What is your superpower?
It probably isn’t a skill or ability that is shared with lycra-clad Marvel heroes or villains.
More likely, it is something that you innately do, which requires us mere mortals to concentrate on and try hard to accomplish.
Perhaps it is having the pain tolerance of someone who teaches violin to beginners.
Maybe you have the infinite patience of a stay at home parent with disabled children.
Or you may possess the calm unflappability of a long-serving non-commissioned officer. The antithesis of megacorp project managers who are forever panicking like their whole world is on fire.
I remember myself being a pretty good coder many years ago. My colleagues at the time may disagree about the degree of my awesomeness, but most would concede that I was able to quickly solve the problems of the day with algorithms that were usually elegant and often performant.
My approach used to annoy the hell out of my more technically gifted colleagues.
They would invest vast numbers of hours swearing at the screen. Grinding away at a problem late into the night. Blame the users for dreaming up whatever misguided requirement was giving them trouble.
By contrast, whenever I tripped over a tricky bug or encountered a gremlin lurking in my code, I would go for a walk outside and think about anything other than torturing computers.
Usually, by the time I returned, my subconscious mind had solved the problem.
Occasionally a walk around the block didn’t get the job done. In those instances, I would go home and sleep on it. By the time I woke up in the morning, my subconscious mind would have debugged and tuned my algorithm to the point where the problems were solved.
An unhelpful Russian colleague once opined that it was a shame our client hadn’t just hired the sleeping me. They would have benefited from all the technical smarts, without having to endure the downsides of dealing with the waking me.
Harsh. But probably fair.
That approach of disengaging my brain and getting out of the way of my subconscious solving a problem has proved successful many times over the years. Not just for coding, but also for figuring out client pitches, investment approaches, and even the narrative for the occasional blog post.
Like many superpowers, having an overactive mind can be both a blessing and a curse.
When I’m busy and focussed, it greatly helps my productivity.
However, when I’m idle, my mind remains just as active as ever.
Instead of coming up with clever ways to win new business or make money, my subconscious gets stuck on whatever I saw or heard on a given uneventful day.
For example, one of the mothers at swimming lessons was recently complaining about the geographical inequalities that are baked into London’s state school admissions system.
It was a classic poverty cycle case study. Living in an also-ran neighbourhood meant being surrounded by crappy schools that offered little chance of obtaining a place at a decent university. She wanted better for her children, but proximity remains the main criteria for those kids unable to play the race card and who lack any special aptitude for art, music, sport, or their studies.
The mother wasn’t asking for help, she was just venting.
However, that night my mind attacked the problem while I slept. By the time I woke up, I had figured out a way to game the admissions criteria that applied to the school she had wanted her children to attend.
Which was interesting from an intellectual challenge point of view, but left me facing the dilemma of what to do with this newfound but unsought insight. It has been my hard-won experience that unsolicited help is rarely welcome, as people often prefer to persist their problems or figure out the answers for themselves.
Another example was my recent binge-watch of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The show was ok, engaging female leads working their way through all the clichéd prison drama plot elements from Cool Hand Luke, Oz, Papillon, Prison Break, Shawshank Redemption, and The Great Escape.
Each evening while I slept, I dreamed about whatever challenges had confronted the show’s characters. Identifying weaknesses in the system, so they could smuggle contraband into the prison, or escape out of it.
Once again I would wake up in the morning with an answer.
Once again, an interesting intellectual challenge, but one that had no practical value.
Over the years I have experimented with this nocturnal problem-solving superpower.
Trying to figure out what switches it on?
Whether I could control which problems it focuses on?
How to switch it off?
Physical interactions, like coding or conversing often trigger it.
So too does visual stimulation, like computer games or television.
The written word does not. Blogs. Books. Reference manuals. I’ll sleep like the dead.
Yet a conversation about something I have read will set my subconscious spinning.
I’ve had limited success with attempting to guide it. On days involving lots of stimulation and interaction, my subconscious will seize upon a random selection of puzzles or conversation elements.
Rarely the same ones I would consciously have chosen.
Trying to switch it off works about as well as trying to convince the lockdown kitten that destroying the Christmas tree is no fun at all. Shredded tinsel and scattered ornaments evidencing my failure.
Drinking used to quieten it down. Exercising to the point of exhaustion similarly helped.
But for the most part, my subconscious mind finds ways to amuse itself while I am sleeping.
Some weeks ago, a former colleague sent me an invitation to some technology training courses. They were pre-recorded presentations, but unlike a podcast or YouTube video there was no means to pause, fast-forward, or increase the talking speed.
The reward for seeing each course through to the bitter end was store credit on the technology company’s accreditation site. Allowing participants to become certified in the technologies for free.
I wasn’t particularly interested in the technologies, but learning new things is rarely a bad thing. I invested a few cold wet mornings on the couch, watching the training videos and doing the certification exams.
My subconscious mind didn’t appear all that interested in the subject matter, preferring to spend the evenings exploring an idea I had seen in an episode of The Expanse months ago.
Recently, I spent some time chatting to the nice people who run my kids’ extracurricular programs.
An older guy who had taught generations of neighbourhood kids to swim. Swimming trunks, a battered old Moleskine notebook, and a PayPal account were all he has needed to run his business.
A student who, in pre-COVID days, paid her rent by visiting the homes of primary school-aged children to teach them music. Learning the hard way that some things don’t work nearly so well over Zoom.
The disorganised local tennis club, that somehow manages to find new ways every week to mess up scheduling a recurring booking of court, coach, and kids.
All of them spoke about the impact of the COVID restrictions on their businesses.
Forced closures during lockdowns. Crippled cashflows due to social distancing restrictions. Challenges communicating the ever-changing and always unclear government rules to customers. Keeping track of monies owed and owing for lessons, given the stop-start trading conditions this year.
None of them makes much money from doing what they do. Lifestyle jobs or side hustles at best.
Yet all of them faced a similar set of challenges.
Overnight my subconscious mind engaged. I had some bizarre dreams. Sports coaches from my childhood. Elements from those technology courses. A nightmare flashback to troubleshooting my elderly mother’s WiFi from half a world away.
The next morning I woke up feeling tired, and surprised to discover my subconscious mind had come up with a simple design for a mobile app that would have helped each coach organise their micro-businesses throughout this topsy-turvy year.
Was this yet another instance of my overactive mind solving a problem that nobody really had?
Or was it an example of my superpower at work? Doing the heavy lifting while my brain was switched off?
One of the great limitations of technical certifications is that they are easy to obtain. A student can become certified without ever having used the technology in question, all they need is a reasonable memory to pass the test. That was true for me during these recent exams, and is one of the reasons why hiring managers always value candidates with practical experience over accreditation.
I was curious enough about the design my subconscious had dreamt up that I signed up for an account on the platform I was supposedly competent in. Then I threw together a quick proof of concept to validate the design.
For the most part, the design checked out. I appear to have paid more attention during the course than I had thought!
Which left me facing that familiar dilemma once more. What to do with this application design that nobody asked for?
The default option would be to ignore it, as I had with my subconscious mind’s plan for breaching security in a fictional prison or solving an engineering dilemma facing an imaginary space ship.
Another option would be to run with it and see what happens. As a project, the app appears to tick the boxes I had set out as selection criteria for whatever comes next. Something I find value in and that benefits others.
Figuring out a viable business model around it would represent an intellectual challenge.
Whatever I end up choosing, the experience has provided a case study of my superpower in action.
Once I figured out what my superpower is, I was tempted to celebrate by pulling on a lycra superhero outfit and embarrassing my kids at school pickup time. Though on reflection, that didn’t work out so well the last time!
What is your superpower?
To read some other blogger’s perspectives on their superpowers, check out the list below:
- Adelstein-Parouse Productions (2005), ‘Prison Break‘
- Alcon Entertainment (2015), ‘The Expanse‘
- Castlerock Entertainment (1994), ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘
- Jalem Productions (1967), ‘Cool Hand Luke‘
- Les Films Corona (1973), ‘Papillon‘
- Microsoft (2020), ‘Microsoft Virtual Training Days‘
- Rysher Entertainment (1997), ‘Oz‘
- The Mirisch Company (1963), ‘The Great Escape‘
- Tilted Productions (2013), ‘Orange is the New Black‘