David Heinemeier Hansson

August 5, 2022

I can't save you, nobody can

In the two decades I've been managing people, there's never been a termination that didn't sting. Acting on the knowledge that someone isn't working out is probably the hardest task for any conscientious manager. It's only natural to meet that difficulty and that sting with regret: I could have done more. But the hard truth is often a simple "no". No, you couldn't. Nobody could.

This regret finds traction in the familiar constructs of "if only I had", "perhaps if we had just", "but we also didn't". These counterfactual building blocks stack up to obstruct the path to a deeper humility: You just don't have the power to turn someone into something they're not, in the short time that's available.

That isn't to say that people can't learn, can't adapt, can't correct, even if they're off to a rough start. But that's all them doing that. Not you, as a manager. The best you can do is cheer them on, point them in the right direction, and give them the opportunities they need to prove that they have what it takes. You can't carry them there.

So while it's always helpful to examine what went wrong, and be humble enough to recognize your own mistakes, you have to stop well short of the line where you step onto the agency of others.

By the time someone shows up for a new job, even early in their careers, they have decades of life and experiences to their name. And usually years of skill development too. As well as an innate set of talents. That's a complicated system! One that's not only hard to reason about, but harder still to predict.

Smart cookies at the biggest companies in the world have wrestled with this problem for ages. How do you predict whether someone will have the right mix to fit into this open situation? Nobody has yet nailed it. Nobody likely ever will. It'll probably always be a guess and a gamble.

Once you accept that as a fundamental boundary on your capacity as a manager, it's going to set you free. Free from centering on the self-serving anguish over what you could have done differently, and on to the acceptance that these outcomes are inevitable when dealing with the opaque potential of strangers.

The redeeming realization is that this is a great, big world. The human pieces that don't fit into your puzzle will complete someone else's. And in fact, if you refuse to let go of a piece that doesn't fit on your end, you're keeping someone else from making theirs. Besides, nobody wants to be the piece that doesn't fit.

So learn to let go with grace. You're not here to save anyone. It's an illusion of grandeur to believe that you can.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.