Throughout our lives we have many kinds of heroes. People we admire for many different reasons. Parents. Celebrities. Teachers. Entrepreneurs. Athletes. Service men or women. There is no great difficulty in finding someone to look up to and to try to emulate. There are so many people who are available to us that can help to shape the trajectory of our lives as we pursue our goals, virtues and successes. These are people we can relate to, who we believe have achieved what we would like to achieve.
But what is the value in finding our heroes and what do our heroes say about us?
What is a hero?
Our heroes are exemplars. They are the embodiment of some goal or attribute or virtue that we want to fold into our own lives. When we see people that are displaying a trait that we find virtuous or valuable we see it as an extension of the person with that trait. We see them as living example of that trait, so we form connections to them and seek to emulate their success. This focuses us. It drives us. It gives a face to the ethereal virtues we aspire to and is proof positive in our minds that certain things can be accomplished.
Heroes can be personal mentors that take an active role in our daily lives or they can be famous personalities that we can only see from a distance. Heroes can spring out of nowhere, figures presented in news stories or books, and grant us momentary inspiration, or they can linger long in our lives, constantly influencing us towards great achievements and goals.
Why do we need heroes?
Think about the things you value; the character traits that are meaningful to you. Now think about how you came to value those things. Was the value arrived at by careful and deliberate independent thought and reasoning or was it stealthily adopted as a side effect of the emotional connections to the people who embodied the idea of those traits? Our heroes.
What I mean to say is, we usually come to value a character trait because we see the positive effect it has when others apply it and we are pulled towards those people as our heroes because we also want that trait and the apparent residuals of it. We honor courage because we see the lives it saves when our hero applies it. We value wisdom because we see the equanimity it can give when our hero applies it. We value discipline because we see the long term rewards it can reap when our hero applies it.
We need heroes to remind us of what things are possible given the right amount of discipline, fortitude and sacrifice. They are the men and women we chase as we race through our lives, trying to accomplish everything we want to accomplish.
What do our heroes say about us?
People’s heroes give a glimpse of what they value. It says a lot about who that person aspires to become and speaks to what sort of things they might do to get there. If I tell you that there is one women who considers Kim Kardashian as her hero and another who considers Sheryl Sandberg as her hero, you are going to make some very different assumptions about these two women. And why not? These two people are saying very different things about themselves by who they are choosing as their heroes and we can assume very different things about what they value because of that. I am not suggesting that one hero is better than another. I am merely saying that we can confidently understand the values and aspirations of a person by the heroes they pursue.
There is the oft-repeated quote by Jim Rohn that says, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” This doesn’t just apply to the 5 people you physically spend the most time with. Many of us spend a lot of time with our distant heroes. Reading their books. Studying their lives. Keeping them in our minds in order to emulate their success. These sorts of heroes can have just as strong, if not stronger, influence on us than our close friends if we let them. There is an account by the famous Roman historian Plutarch that says Julius Cesar, upon reading about the life and accomplishments of Alexander the Great wept. Why? Because he had seen all the accomplishments of his hero Alexander and realized that he still had a long way to go to become as great. And he used the life of Alexander as the motivation to do just that.
Losing our heroes
Think back to when you were young. Your room a mess with posters of your heroes. You looked to those heroes as a future. They were a personification of your goals and aspirations; the things you wanted to accomplish. But as we age we seem to stop surrounding ourselves with heroes that imply future goals and instead we think only about what we are now, what we have already accomplished and we surround ourselves with the remnants of those things. We get rid of the forward push of our heroes and surround ourselves with the trappings of complacency.
I think it is important not to lose the respect and pursuit of heroes. No matter your age, your level of expertise or your level of success, I guarantee that you can still find and benefit from seeking out a hero that embodies some trait or aspect of life that you are struggling with or you want to adopt. You can be the highest performing individual in business. Pulling down hundreds of millions of dollars a year and you can still have heroes. People who motivate you and drive you to do more. These are not people who you envy. Where you merely want what they have. No. These are people that you want to learn from. That you want to emulate in such a way that you can embody the very nature and strength of their character.
Sure, we occasionally outgrow our heroes. Our aspirations change, our values are shifted. We come to honor new responsibilities and in doing so we shift our focus on what we want and how to get there. But with this shift of focus should come with new heroes. New lessons to learn about how to embody the new virtues that we value. We should always be looking for real life examples of people successfully navigating the treacherous waters that we want to navigate. It doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride or success but it does offer a direction and sometimes, that can make all the difference in getting to where we want to go.
Be an individual
No matter how closely you try to align yourself with your hero you need to always remain true to yourself. You need to make sure that your individual stamp is on everything you learn from your heroes, because the real gift of the virtues and successes that you aspire to is your own personal application of them in the lives of people around you. The point of having heroes is to know what direction you want to head in and some of the vague landmarks you need to follow. The specifics of the journey are up to you and how you actually get there will be the compelling narrative of your story. The part that makes it memorable, unique and important. The part that makes you into a future hero for someone else.
A hero is a compass. A navigation tool that can help us to find and approach the virtues, successes and goals we want out of life. When we are presented with situations to which we have no reasonable orientation, or to which we are already predisposed towards a negative reaction, it is useful to consider what our hero would do in that situation. We don’t have to rely only on the reflections of past experiences in our own memories to categorize the ways and means to success. We can reach more broadly towards the experiences and lessons of our heroes, until they become the natural expressions of our own experience and we become the heroes ourselves.
As we grow older we have to find new heroes; new exemplars that embody the virtues that we want to adopt as we mature and shift our focus to new goals and a new life. We are never too old or too accomplished to find a new hero.
And even if our exemplars are exposed for some grave character defect and lose their luster for us, we can still seek to embody the virtues and successes we saw in them. Pursuing the effort in our own personal way, and by doing so become heroes ourselves.