Over the years, a big part of defining the Heroic Life has been figuring out what exactly heroism is.
That was part of why I went on a 5,000-mile bike ride.
At the beginning, I defined it simply:
Taking a risk or making a sacrifice for the sake of others.
But that isn’t the only thing we call heroism. There are many ways to be a hero, and most don’t involve taking a “risk” at all. We count artists, scientists, rock stars and all kinds of inspiring examples as our heroes—not just the people who risk their lives for others.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of other good definitions out there. Most heroism experts use the risk-taking definition above, and some won’t count anyone as a hero if they didn’t take a risk. Other experts suggest that heroism is totally subjective. To me, both of those positions seem extreme.
I wanted to find a middle way.
A third option.
Some way of understanding heroism that asks: what do all of our many heroes have in common?
For the last two years, I’ve been working on answering that question. And I finally think I’m onto something.
A Unified Theory of Heroism
If I asked you who your hero is, you might give a lot of different answers. You might say your own mom, or Nikola Tesla, or Barack Obama. Or you might say it was that 6th grade teacher who made a big difference in your life. All of these people are very different. But they do have one thing in common:
All of them stand out.
You’re not saying, “Everyone in my family is a hero.” You’re saying your mother is.
You’re not saying, “All teachers are heroes.” You’re saying that one teacher did something no other teacher did, that made him or her really important to you.
The same is true when we talk about the most famous or impressive types of heroes: not all scientists, not all musicians, but certain ones who went above and beyond.
When someone does the extraordinary in their field—whatever field that may be—they’re likely to be seen as heroes. In other words, achieving something exceptional is what we call heroic. (As long as you don’t do anything crooked along the way. We tend to draw a sharp line between our heroes and our villains.)
So a simple definition might be:
Heroism is doing the extraordinary.
On the surface, this is still a little subjective. What counts as extraordinary?
But, in practice, most of us can tell when someone is going above and beyond those around them. You can be extraordinary for your grade school soccer team even if you’re not FIFA extraordinary. And, even in the World Cup, some players stand out as extraordinary even among the other excellent players.
Extraordinary can be hard to define, but you know it when you see it, and it provokes a certain sense of awe. “Hero” is our word for anyone who provoked that awe.
What about doing good in the world?
If you’re like me, this definition gives you a knee-jerk reaction. Personally, I want my heroes to be BIG heroes. And I want them to do good in the world—like moral good, not just winning soccer games.
But that’s okay.
It’s okay because people can be extraordinary at a lot of things. Some people do extraordinary things for the sake of others. This is, without a doubt, extraordinary—and worthy of our emulation. It might even be the highest form of heroism.
But helping others isn’t the only thing we value in life. Depending on who you are, you might value the arts, learning, science, freedom, good management, an entrepreneurial spirit, or many other things. And when someone does the extraordinary in the pursuit of such a thing, that person is a hero. Not the same kind of hero as MLK, mind you, but a hero nonetheless.
The Two Types of Heroes
The result is that there are two types of heroes: inspirational heroes who only matter to certain people, and moral heroes that we can all agree on. Here’s an illustration:
These two types of heroes each deserve a little close-up of their own.
Inspiration heroes achieve the extraordinary in a specific skill, art, career or ideal. They don’t normally save lives or fight injustices; that is not the kind of hero they are. Yet, in one sense they are the most important kind of hero, because this is the type of hero that everyone can become.
You can spend your entire life ready to perform CPR and never have a chance. But you have the opportunity every day to make a sacrifice for your chosen art or passion and achieve a little more at it.
The complication with inspiration heroes: We all look up to heroes like this, but we can also get cynical about them. What if someone just gets famous because of luck, or just because they’re good at marketing? What if someone is treated as an “inspiration” despite not doing anything of substance?
Well, the truth is, this happens. That doesn’t lessen the impact of the true inspiration heroes—people who actually do the extraordinary, rather than just cultivating a reputation. The press may highlight some people and obscure others, but press is not the arbiter of who is a hero. Rather, heroism is determined by whether or not you:
- Dedicate yourself to something, and
- Achieve something extraordinary doing it.
Some people do this in obscurity—like that 6th grade teacher—and they still deserve the title.
Moral heroes are what most of us think of as heroes. These are people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who take a risk or make a deep sacrifice for the sake of others.
In a sense, this is the most important type of hero: it is the kind that faces a moral crucible and chooses what is right over their own wellbeing. The world desperately needs this kind of hero.
The complication with moral heroes: Sometimes people take similar risks for terrible causes—like a terrorist who blows himself up attacking civilians. It’s too easy to resort to the old saw that, “One person’s hero is another person’s criminal.” But just because someone is called a hero does not mean they actually are one. True moral heroes are heroes because they go to extraordinary lengths for what’s right. Going to extraordinary lengths to do something immoral, like attacking innocent people, simply doesn’t fit. Those people are misguided, delusional or both.
Why does the definition of heroism matter?
In some ways, defining heroism doesn’t matter. You don’t have to worry about the definition to get started living with purpose and pursuing your ideals. Nor does a definition help you overcome the bystander effect and make a difference in a bad situation. The most important thing is to practice habits that will make you ready (what we teach at the Hero Round Table).
But definitions have power, especially for those of us who study and teach heroism. We have to come to the table recognizing the many different kinds of examples people believe are heroic—and we have to be ready to do more than just ignore those examples. The better we understand why people treat artists or scientists or loved ones as heroes, the more we can understand what those role models have in common with the great moral heroes.
That gives us a vital teaching tool, not only to help people become heroes in an emergency, but to get them to cultivate a purposeful life every day. And that, I suggest, is the path of the Heroic Life.
I’ve just launched Heroism Today, the first online magazine of heroism. Heroism Today is dedicated helping people change their own lives, change the lives of others & change the world. Learn more here.