters you admire is likely to release a cocktail of happy hormones – endorphines, dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin – into your body. So just doing the first part of the exercise, listing your heroes, should bring you rewards. And thinking specifically about what your superheroes or supervillains would do if faced with your problem can produce new thinking and ideas and turn your situation around.

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