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What Is the Definition of a Hero?

What Do You Mean by Hero?

Recently I’ve had some great conversations that helped me really understand what a hero is. I have to offer special thanks to Shanna Mann and Niki Whiting for pushing me to define what I’ve been talking about all this time. Here is my definition of a hero:

A hero is someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help strangers.

That definition is loaded, so let me unpack it.

Extraordinary personal risk means they put themselves in actual danger. If they aren’t risking their lives they’re risking their careers, their freedom or serious injury. People who risk things they can afford to lose aren’t heroes.

Helping strangers is different than just helping people you know. Most people are willing to make sacrifices to help a family member, but that’s different than laying down your life for a total stranger. If you have a personal stake in helping someone, you might be a great friend or a great son—but not a hero.

[Edited to add: after more reader discussion, I would change “to help strangers” to “to help others with no personal gain from doing so.”]

It’s important to add that you need both sides of this. If you take big risks only for people you know, you’re a loyal friend but not a hero. (The fact that they may call you their hero is still sweet, though.) If you help total strangers but only when there’s no risk, you’re a good citizen—but still not a hero.

Extraordinary personal risk + helping strangers = heroic.

I’m Not a Hero

This is a strict definition. It means it’s hard for someone to be a hero. That’s exactly as it should be: heroes are rare individuals. If we call everyone who does something nice a “hero” then the word starts to lose its meaning.

(I should point out here that I am not a hero. I’m building my life toward that goal, but make no claims to have reached it.)

I shared this definition with my mother last night and she said something deeply insightful: Most people are afraid to live heroically. The average person wants to be comfortable, safe, and have some fun with their friends and family. If they have food and shelter they may become very interested in paths of self-development, but probably not in taking huge risks.

Other Ways

When speaking about the heroic life, the most common response I get goes like this:

“I think teachers are heroes.”

“I think parents are heroes.”

“I think you can be a hero by doing little things for the people around you.”

I used to have a hard time responding to this because I really have a deep respect for parents, teachers, and people who do charity work or help their neighbors. Likewise for artists, fellow nonprofit workers, and all the other noble professions I’ve heard called heroes.

I don’t want to be the dick who tells people they’re not heroes.

But the more people gave me this response, the more I began to see where it comes from: fear. This is the response of someone who looks at the risk and danger an actual hero faces and backs away.

It’s a lot easier to say you’re already a hero than it is to go out and fight some dragons—or admit that you never could. 

The Hero And the Citizen

When someone says that parents are heroes, or that making small differences is heroic, what they’re really saying is we don’t have to go out and save the entire world to do something amazing. And you know what? I totally agree.

Parents, doctors, artists, healers, activists, volunteers, and children who support their parents all do incredibly amazing work that should never be underestimated. So do people in numerous other capacities. They may not be heroes, but they can still be recognized as amazing in their own right.

This is something true heroes know, and a true hero never regards the rest of the world with arrogance or scorn. It’s okay that most people are scared to take the risks that the hero takes. Most people shouldn’t take those risks, and the hero takes them because they feel most alive when they adventure.

Everyone has a purpose, after all.

What do you think of this definition of a hero? Your comments have helped to shape my views and understand what I really mean when I talk about this stuff. Is this definition too strict? Is it right or wrong to view heroes as exceedingly rare? Do you think there’s a heroic trait not covered by this description? Post a comment and speak up.

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35 thoughts on “What Is the Definition of a Hero?

  1. I think you’re pretty on target with the definition. I’m not 100% behind the word strangers. While there is certainly an obligation of sorts to loved ones, there’s a large set of people between loved ones and strangers.

    I also think it’s worth including something to the effect of “without any expectation of reward”. There are some who would take a risk for a stranger so they can become famous or rich.

    I too have trouble with people who describe an entire population as heroic – teachers, parents, soldiers… However, I am one of those people that encourages doing “little things’. My reason is one of preparation. If you make little actions for others a habit, taking a risk for a stranger is going to be easier if/when the time comes. Like practicing CPR – you might never use it, but you will certainly be glad if you have to.

    Ultimately, I think what we fight with when defining the word hero is the enormous weight of history. The word has been used to describe quite different types of people, so telling someone what a hero is can be tough. Not that we shouldn’t do it. My attempt at addressing this issue is here: http://www.theherohandbook.com/what-is-a-hero/

    • ” I am one of those people that encourages doing “little things’. My reason is one of preparation. If you make little actions for others a habit, taking a risk for a stranger is going to be easier if/when the time comes.”

      I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I feel that this is one of the most effective steps a person can take to maximize their chance of being heroic.

  2. Wow! Very interesting thoughts to start off my Monday with. I like the idea that dangerous risk is not for everyone, and the (implied?) idea that this is ok for most.

    Since I think everything involves risk (sitting down and watching tv risks something. So does saving a small African village from starvation), its hard for me to pin risk to the heroic requirements, although I want to sit with that thought some more. Personally, I think of “hero” as part of the Godsoul that anyone can chose to reach up to. When we reach up, it reaches down, we kiss, and it happens. In other words, we court the heroic activist that exists slightly outside of us, but always in our range. To me its helpful to define heroic acts rather than heroic people.

    Thanks for this! Rock on Drew.

  3. nickiofcourse says:

    This is all interesting to me. It all depends on the perspective, right? Like, I look at the world from the perspective as We Are All One. This eliminates strangers from my world entirely. I also volunteered to have a unnecessary major surgery for “no good reason”, which included the risk of death during surgery, and putting my own health at stake, all because “I can” and I am not afraid. I do not see donating a kidney to a stranger as heroic, but to the man who is alive now (and was about to stop being alive on earth), he thinks I am. I disagree. I live in love instead of fear is all. One act does not a “hero” make, anyway. You don’t do one thing and remain “heroic” for all time. It’s an all the time thing. To me, if I had to define MY definition of heroic, it IS much different from yours. It’s just having the freakin balls to go where people are afraid to go. A friend was horrified that we’d bring the kids to the homeless shelter to do a meal because surely there’s a pedophile or two there, and do you know what? I actually saw someone who made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and I stared him down as he stared my child down in a very uncomfortable manner, but I was there to protect and in the end, those people deserve home cooked meals as much as anyone does. The bigger lesson was found there. Anyone who DARES to live in love instead of being afraid of the world – to me- is a hero. Because most people just don’t do that. They deem some things “important” enough to “conquer” and other things just too small and not worth it. There is simply no act of love or kindness, no matter how “small” that doesn’t change EVERYTHING. Heroic.

  4. Kate says:

    If you want to think of a current example of ‘not being heroic’, here it is. It may help all of us to understand more of what a ‘hero’ means.
    I was watching the news a few weeks ago and they had a story and video about a terrible incident that happened on a southern CA beach. Due to huge cutbacks in funding for – everything – the Fire Dept. and Paramedics were told NOT to respond to a swimmer in trouble on a public beach. They said only certified lifeguards were to enter the water to aid a swimmer in distress. The FD and paramedics were told they would automatically be fired if they didn’t obey this rule.
    Well, a call came in. They responded to it and stood on the beach watching a man having trouble in the water, lunging and gasping for air, then down under the water again.
    No lifeguard was present. The man drowned.
    I actually cried while watching this. I will say the the rescue squad, police and paramedics looked very distressed while the event occured, but none went in.
    I can’t imagine that losing your job would be worse than watching a person drown, but they all made a decision NOT TO BE A HERO! Very sad commentary on today’s world, and yes, we need more heroes!

  5. You keep me thinking.

    Though i prefer to stay in the background, letting others have the center stage, be the ones who stand up, i often wonder if pressed, would i stand up, would i take the risk. Or would the question of who it would affect (family, friends, etc) if my action caused a loss to their world, stop me.

    Thanks for keeping me thinking and good fortune in your path always.

  6. I think the definition is a good, workable definition. Certainly, everyone who meets that definition is a hero. I just think it’s a limited definition.

    Let me paint an extremely unlikely scenario: I come upon you somewhere, and you are being menaced by a horde of ants. You, for some reason unknown to me, are incapable of getting yourself out of this situation. I, for some reason I currently can’t fathom, am capable of getting you out of it.

    I wade in, stick flailing, and rescue you from the horde of ants. That is damn well heroic of me. (To other commentors: you’d need to know me. Rest assured, it is.) However, you are not a stranger.

    So I don’t think the second part of your definition is as all-encompassing as it could be.

    I’m a little up in the air over risk, and what constitutes risk. Is perceived risk good enough? Even though my rational brain knows those ants aren’t going to hurt me, does that equal no actual risk, or is the perceived risk (of my sanity, perhaps) enough? As I’m having trouble coming up with a scenario to illustrate perceived/actual/negligible risk, I’ll leave that one for now.

    I’d also like to point out that, say, Tim rescuing you from a horde of ants wouldn’t necessarily be heroic. Does that mean that there is a component of courage – of needing courage to do the task at hand – that should factor in? Or is that a subset of risk? Is this part of having to actually risk something that matters?

    Oh, and how many heroic acts must one do to be a hero? Just one? A lifetime? How frequently must these acts occur to be considered the pattern of a lifetime? Who determines who the hero is? If a hero is unknown except to those beneficiaries of his/her heroic acts, are they still heroes? Do heroes have to receive acclaim to be a hero?

    Can one become too blazé about being a hero? What happens if you risk something and lose? Are you a hero for trying?

    Also? I am not a hero, but at least I know this. (Adventure makes me nervous, aggravated, and cranky. I like my adventure well watered down.)

    • Wow, GREAT questions Colleen.

      First off let me just say: if I ever get stuck in a horde of ants, and someone pulls me out, I will call you my hero no matter who you are :)

      You make a really good point though. I think the word “stranger” doesn’t quite capture what I was going for. More like: someone you don’t have a personal stake in helping. For example let’s say I’m the only viable donor to give you a kidney, and now I’m being eaten alive by ants. You pull me out and save me so that you can have my kidney. Not super heroic. (Not that I’d be any less grateful.)

      How many heroic acts does it take to be a hero? I don’t know. I’ve often said you can’t proclaim yourself a hero, that title must be bestowed. So I guess however many heroic acts it takes for others to call you that, would be enough. But if you get your name in the paper as a hero for a one-time thing, you won’t be a hero for long. People will forget. I suppose it’s a title than can fade away with time. A heroic life would be a constant effort.

      Thanks for making me think so hard about this. These are tremendous points.. And yes, just so all the world knows: If Colleen of all people is willing to wade into ants to grab me, I think she has well earned the hero badge for her efforts :)

  7. nickiofcourse says:

    I have another question. Okay, questions. Once you yourself do whatever it is that finally allows you to feel like a “hero”, are you forever in “hero” status? Just from one act? What if you do something like stand on the shore and watch a man drown because you don’t want to lose your job after that? Does that cancel out your “hero-ness”? It’s passable, right? That moment, your bright, shining hero moment passes and then…what? Do you need to forever go around doing what you deem worthy of the term so you can stay in that space? Didn’t I read somewhere something you said about *you*/we will never “get there”, because it’s a never ending journey? When will YOU finally call yourself a hero? Is that title so important? Isn’t a lot of time passing waiting for your opportunity? What do you suppose will happen once you do the incredible feat that you feel like you need to do before you can be deemed a hero (by yourself)? Will anything change? I just read a story that brought me back to this- it was about a (“non-hero”) father, who didn’t wait for the firefighters before he got his own son out of the well he’d fallen into. Was he a hero or doing what any non hero parent would do for their child? He could have gotten hurt trying, but that didn’t matter. I think that it’s just a splitting of hairs. Your ideas about hero-ism are your ideas, and other people’s are other peoples (deep thoughts…). and in my theory book, there is no such thing as right or wrong, so your definition doesn’t matter any more than mine does. But you did get us talking about it. Win!

  8. First off, whoa. Thanks for the shout out! And congrats on the growing success of this blog. I am excited to see what happens in 20 days!

    I like your definition of hero. What’s interesting to me is the picture of the suit of armor, something we associate with feudal knights. In fact, I think most Western folk might immediately conjure and image of a knight, or maybe some one like Hercules, basically a larger than life man who lived in ‘olden times.’ Emphasis on man. It’s curious because I don’t think knights fit into your hero definition. I do like the separation between idol and hero. I think that’s an important distinction to make.

  9. Wow, Drew! That’s awesome. Yay for meeting your goals. I also love this discussion in the comments.

    I like your definition of hero. By this definition, a firefighter could easily be a hero, but isn’t necessarily a hero, until he puts himself in harms way (for a stranger, natch) But if he was suicidal like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon then he never risked anything that was of value to him, and he’s not a hero.

    I also really like Matt’s points about ‘without expectation of reward’.

    Great definition, as I said. So now that you’ve defined hero, what you’re working toward, how do you go about that? Do you stalk the mean streets of Minneapolis looking for people to save? Or do you do as Matt suggested and simply prepare, being ready at any time to step up?

    And finally, if hero is not a title that is self-bestowed, and yet the term is so corrupted, how can you know when you’ve become a hero? Or perhaps that isn’t the point…maybe it’s simply about knowing in your heart you acted in a worthy manner, whether that constitutes the ‘official’ definition of heroism or not. In which case, I am totally on board.

    Fwiw worth, I agree with… well I can’t find who said it now, but I’m sure someone did– the word hero has been so debased, you might want to choose a different one. My vote is for Paladin! Yes! Because you are already a priest, and especially if you start roaming around looking for people to save. (Is this already a marvel comic? Because I feel like it is.)

    Oh, yes. Where are my manners? Thanks for the shout-out. You rock.

    • Ha, if I added Paladin to the mix alongside Rogue Priest do you know how many disappointed D&D and WoW players would end up at this site? It’s like 10% of traffic already :)

      To answer your second question first, to me at least it is more about knowing I lived the right life. If I ever do something that gets me called a hero, great, but I have no way to control or guarantee that. You have to be in love with the heroic life to live it for long; doing it for glory is a bad bet.

      So, how does someone get started being a hero? I’m at that “simply prepare, make yourself ready” stage, but I think there’s more to it than that. Which is something I hope to talk about soon….

  10. Is the key attribute of “helping strangers” altruism? By altruism I mean help that poses no obvious or immediate benefit to the helper.

    The introduction of “helping strangers” seems like a radical shift in focus from the picture of heroism we’ve seen so far. It doesn’t even begin to show up in the 4 bullet points of the Blueprint for a Heroic Life, and it is worlds away from the statement in your ebook: “There is no better way to have a profound impact on the world than to discover and develop yourself. Self-empowerment is the most altruistic path.” I don’t see any incompatibility in all these statements, but introducing “helping strangers” represents a profound shift in focus.

    And a welcome shift, IMO, insofar as it brings the question of altruism into the picture.

    At the same time, I think it requires more nuance and depth of thought. For instance, I would say a soldier throwing him/herself on a grenade to save the platoon is pretty damn heroic, but the platoon members are by no means in the “stranger” category – probably not even close, unless they just met that morning. Others have pointed out more examples of complications, such as Matt who called attention to the possibility of personal gain through fame or wealth through helping total strangers, so I won’t go further.

    “Helping strangers” has the advantage of *appearing* relatively straightforward and intuitive, but as soon as you start thinking about it at all it gets incredibly messy. That may be the nature of the beast when considering this sort of thing.

    • I agree about “strangers.” A few others have mentioned it’s a bad word and you’re all right. The idea is to help people “without a personal stake in helping them.” Your soldier is indeed a hero.

      Does this introduce altruism into the picture? I consider that it was already in the picture. One of the four principles of the Heroic Life is to live by your ideals. Purely self-centered things like “make money” or “get famous” are poor ideals. I imagine most people will discover how they want to help others somewhere in between finding their purpose and defining their ideals.

      That said, self-empowerment is indeed the most altruistic path. Which means that even if you follow the four principles of the Heroic Life purely to make your own life awesome, you’re going to end up spreading that awesomeness to a lot of other lives in the process.

      • Sorry to take so long to get back to this.

        >self-empowerment is indeed the most altruistic path

        I strongly disagree. Self-empowerment might have *some* altruistic benefit to others, depending on your definition of altruism. But it seems like a pretty cheap view of altruism to say that self-empowerment is the *most* altruistic path. By the same argument, you may as well say the best way to help poor people is to make a lot of money, reasoning that it will inspire them to do the same, or that spending all that money will eventually “trickle down” to them.

        Self-empowerment *combined with* or *motivated by* altruism seems more realistic. You do have to train yourself up, but you train *for* something. So, maybe altruism may fit better into the Heroic Life schematic as an ideal or goal. Phrased the way it is in WLaG and in the comment above, it sounds more like a support for self-empowerment, whereas self-empowerment should be the support for altruism.

        • I think the problem with putting altruism first is two-fold:

          1. Most people are not motivated by altruism. Many people can start something for initially self-centered reasons, and later discover ways of using it to help others; but very few people will start something for completely selfless reasons, with no promise of eventual improvement to their own lives. This goes for spiritual paths as well as anything else. So starting with self empowerment has a high chance of leading to altruism; but starting with altruism has a high chance of no one is interested.

          2. People who have little control over their own lives are unable to do much to help others. Every lifeguard has to learn a set of skills that improve their own life (swimming, CPR, etc.) before they can competently save anyone else’s life. Anyone and everyone who desires to help others should spend significant time improving their own abilities, or they will fail in their altruistic goal.

  11. I have a friend who is truly a hero. Her name is Priscilla and she gave up everything she had in the states to move to South Africa to help child rape victims and Zulu orphans.

    I have been humbled to be asked to help her with an upcoming project. Click on my name if you’re interested in learning more.

    There are real heroes out there. Sometimes we just don’t notice them.

  12. Greetings Rogues,

    This has been one of the most amazing discussion to happen on this blog yet. Your words are a testament to the strength of this budding community. You are all philosophers and I salute you for what you’ve taught me.

    Based on the lessons I’ve learned from all of you, I’m updating my definition of a hero:

    A hero is someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help people, with no personal stake in doing so.

    Thank you for your inspiration.

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  16. Bryon says:

    If your definition of hero is someone who helps strangers at personal risk to themselves than by your definition wouldn’t volunteers as well as missionaries who go out to help people in dangerous locations and countries qualify as heroes. I understand that people might have religious differences with missionaries but most do just as much work in the physical helping people, saving lives, improving living conditions as well as spiritual. And given that their view is that they want to tell people about Jesus Christ so they can be saved and not have to go to hell, their trying to save people on multiple levels. Just saying… please don’t hate.

    • I think it depends on a few factors, Bryon.

      1. How dangerous are the conditions? International travel has risks, in some countries more than others. But then, driving to the local food shelter has risks if you get into a car accident. When we talk about heroes I’m generally looking for someone who’s taking on a level of risk above and beyond the ordinary. Some missionaries probably do this .

      2. What are they getting out of it? I say heroism takes helping others with “no personal stake” or nothing to gain. Missionaries may not be paid, but what is their stake in going and doing this work for others? Do they believe they will be rewarded in the afterlife? Will they receive prestige and social recognition in their faith group? With non-material rewards like this, it probably depends on the individual missionary. Some might be acting humbly with the hope of helping people while others may be building their pastoral credentials or going because their family expects them to. Not all motivations are equally heroic.

      3. Are they clearly helping others in a way we can all agree on? And are they doing any clear harm? Helping people avoid a hypothetical hell involves a very subjective set of problems whose importance depends on your faith. Building a clinic on the other hand does clear good no matter what your faith. And undermining traditional social structures or indigenous faiths does clear harm.

      In general, I think of religious work as occupying a different niche than heroism. The saint and the hero both do great good, but in somewhat different ways and for different motivations. And, just like most police or soldiers are not heroes, most missionaries and pastors are not saints. I don’t believe you need to be a “hater” to recognize that.

      I think the value of any given mission work should stand on its specific outcomes. It’s not my place to judge those outcomes. I do think, however, that missionaries should go with the expectation of doing their work humbly and getting little recognition. If the goal is to be called a hero then, (like anyone who thinks they can go out and become a hero), something is wrong. All we can do is stand ready to act heroically if needed, and hope that it never is – even (especially) in international aid work.

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  18. Russell says:

    By the time someone becomes a hero. They won’t see it, even in the mirror. Other than when said so of, or reminded by others. There are many unsung heroes in this world.

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