Gamma Radiation: The Incredible Hulk As a Model for Personal Growth

If I've learned one thing from observing great individuals (and great companies), it's that greatness is inherently asymmetric. If that sounds dangerous, it is. Any scholar of counterterrorism or cyber war will tell you that asymmetric threats require asymmetric countermeasures, but more fundamentally, they require asymmetric people. When forming a team, I don't want to assemble a polite roster of cross-functional professionals. I want the X-Men: a medley of mutants united for good.

The Incredible Hulk, in particular, embodies the growth model I've come to believe is necessary for achieving greatness. For those of you who were popular in junior high school, the Hulk began as the mild-mannered, though brilliant physicist Bruce Banner, and was transformed into the Hulk after exposure to gamma radiations from a nuclear explosion. From then on, Bruce Banner would morph into the Hulk during times of extreme stress or exigency. While the Hulk’s ability to retain Banner’s intelligence evolved over the series, it’s safe to say he was was never the same again.

So what does growth for greatness look like? It begins with accepting unevenness, and reaches its potential through a conscious nurturing of extremes. But introspection and diligence are not enough.  Real growth is scary, hard, periodic, and responsive to your environment. The gamma ray might seem like an extreme metaphor for catalyzing growth, but if you want to truly achieve greatness, it’s much closer to the reality than the safe, comfortable models we're taught to accept. You need periodic radiation, not lifting a little more weight every day. In the short term, linear development predictably leads to linear results, and in the long term, factoring in drag and the insidious effects of growing comfortable, the result is decline, as Stephen Cohen eloquently described in his conversation with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin. Intelligence is compounding all the time, and correspondingly, so are complacency and missed opportunity.

In practice, it's usually not so straightforward to go looking for gamma rays out of the gate, but there are some obvious pitfalls you can avoid along the way. One of the most important: don’t fall prey to the illusion of growth promoted by the corporate ladder.  It’s a crutch as much as a way up (and tech roles/companies are NOT immune - if you see Software Engineer I, Software Engineer II, etc, that’s a ladder). The ladder can be partially explained by convenience, or convention, but ultimately it’s there to assuage your fears – not only of not reaching your potential, but of incubating a potential that doesn’t fit the bounds. While on the ladder, you can only fall so low or climb so high. It's a false frame, not only because hierarchy is such a poor proxy for impact, but especially for lulling you into thinking achievement falls within a standard distribution.

It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that becoming a mutant is not all upside. Make no mistake, gamma radiation can hurt you. There is always the risk of failure, and win or lose, there will be scar tissue. In that sense the ladder is also a safety net. As an aspiring mutant, you shouldn’t let false bravado obscure this realization – just recognize that in choosing the ladder you’re explicitly shorting your potential and putting protecting your ego ahead of your outcome. As an aspiring Professor X, accept that there will be failures, and that you’ll need to make highly imperfect tradeoffs on false positives vs. false negatives when hiring and developing talent.

Mentorship is likewise critical when directing mutant powers towards the greatest possible good. The X-Men would not have become X-Men without Professor X’s School for Gifted Youngsters. But again, the standard model doesn't apply. To begin with, you need mutants to mentor mutants, and in many cases, to provide the initial dose of radiation. Otherwise, even the best institution of higher learning will predictably devolve into a lemming academy. 

Once mutation is in process, one of the greatest aspects of mentorship is, paradoxically, autonomy. This is especially important because extreme growth doesn't happen on schedule, but is subject to periods of intense activity. As a mentor of mutants, you need to be attuned to these periods, and when they come, confer even more autonomy. Above all, fight your instinct to handhold (hard to do when both hands are always clenched in a fist anyway!).

The final part of the equation is to seek out the greatest challenges you can, both in terms of meaning and difficulty. And this is perhaps the greatest beauty of the gamma radiation metaphor. It's not just about unimaginable intensity. It's about an external reality leaving an indelible imprint on your internal reality. There are some gifts that are only fully formed through creative destruction, and it’s these gifts, in turn, that allow you to create new external realities - in other words, to change the world.