Who’s your hero?
It sounds like a childish question, and that’s a problem. You need a hero. We all do.
Heroes aren’t just for kids. Adults who want to accomplish great things—a successful business, a happy family, a beautiful painting, meaningful work—need heroes as well.
Step 1: Accept that heroes have flaws and that, as an adult, you will be able to identify them
When I was a kid, my favorite superhero was Aquaman. I loved Aquaman. I loved how he could breathe underwater, swim like a dolphin and communicate with fish. I don’t know that I’ve thought about Aquaman as an adult—and that’s a shame. Lots of kids have heroes. Kids are natural idolizers.
But in time we have to “put away childish things.” And one of the most painful parts of growing up is coming to terms with the fact that there is no perfect hero: our parents are flawed, our favorite athlete or actor might be a jerk. Comic books aren’t documentaries.
To grow up is to understand that no one owns a complete set of virtues. Those who are brave might also be impatient. Those who are patient might also be unjust. The disciplined athlete is the undisciplined spender. The courageous soldier becomes the frightened father.
When we grow up—if we grow up fully—we no longer choose our heroes in a spirit of passive, all-consuming admiration, as a child does. We can choose actively, singling out the qualities we want to emulate, leaving aside the rest without regrets.
We can admire the profound wisdom of Plato without accepting, or ignoring, his deep elitism, which held that most of us have no hope of achieving wisdom at all. We can admire the free-thinking genius of Thomas Jefferson without accepting, or ignoring, his ownership of other human beings. We can admire the audacity of Richard Wagner, a nearly self-taught musician who became one of history’s greatest composers, without accepting, or ignoring, his hatred of Jews.
I’ve chosen famous examples here because everyone will know them. Your heroes may be more personal—a friend, a colleague, parent, coach or teacher. They too will be flawed. They can still be your hero. We can admire without ignoring, because we are adults, and that is what adults are capable of. We have to put away the idea that our heroes are perfect, if only because such a view of heroes begins to limit our view of our own lives.
If we believe that our heroes are flawless, we begin to believe that we, being flawed, are incapable of heroism. In this way, a belief in the perfection of others can inhibit our own growth. Sometimes people poke holes at and tear down heroes as an odd way to comfort themselves. If no one is heroic—the thinking goes—then why should I try? Yet flawed heroes—even fatally flawed heroes—are still heroic. Every Achilles has an Achilles’ heel.
Your hero is flawed. So are you. You have that in common.
Step 2: Recognize how heroes help you
We need heroes, because all of us have to do things that are hard.
What is difficult, painful, confusing, chaotic and worrisome in our lives can feel—because it is happening to us—as though it is unique. It’s easy to imagine that because you’re a unique person, your struggles are unique too. And it’s easy to become isolated, especially when things are hard.
Most heroes are heroic only because they have struggled heroically.
A hero can serve as a model. And a model might teach us how to deal with the death of someone we love, how to rebound from being fired, how to coach a loved one through a disabling accident, how to lead a team or how to raise a child.
Over time, we keep growing; the challenges in front of us change, and our sense of self changes with them. The model who taught us courage may be ill suited when the times demand patience. At each stage of our life, we pursue different dreams, learn different ways of living a good life and pass through different trials. We will, therefore, need different heroes.
Your hardship is real, but it is not unique. Learn from your heroes. Emulate the best in them.
Step 3: Be Heroic
Now, make yourself similar in another way: Go be heroic.
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