Hercules v. Theseus

After an incredibly rewarding/challenging summer working for the venture capital firm, Data Collective (dcvc.com), I took a planned hiatus – some much needed family time up in Maine, along with the more stereotypical MBA summer travels to Greece and Croatia.

Having decompressed a bit, I found myself procrastinating – “this isn’t a travel blog, so I’m not going to post pictures of Santorini and rave about the local wines”, “this isn’t a book review blog, so I’m not going to talk about Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and how it provided a streamlined escape through the annals of Greek Mythology, while I wandered around Athens”, etc.

I hate excuses, and I dislike inaction – so this should be the beginning of a more consistent cadence of posts – most will loosely tie into the world of startups – technology, markets, trends, leadership, legislation, companies, people, etc.

So – some thoughts on idols and leadership vis a vis Hercules.

When downloading the aforementioned Mythology, I was excited to dive into stories of the gods and heroes, the basics of which I had vague outlines of in my head (either Perseus or Theseus killed Medusa… and the other killed the Minotaur… and someone’s dad jumped off a cliff because of a white sail… the gods were all assholes…)

The Greek hero of whom we hear the most is generally Hercules; the last Hollywood stab at Greek mythology that I saw was The Rock’s excellent confidence man portrayal of the legend in Hercules – though I admit I can not be unbiased when it comes to The Great One.  Hercules is so amazing because (due to his half-divine background) he could do things that no one else could; the tales are too numerous to recount, but he slayed things like this, this, and these as part of his 12 labors; he played life on hard mode, and generally could not be stopped.

The problem with Hercules is that he was also incredibly unhinged, and other suffered.  Among his indiscretions, he killed his music teacher (by accident) because he didn’t like the material, and he murdered his entire family (influenced by Hera; the catalyst for the 12 labors).

Despite the decidedly murky other side of the coin above, Hercules was the revered as the greatest hero of Greece.  In Athens, however, things have been viewed a bit differently.  As Edith Hamilton notes:

The greatest hero of Greece was Hercules. He was a personage of quite another order from the great hero of Athens, Theseus. He was what all Greece except Athens most admired. The Athenians were different from the other Greeks and their hero therefore was different. Theseus was, of course, bravest of the brave as all heroes are, but unlike other heroes he was as compassionate as he was brave and a man of great intellect as well as great bodily strength. It was natural that the Athenians should have such a hero because they valued thought and ideas as no other part of the country did.

Theseus’ accomplishments were also many; he had some labors of his own – none of which were motivated by domestic violence – and he killed The Minotaur.  He also talked Hercules out of suicide after the whole murdering his family thing.  It’s not these feats that distinguish Theseus, however – it’s what he did not do that was so impressive.

His humility especially shines through in two of my favorite stories.

First, upon becoming king of Athens, he relinquished his power to the people in what was a very out of character move for power hungry, *narcissistic* characters of Greek mythology:

So Theseus became King of Athens, a most wise and disinterested king. He declared to the people that he did not wish to rule over them: he wanted a people’s government where all would be equal. He resigned his royal power and organized a commonwealth, building a council hall where the citizens should gather and vote.

As someone who gets chills thinking about George Washington, in the style Cinncinatus, relinquishing the opportunity to run the show as a military dictator, I’m surprised I had never heard (or hadn’t remembered) this version of Athenian democracy’s birth.

My favorite story, however, was his attack of Thebes (something he did not want to do, but did out of a moral obligation).  He marches in and conquers (as one does), but once his objective is complete (allowing the survivors of a previous battle to bury their dead) he leaves.  Again, not a typical move for a victorious Greek.

I see many (mostly good) articles on what makes a good leader today, mainly as it relates to building and running technology companies.  Empathy and team building are always emphasized as top priorities, but oftentimes the people that rise to celebrity status (e.g. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk) seem more like Hercules than Theseus.  It is, of course, not black and white, but the general portrayal of both Jobs and Musk is one of brilliant innovator with disregard for the human beings within his sphere.

While they are surely the exception rather than the rule, I find it interesting that we worship these Herculean figures (who we no doubt need to move mountains), when it is far more impressive to accomplish these massive feats of (innovative/intellectual) strength while remaining humble and empathetic.

When evaluating teams, I have found that there are plenty of smart people out there, but at a certain part, IQ is pretty binary, and in the world of early stage technology, there are diminishing marginal returns.  Very rarely do I come out of a meeting with a company and think “wow, we just met an idiot”, but it’s not uncommon to think something like “smart person… and she knows it – seems to lack self awareness and I worry about her ability to attract good people and overcome the inevitable speed bumps ahead”.

Bring me a true Hercules and I’ll get on board, but for my money, I’d prefer to back, help and commit to a Theseus 11 times out of 10.

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