The Heroic Delusion Cheat Sheet

Photo by Brozzi

Yesterday I went into detail about the difference between a healthy heroic imagination, which is a force for positive growth, and unhealthy heroic delusions, which can be dangerous.

That article was long and detailed, because it offered my arguments for the differences that I see. But I think it can be reduced to a simple cheat sheet, which might be helpful in identifying hero delusions when you see them. So here we go:


If a person wants to change themselves to meet the challenges of a difficult world, that’s a sign of heroic imagination.

If they want the world to change to fit them, that’s fertile ground for hero delusions.


Heroic imagination makes a person more prepared for situations where heroic action is needed, but they don’t actively seek out those situations.

Hero delusion leads a person to seek out chances to be the hero.


A heroic imagination helps a person develop realistic responses to problems.

Hero delusions give rise to wildly unrealistic solutions.


Someone with a heroic imagination can communicate their ideals to others, because they are both inspiring and realistic.

Someone with hero delusions develops fringe ideas that most people can’t get behind.


Someone with a heroic imagination may be an introvert or an extrovert, but they can work as part of a team toward a common goal.

A person with hero delusions is a loner. They see themselves as the only one who can make a difference and are unlikely to work in a team.


A heroic imagination accepts and responds to real world limits, which may mean many years of hard work to make even a small change.

Hero delusions prefer a single, dramatic act that (they believe) will change everything.


Heroic imagination leads to pro-social behavior and consideration of the needs of others.

Hero delusions lead to anti-social behavior and imposing one’s will on others.


Taken to an extreme, heroic imagination fails by celebrating everyday behavior as heroic.

Taken to an extreme, hero delusions cause violent and forceful acts.


Heroic imagination is contemplative.

Hero delusions are narcissistic.

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7 thoughts on “The Heroic Delusion Cheat Sheet

  1. A. Waite says:

    Could you clarify point #2 a little further? Although there is clearly a difference between your own pursuit of adventure through travel and random acts of violence, it still seems that the first might qualify as seeking opportunties to be heroic. What about those who volunteer for hazardous work in law enforcement, the military, or even emergency rescue in the hope of doing heroic things?

    I appologize if you have covered this in the past; your “Creating Heroic Encounters” post touches upon these questions, for instance, but not quite explicitly enough for me to see where the line is.

    • Thanks A. I think the difference is whether you are looking, specifically, to go out and find/create a situation where you do something heroic (save someone; kill a bad guy; stop a crime) versus doing something that you accept may put you into those situations.

      As I travel, I actually hope I don’t end up in situations that need heroes. Those situations are usually dangerous and always nerve-wracking. I stay away from the bad parts of town in Guanajuato, hoping I never meet a criminal and have to decide how to handle it. But I do understand that my adventure will both take me through dangerous areas and confront me with many challenging situations, which hopefully will better prepare me to react effectively if needed.

      On the other hand “seeking out” a heroic encounter usually means you’re either looking for trouble or causing trouble. We have good examples of both. George Zimmerman was looking for trouble (and a chance to be heroic) when he exceeded neighborhood watch duties by tailing Martin even after police asked him not to. He was so sure he could be a hero he ended up killing an unarmed kid. On the other hand Elliot Rodger didn’t go out looking for trouble, he went out to cause it. He believed he could create a heroic encounter where he would take a symbolic stand against womankind and it would mean something. In both cases, these men didn’t just prepare themselves to react heroically if needed; they vetoed the “if needed” and made sure they’d get a chance to take dramatic action.

      Even if that hadn’t ended tragically in both cases, it would at least show tremendous recklessness, a distorted view of risk and, I believe, a failed understanding of heroism.

      You raise a really good point about law enforcement &c. But if you ask most police, soldiers, firefighters etc. they deny that they are heroes. I’m sure many are motivated by the chance to help people, but I don’t know how many are hell bent on seeking out chances to take a stand and do something dramatic. Police are actually trained to try to defray and minimize these situations, with the use of force as a last resort. Officers who seek out chances to confront and defeat criminals are basically going against their training and orders. I’m sure they exist but I would definitely argue that those particular officers are unbalanced, badge or no badge.

      That’s how I see the difference. But it’s definitely a fuzzy area. I’m open to other ideas, if you have thoughts on it.

      • A. Waite says:

        Thank you for the clarification, André. Your response answered the follow-up I half-intended to ask (“What about those who join organizations with less savory reputations – Boko Haram, for example?”), by providing a criteria that distiguishes between the conflict-seeking vs. crisis-resolving behaviors of groups as well as individuals.

  2. I really like the summary – quick and easy to remember.
    #4 may be a bit too simplistic though…
    “-Someone with a heroic imagination can communicate their ideals to others, because they are both inspiring and realistic.
    -Someone with hero delusions develops fringe ideas that most people can’t get behind.”

    Someone with a heroic imagination would certainly be more likely to have support for their ideas, but would not necessarily get them. They would likely be able to communicate those ideas if they are striving for a heroic life as they would of worked up to being social and not so shy. Those ideas may not be inspiring or realistic to others, as much as it would be to them. I just think there is a lot more grey to this portion than how it is presented.

    • That’s fair. But when you’re looking at real world problems and trying to rise to the occasion, I think that’s naturally easier to communicate than if you live in a fantasy realm but think it’s what everyone else experiences too.

  3. Helen/Hawk says:

    Got some issues w/#5. The whole team player thing. Smacks of a school report card (doesn’t play well w/others). Jumps to judgement/condemnation of loners. Yes, loners don’t have the feedback that comes of working w/ others…..so there’s risk of sliding into Heroic Delusion. But loner does NOT = Heroic Delusion.

    • Thanks Helen. I struggled with how to phrase that one. I’m a loner myself: an introvert, a work-from-home writer and someone who has never played team sports. I think there are lots of contexts where loners can shine. But in creating large-scale change, I’m not sure how that comes from working completely alone. At some point you do need teamwork and organization, I believe, to really make lasting change. Otherwise you’re at best the “idea guy” and unlikely to get a lot accomplished.

      In the context of creating change, a loner may just have to knuckle down and work with others even when it’s hard. Just like in the context of creating art, a bubbly extrovert just may have to knuckle down and spend some alone time with the canvas (or laptop, guitar, etc…).

      But yes, I strongly agree, loner does NOT equal hero delusion. No single item on this list equals hero delusion on its own. But if enough boxes are checked….

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