What person signifies a hero in your mind?
This is a question I usually ask during presentations when I speak about personal excellence.
The answers are always fascinating and predictable.
People like to share their stories about their heroes.
The answers range from Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan to Winston Churchill and Mother Theresa. In between, you will find Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Britney Spears, Vanessa Williams, and the list goes on.
When analyzing the answers, predictability quickly emerges.
Like audiences worldwide, most of the responses cite legends, celebrities, famous athletes, or politicians. Our picture of excellence, and for that matter heroes, are very specific.
What do they all have in common? They have reached an outsized achievement by making a huge personal sacrifice for the betterment of the world or to achieve some world record.
Our heroes are people who lived very unusual lives, where a huge sacrifice was an integral part of their existence.
Their ambition or response to a world’s problem was outsized as well.
In short, they weren’t normal you and me. They were the exception to the rule. People who were living unusual lives with the hope of achieving an out of this world goal that 99.9% of the world population would never dream of, let alone attempt to achieve.
Based on these examples, heroes are, for most people, more legend than human.
Heroes by this common definition are least likely to be you and me.
After all, if a hero is someone who wins 20 Olympic medals, I have no chance. I won’t even try.
One of the lessons I learned about heroes is that the way we define them often dictates if we will ever choose to become one.
When we associate heroes with bigger-than-life characters who made a major sacrifice to achieve an outsized accomplishment, we often don’t include ourselves as hero-material. We simply exclude ourselves from the possibility.
The rare and few that usually answer during my presentation “my mom” or “my teacher” are the ones that realize that heroes are people with talent and motivation who respond differently during a time of opportunity. They don’t wait for the heroes to come and save them. When something happens, they don’t see a crisis to run from. They see an invitation to rise and gather all their talent towards a solution.
Rethinking our heroes
When you read stories, the heroes usually do not carry a sense of mission to save the world. They discover it as the opportunity presents itself. In many stories, the heroes are often reluctant. But they never excuse themselves from the responsibility and the possibility of a better world.
Real heroes are not wearing t-shirts declaring them heroes. They are being discovered through a process. That is how we often discover heroes in stories.
So how did we develop the celebrity-admiring version of heroes?
We distorted the hero definition. We placed a huge light on the moment of achievement of the hero and took away all sweat, pain, efforts, failures, trials, and errors that came before and ultimately the human nature of that individual.
When Simon Biles bowed down during the Tokyo games and decided to handle her mental issues despite the loss of medals that were highly expected of her, she shocked many people. She was the top contender. The expectations from her were enormous and borderline inhuman. She instead removed that huge light from her achievement and placed it where it belonged in the first place, her humanity.
I remember flying through Chicago O’Hare airport and seeing her posters hanging everywhere, highlighting the great expectations from Simon Biles the athletic hero. These posters didn’t tell the story of Simon Biles the human being. But she was. And she decided to be human first. That was true heroism that sent a message to everyone worldwide.
Real heroes are humans first who manage to achieve great things. They are not great achievements that happened to be humans.
Discovering The Hero That You Are
The evolution of heroes is natural and equally applicable to all of us. We all have talent that is relevant in a certain time of opportunity. Everyone has a hero moment waiting to be uncovered. We all need to choose to develop and nurture this talent so it will be ready in the moment of need and opportunity.
To tap into the hero in us we need to start with knowing that there is a hero in all of us. We need to re-evaluate our appreciation of our heroes. The stories of heroes cannot start with the moment of achievement. We can’t focus on the glory moments when they are on the podium and the flag is waving while the national anthem is playing in the background. We need to see them in a fuller, more human way that includes their journey to get here.
The hero starts at the moment of decision. The decision to refine our skills, nurture our talent, and become hero worthy. All your heroes have had that moment. It might have emerged out of a difficult time or a time of inspiration. They might have seen someone suffering or someone rising. And then they said, “one day it will be me”. That was the moment of decision.
It is at that moment that heroes are first born. Later they merely execute that decision. The moment to become a hero is hidden from others’ eyes. It is the private moment for each one of us.
Then comes the long journey of refining and preparing ourselves for the moment of opportunity. That journey is not pretty and is full of ups and downs, of trials and failures. If you want to become the hero that you can be, spend time understanding that stories of efforts hide behind the stories of victories. The truth is, many accomplished individuals do not spend much time telling their effort stories, but they should.
The story of the journey is far more human, relevant, and accessible. That is where you will find that your hero is not an overnight 20 Olympic medalist but rather a person just like you that opted to use his time and talent differently. He chose to answer the call and to pay the often-unexpected price required to get there. It was the moments of courage where the chances were slim that defined the heroism as much as the moments he won the right to stand on the podium. If you want to be inspired and one day become your own hero, seek to understand the journey at its extreme pain and fears. That’s when true heroism is being shaped.
We are all blessed with talent. We all have times and opportunities where this talent is relevant and in high demand, with people on the other side benefiting from our decision to execute. It is up to you, if you are willing to go through the challenging journey to be ready to answer the call.
What is your decision?