Lessons I Learned from Chasing a Criminal

Photo by Jpmm

Photo by Jpmm

Last month I chased down a criminal. I was working on my laptop on an upper floor of a secure building, and left the laptop unattended while I stepped away for two minutes. When I came back, the laptop was gone.

The Chase

I called for the building staff and we went poking around a little. We found the culprit hiding inside an emergency staircase (no idea how he had sneaked into the building). A staff member confronted him, but he decided to run for it. This is when I made an unconscious gut decision: chase him.

We ran down approximately 12 flights of stairs (six stories). Twice, he opened a door and ran into hallways, crossing over to a different staircase before he continued his descent. He had a good head start on me, but I jumped whole flights of stairs and eventually caught up to him. When I did, he ditched my laptop. At that point I allowed him to flee. Security said he exited the building at ground level (someone witnessed this) and ran away.

Overcoming the Bystander Effect

Although it was a short encounter, it taught me a lot about an issue that’s close to my heart: heroism. I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything heroic in this encounter—nothing at all. I say this for several reasons:

  • I didn’t help anyone. Most of us who study heroism define it as something like making a sacrifice for the sake of others. In this case, I was only helping myself.
  • It’s not clear that I faced any real risk (which is good, and I prefer it that way). If there is no element of sacrifice or risk, it’s hard to call an act heroic.
  • Although I was glad I got my laptop back, I didn’t really save the day. Many people would consider it more heroic if I had brought the thief to justice. Since he escaped, he may steal from others. (I don’t fully agree with this argument, but it’s a fair point.)

Nonetheless, the encounter taught me a lot about what it would take to do something truly heroic. There was a similar moment at the beginning of the encounter where I had a clear choice: remain passive and watch him escape, or do something to intervene. This is a textbook example of the “bystander effect”—the strong instinct we all have to simply keep our heads down in a bad situation, and wait for someone else to handle it. In this case I managed to overcome the bystander effect and took action. For most of us, this is not an easy choice.

The Wrong Conclusions

Before I get into what I learned, I want to point out a couple of issues I’m not going to address:

  1. “Going after him was stupid.” This is a common response to any situation where a normal citizen chases or confronts a criminal. Frankly, I look down on this point of view. I do agree that confronting a criminal is often a bad or dangerous idea. But I also think we use this as an excuse to do nothing. If someone is useful and competent in a bad situation we should not call their choice stupid, even if it was risky. In fact, I’m very glad that people willing to take a risk exist (we need more of them). In this particular case, we could debate for hours whether I was right to believe the  criminal was unarmed, and whether I had reason to trust my ability to run down stairs safely at high speed. All I can really say is that in the end, no one was hurt and the stolen property was recovered.
  2. “You should have apprehended him.” Maybe. Perhaps it would have been better to tackle him and waited for police to come arrest him. But that would have definitely made the situation dangerous, and it wasn’t necessary. I think people get way too excited about punishing criminals. Sending someone to jail doesn’t fix them, or society, or the original crime they committed. In any case, it turns out the building staff know who my laptop thief was. His picture is now posted at every building entrance and elevator.

What Chasing a Criminal Taught Me about Heroism

So what exactly is it like chasing down a thief? It’s not at all how you’d think it is (certainly not what I thought it would be like). Here are a few things I learned:

  • Building staff were not happy with me. I was quite pleased with the outcome of the chase. But the building staff have to worry about liability (what if I broke a leg on the stairs?). They would much rather if I had watched the man flee, even though losing the computer would have disrupted my life for weeks. Often, the people charged with keeping us secure are primarily concerned with following procedures—they prefer that no one take heroic action, which is by definition daring and unusual. This is how people who do the right thing get vilified or reprimanded. (In my case, staff stopped short of actually criticizing my actions.)
  • Willpower is what won, not athletic superiority. The thief was younger, leaner and faster than me. I felt myself flagging within a few flights of stairs, and I’ve never been a strong runner. But he didn’t know that. I made myself keep going, and in the end, that’s why I caught him. The longer I kept on him the more scared he got. Eventually, he decided to play the safe card and ditch my laptop, hoping I’d stop. It worked out for both of us.
  • I could not have done this if I wasn’t physically fit. Despite what I just said, there is a baseline of physical fitness that’s necessary to intervene in many situations. I’m no gym rat: I was a nerd growing up, I run with a limp, and I will always be last picked for sports. But I work out regularly and do my best to eat a healthy diet. Doing the right thing in a bad situation often means having a body you can count on.
  • I like this guy. Theft is wrong. Seeing an empty table where my laptop was put a sour, heavy feeling in my stomach. But I don’t hate the young man who stole it. To the contrary, he has qualities I respect. This is a man who (the police tell me) routinely enters downtown apartment buildings. He knew the layout of the floors. He knew how to get in, where to hide and how best to escape. Frankly, what he did took bravery—misguided bravery, but still. When I learned his name I had half a mind to put posters in the staircases inviting him to contact me; I’d love to interview him. Someday I hope he finds a way to apply the same level of planning and derring-do to legal, gainful activities.
  • Mental preparation matters. More than anything, I realized I would never have done this if I hadn’t mentally prepared myself to be the sort of person that takes action. I had about a half second to decide whether to chase the thief or not. In that half second, I didn’t consciously decide anything—I found myself flying down the stairs and realized, “Oh, I guess we’re doing this.” The reason I acted as I did is because I’ve spent a lot of time “training” myself not to by a bystander.

And this is really what I want to share. Your heroism may not look like anybody else’s. It might not involve chasing criminals, or rescuing people from fires, or defending someone’s life. But what about stopping when you see a car accident? What about giving someone CPR? How about blowing the whistle on illegal activity in your workplace?

Each of these scenarios requires a decision. Sometimes you’ll have time to think, like last time I intervened. Other times you’ll have to decide immediately. Either way, your choice will be shaped by how well you have prepared by picturing yourself as the kind of person who takes action. There are several ways you can do that:

  • Don’t react to heroic or impressive deeds by saying, “I could never do that!” Ask yourself how you could do that—even if you would do it differently.
  • Picture yourself as the hero or heroine the next time you watch a movie.
  • Learn CPR.
  • In new places, picture potential bad events and how you would react to them. (What would I do if there was a fire here? What would I do if someone fell on these tracks?)
  • Regularly put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Learn a new language; take a challenging class; travel somewhere new; go out alone; talk to a stranger. Any small incident of controlled risk-taking helps you build your capacity for acting against the odds.

You could also join us at this year’s Hero Round Table and learn how to be more than a bystander—from real-life heroes who have done amazing things around the world.

Have you ever had to take action in a bad situation? What did you do? How did you feel afterwards? I’d love to hear your story. What made you do what you did?

Andre Sólo, Heroism, Spotlight

If You’re Just Joining Us…

Photo via Hero Round Table

Photo via Hero Round Table

For those of you at the Hero Round Table, thanks for checking out Rogue Priest. Here are some of my favorite posts if you’d like to learn about my journey:

It Was the First of Many Deserts

A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

The Heroic Life

You might also enjoy my book, Lúnasa Days:

Lúnasa Days

It’s story of a young man on a bicycle, finding his purpose in life. Check it out here.

Andre Sólo, Heroism, The Heroic Life

My Hero Round Table Talk

Tomorrow I speak at the Hero Round Table, the world’s largest conference on heroism. I’ll be talking about how a journey teaches you to be heroic, and finding your purpose in life. I’ll also share a story from crossing the desert in Mexico.

If you’d like to watch, we stream my talk Friday 9/18 at 10:00 am Eastern/9:00 am Central. (That’s tomorrow.) Because it’s a live stream you’ll need to tune in on time to see me. You can do that here:

The Hero Round Table

The feed will appear Friday and Saturday during the talks. There are lots of other great speakers too, so consider sticking around.

You can also tweet me questions @rogue_priest with the hashtag #heroRT.

Regular updates will resume next week.

Heroism, The Heroic Life

Why I’m Changing My View of Heroism

Art by Delawer-Omar

Over the past few weeks I’ve written extensively about expanding the definition of heroism. Today I’m going to wrap that up with my conclusions and what this means for my pursuit of the heroic life.

First, a recap. Among hero scholars it’s common to use a very strict definition of heroism: only those who take real personal risk (physical or non-physical) for the sake of others are heroes. But most people use “hero” more broadly. They use it to refer to individuals who go above and beyond in a variety of ways, even if there’s no risk involved. Generally, if someone accomplishes something extraordinary in the pursuit of something we value, we call them a hero.

My point has been that there may be a very good reason we call these people heroes—that their actions really are heroic on some level. For me this is an uncomfortable position. Most of the examples I gave, from artists to pop stars to athletes, don’t seem particularly heroic to me. For years I was in the camp that believes it’s wrong to call these people heroes, that it’s watering down the whole concept of heroism.

What caused me to rethink this was witnessing firsthand the effect that these heroes have. The speakers at the first Hero Round Table concentrated overwhelmingly on deeds that wouldn’t pass my “hero” litmus test, and yet these deeds hit home in a way that I’ve never seen from heroism discussion before. And this seemed to create momentum for many of the people present to want to follow in their footsteps.

And so I set off on the search for another way to define heroism, one that isn’t based just on risk. Instead, I suggested that heroism might be based on taking actions that inspire. There’s no doubt that all of our selfless risk-taking heroes inspire us, but so do lots of other folks. That might explain why we call such a large and diverse group of people heroes.

But just inspirational on its own isn’t good enough (just like not all risky things are heroic). If the old equation was risk + doing good = heroism, then my proposed replacement was heroism = inspiring others + doing good. Specifically you have to inspire others to strive to improve themselves in some way. If an action has that effect, we can call that action heroic.

Responses and Developments

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people seem to like this definition. What was more surprising is that a lot of other people seem to hate it. I always got the impression that being a heroism hardliner, back when I was one, is pretty unpopular; that most people wanted to call quarterbacks heroes and I was the odd one out. But it turns out that a whole lot of people think heroism is a word that should be used very, very selectively and that anything else just waters it down.

The responses from many of these individuals were instructive. They were essentially saying: rock stars don’t seem heroic to me, ergo, there is nothing they do that anyone can rightly call heroic. To put it another way, some people are inspired only by the most extreme acts while others are inspired more easily. This may be why there’s a debate over the meaning of heroism in the first place.

I also got a lot of insight into the other group, the people who like this definition. Their comments show a heavy emphasis on relatability. I don’t think any of them would deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. is a greater hero than, say, their lovable grandfather. Yet both individuals inspire them to strive to be a better person, and the role that their grandfather played in their life is undeniably more intimate. This, to them, makes their grandfather a greater influence on their own ability to act heroically, even if his deeds were far humbler than leading the civil rights movement.

Both of these responses were invaluable. They helped me get a better look at what’s happening when people sling around the h-word, or when they refuse to. But I’ve also begun to second guess whether inspiration is the heart of it at all. I began to wonder if feeling inspired isn’t more a symptom of what’s going on. After all, if heroism is anything that inspires us to strive to be better, what sorts of things inspire us to strive to be better?

Starting Over

If I had to start this whole series over tomorrow, I’d likely focus on values. Each of us has a set of values, some that we all agree on—like justice or selflessness—and others that are more personal, like living healthy or being a good parent. I suspect that the people who inspire us most are the ones who take extraordinary steps in living up to our values. That’s what motivates us to be better people, because such individuals are living proof that being better is possible. It’s where inspiration comes from.

If that’s the case it explains why we all agree on some heroes, like Dr. King, because they represent values we all share. And it also explains why Lady Gaga looks like a hero to some people, while to others she’s stinking up the whole notion of heroism.

Perhaps most importantly, this theory of heroism would suggest that there’s an objective mechanism behind what we call heroism, even though we each choose different people to call heroes.


I don’t think I’ve got heroism all tied up in a nice neat package. The theory I just gave would seem to explain all of the different phenomena we call heroism and what they have in common. But the truth is… I don’t feel it.

The whole reason I chase heroism is because of stories of great sacrifice. In Irish legend, when the hero Cú Chulainn is fighting alone against an entire army, 150 little boys decide they’re going to go help him. Their fathers are sick from a curse, so they take up their hurling sticks and march off to war against men armed with chariots, swords and spears. All the boys die. And the enemy’s advance is halted.

That is the spirit of heroism. From the smallest social risk to risking life itself, heroes traffic in sacrifice. They think less of their own wellbeing than of what they value. That is heroic, at least to me.

But then I have to question myself. I’m not wired any differently than the rest of humanity, and I’m doing the same thing we all do. I’m looking at what inspires me, what lives up to my values, and saying “that there is heroism.” And when you call David Bowie a hero, I don’t feel right about that. But so what? Why should heroism be based on my values, and not yours?

That’s not necessarily an argument to open heroism up. It might simply mean that basing heroism on values isn’t a productive way to go. By far the best objection to my idea came from my friend Ari Kohen, who said this:

…if Lady Gaga is your hero and if the situation ever arises where a stranger’s trapped in a burning car or someone’s fallen onto the subway tracks, you’re more likely to be a bystander than someone who steps up and does the risky thing.

This resonates with me. To me, creating heroism is about creating people who won’t be afraid to speak up. (Or who will be afraid, and speak up anyway.) People who won’t be bystanders. People who will act when no one else will.

I’m not as confident as Ari that Lady Gaga’s example can’t help you with that. Or the example of a charity founder, or your grandpa. The truth is we don’t have a lot of data on what sorts of things prime somebody to be the one who steps forward. But we know a few things that definitely do help prime you, and they all have to do with being aware of others and being able to envision yourself taking action. It’s not clear what role, if any, a celebrity hero can play in that.

So the end result of all these posts is I don’t know. I don’t know if a broader definition of heroism is a good thing because I can’t tell if it helps us make more heroes or not. And I have an inner struggle over whether the definition of heroism I really believe in—the strict, sacrifice-based one—is truly better or if it’s just me pushing my values on people. I’m deeply uncomfortable with that possibility.

For now the quest continues. I’m not going to stand firmly by the new definition I’ve proposed (with apologies to those of you who loved it). Nor can I return firmly to the narrow risk-based definition, at least not without further thought. That there has to be a way to understand this phenomenon we call heroism, and I don’t think we’re nearly there yet. I do suspect it’s connected to extraordinary acts in service of our values, and yet I feel that sacrifice is an important component. Making the two work together is likely my next step.

What does this mean for the heroic life? I don’t think  it changes much. I may not know, on paper, what makes a hero but I know, in my heart, exactly what I must do with my life. I have wandered and my journey has taught me my life purpose. Deeper, I know too what I stand for and what I must do if faced with a bad situation. I must put my ideals before everything else, hold them like a sword, and trust in them. They are the one part of me that can never be destroyed.

Here’s an index of all the posts on inspiration as a force of heroism:

Next time I’ll get back to road logs from my journey.






Response to a Critique

Photo by Chloe

I’ve written a lot about the idea of inspiring others as a form of heroism. Specifically, that heroism includes not just taking big risks for others, but doing anything so impressive it inspires others to be better people.

That’s because inspiring others to change for the better is something all heroes do, from those who save thousands of lives to those who simply stand up to a bully. There are many ways to be a hero, but the one thing they all have in common is provoking a feeling of awe in the rest of us.

Not everyone agrees with this view of heroism. My friend Ari Kohen recently published a piece pushing back strongly against it. It’s worth reading in full, but I’m going to focus on a few key points.

What stands out is the way Ari portrays people who use the word “hero” to refer to those who inspire them:

I’m tired of everyone getting a trophy. Tired of the whole concept and all the ways it plays out in our society. I’m tired of ribbons that say “participant” on them. I’m tired of students telling me they deserve an “A” because they tried hard. I’m tired of the insistence that everyone should feel good about exerting the smallest possible effort.

I agree. But to me this doesn’t hit home as a critique of calling our role models heroes. When I ask people who their heroes are, they name just a select few. They never list every good person they know, and they rarely have long lists at all. People just don’t hand out hero lightly.

There’s no doubt that the kind of people we call heroes is a mixed bag. Often, people tell me their grandma or grandpa is their hero. Sometimes an artist or a writer or an athlete. We can argue about the merits of any one of these choices, but here’s the catch: people are naming only the most impressive individuals in their lives. It’s the exact opposite of a participation ribbon.

Similarly, Ari writes:

Many people, it seems, just want to hear good news. They want to be told that if they make someone’s day or inspire someone, they’re heroic.

I don’t think that many people are hoping to be called heroic. Most have the opposite instinct. Try telling someone you know that one of their accomplishments makes them a hero. They will get very uncomfortable and they’ll probably deny it.

If someone doesn’t agree that inspirational figures count as heroes, that’s fine by me. But I think it’s important to understand the motivation behind calling them heroes. It isn’t that people have low standards, are lazy, or can’t tell the difference between a small deed and a big one. If you ask what a hero looks like, everyone knows Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. is a good answer. But what they’re really interested in is the people in their own life experience—friends, family members, mentors, role models—who provoke a glimmer of that same sense of awe. Those people feel more real. And that means they have a much bigger impact on our heroic imagination, the trait that helps us become heroic ourselves.

And that comes to Ari’s main point. He doesn’t think inspirational figures help prepare us for heroism at all. He offers the example of someone whose hero is a pop star. Will this person be ready to pull survivors from a burning building? Will they jump onto the train tracks and rescue a child from a speeding subway? How would looking up to Lady Gaga possibly prepare them for that?

This is, I think, Ari’s strongest point. I don’t really know whether having an artist-hero prepares you for rescue heroism, or if a thinker-hero prepares you for taking action. I suppose it depends on whether inspiration works on a one-to-one basis (we copy the action we admire), or whether it provokes an internal process of self-reflection that makes us strive to be better more broadly. I suppose it also depends on what it is we admire about a particular hero; to me, Lady Gaga’s willingness to sacrifice for her art and endure years of ridicule is far more inspirational than her singing talent.

And the same question works in reverse. If your hero is someone who rescued people from a burning building, how prepared are you to stay true to your art in the face of tremendous hostility? It’s possible that people simply need different kinds of heroes, because there are different kinds of good to strive for.

The individuals who have gone above and beyond those around them, in the pursuit of any admirable quality, are what we end up calling heroes—not just those who stick their necks out for others. You can disagree with that, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as intellectual laziness. We’re complex creatures, with a multiplicity of values. That makes it pretty much inevitable that we’ll have a multiplicity of heroes as well.


Why Do We Have Inspiration Heroes?

Harriet Tubman photo via Wikimedia.

In my continuing series on inspiration as a form of heroism, I want to talk about why we need inspiration heroes. The greatest heroes are those who sacrifice themselves for others; why then do we have these lesser inspiration heroes at all?

Heroes That Reflect Human Needs

I think there are several reasons. The first one has been covered in detail by my readers and commenters: it’s because they’re relatable. Being willing to risk your own wellbeing for the sake of a greater good is a lofty goal, and the heroes who we recognize for doing this—I’ll continue to use Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example—can seem impossible to measure up to. Our other heroes inspire us in what seem to be more “doable” ways, striving to improve ourselves in a personal development sense whether that be better morally, more true to ourselves, or more talented. These heroes help us make real changes for the better when the great heroes seem far away.

These inspiration heroes also reflect the fact that we have many values, many forms of good to seek. The hero who makes a selfless sacrifice reflects one virtue we should strive for—but not the only one. What about pursuing excellence in one’s art or profession? What about being calm and kind and mature? What about seeking knowledge, or a sense of inner rectitude? These are all virtues that most of us aspire to, to some degree or another. Heroes are people who have made impressive strides toward any of these goals, strides so great that we think of them as remarkably impressive. It makes sense that we seek heroes who represent all of our aspirations, not just one.

So inspiration heroism gives us exemplars who meet two important needs. We need heroes who represent a variety of values, and we need them to seem relatable. That paints a fairly positive picture of inspiration as heroism. But there’s a third reason we have inspiration heroes and it’s not quite as attractive.

Leading Without Example

I think a major reason why people refer to inspirational figures as heroes is that most of us don’t know about many of the great, self-sacrificing heroes.

We can all name a few of them. Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, the aforementioned MLK. But unless studying heroism is your hobby, you might run out of names before you run out of fingers to count them on. Most people don’t know about Janusz Korczak or Chiune Sugihara or Rick Rescorla. Pretty soon we start to think of fictional characters, or….

….or the people who inspire us in smaller ways.

If you describe the life of someone who was heroic in the grand, selfless sense, no one fails to recognize it. But that doesn’t mean we’re awash in examples. It’s not just that it’s rare, it’s that it’s not a subject most of us are acquainted with.

For me, Harriet Tubman is a good example. She may be the most heroic individual I’ve ever heard of. I worship Harriet Tubman.

This is a woman who was beaten so hard by slave owners that she suffered a lifelong brain injury, living constantly with headaches, dizziness and seizures. Yet she escaped and made it hundreds of miles to freedom in Pennsylvania. She later described that moment:

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

Yet Harriet Tubman was willing to give up that glory. She decided she had to go back and help other slaves reach freedom as well. She forayed into the South no less than thirteen times over eight years, saving seventy slaves—despite the constant threat of death and a growing bounty on her head. She displayed ruthless leadership on the Underground Railroad and as a result she never lost anyone under her care.

She went on to work as a Union spy in the Civil War.

(Notably, Harriet’s heroism is attributable in part to the influence of her mother, who undertook the much smaller act of hiding her son when her owner tried to sell him. In other words, this is a case where inspiration heroism led to great self-sacrificing heroism.)

This is such a clear example of heroic behavior that I can’t help but feel a sense of awe. When I see Tubman’s picture I put my hand over my heart in salute. Hers is a moral courage that looms large over all of us.

But growing up I knew nothing about her. I saw her face and name every year during Black History Month, but we never spent much time on her. History classes just don’t focus in that much on individual heroes. And yet Tubman is just one of thousands of historic heroes who displayed this kind of selfless bravery.

My ignorance about Harriet Tubman may be unusual. Other people might have grown up knowing her story inside and out. But I don’t think it’s unusual at all to be under-educated about historic heroes. It’s not part of our pop culture and it’s not part of our school curriculum. Most of us can only name a few.

And that, I think, is why so many people focus on the celebrities and athletes or mentors and grandparents who inspire them. These are people whose stories we know. If your grandfather inspired you to be a better person, you know exactly how and why. That’s not necessarily the case with Korczak.

In other words, if we want to increase the amount of selfless heroism in the world, which we all should, the answer is not to knock down people’s celebrity inspirational figures; those heroes are doing a valuable job. The answer is to teach, over and over, the stories of the even greater heroes to whom we should all aspire.


Can Two Different Theories of Heroism Work Together?

Image by MixedMediaDC


I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about inspiration as a form of heroism. Everyone has someone who inspires them, and it’s okay to call that person your hero—even if it’s someone we wouldn’t normally think of as capital-H Heroic.

But I’ve also contrasted this definition of heroism with a stricter one: the idea that a hero is someone who takes risks for the sake of others, or who takes risks for what is right. This definition makes selfless risks the litmus test of heroism; no risk, no hero.

So how do these two concepts fit together?

Hand in Hand

I don’t think they’re as much at odds with each other as they first appear. For starters, it should be obvious that heroes who take risks for other people are incredibly inspiring. We can disagree all day on whether quarterback Drew Brees can really be called someone’s “hero,” but we all agree that MLK is a hero. You could view the difference between Brees and MLK in terms of risk: MLK risked (and ultimately lost) his life for the sake of his people, while Brees hasn’t done anything like that. But you could also view the difference in terms of how their examples affect us. Brees has achieved something impressive enough to inspire some people—athletes and football fans—but not impressive enough to inspire everybody. MLK, on the other hand, is an inspiration to virtually everyone who hears his story.

In other words, risk-taking heroes fit very comfortably into an inspiration theory of heroism. Taking selfless risks is one of the most inspiring things you can do.

Not All Heroes Are Equal

I think it’s also important to acknowledge that not all forms of heroism are equal. I’ve argued quite passionately that it’s not wrong to call rock stars heroes, or to call your grandma a hero. If they inspired you to strive to improve yourself in some way, then they fit the bill. But I absolutely do not believe that that kind of heroism is as heroic, or as important, as being prepared to take risks for what is right.

Even the most minor examples of selfless risk-taking heroism take tremendous moral steadfastness. A child standing up to a bully for his friend is taking a huge risk, and he’s doing something most of us would be afraid to do. We would keep our heads down and rationalize our passiveness after the fact. That brave child may not save hundreds of lives like the great heroes, or inspire millions like a pop star, but they tower above us morally. That is selfless, risk-taking heroism, and it’s powerful.

That kind of willingness to sacrifice is a trait that we need throughout life: to stand up to authority figures, to take action in a crisis, to be the first one to speak up when something isn’t right. The most important kind of hero is the kind who is willing to make those sacrifices every day.

So after you have your Gandhi’s and your MLK’s, after you have your lifesavers and your whistleblowers, somewhere farther down on the hero list you have your Lady Gagas, your Freddie Mercuries and your Drew Breeses. These people are heroes to the degree that they inspire someone, somewhere to strive to improve themselves. But they are lesser heroes, because the things that they inspire us to do—pursue our art or sport, work hard, be generous, be true to ourselves—do not involve making painful personal sacrifice for the people around us.

I’m not afraid to say that some heroes are more heroic than others. Nor do all inspiration heroes seem particularly heroic to me. But I understand that what inspires me may be very different from what inspires someone else; I understand that I can never know what effect a pop star, or an artist, or a coworker had on someone else. If that person’s example made you question yourself and try to live to a higher standard, then I accept that they’re your hero and I salute them.


Does Inspiration Make Heroism Subjective?

Image by Jim Linwood

Today I’m moving on to another question about inspiration as heroism. Inspiring others to strive to be better people is, on some level, heroic. But inspiration is a personal matter—different people are inspired by different things. So does that make heroism subjective?

I don’t think it does. There’s no doubt that it introduces a subjective element to the discussion of heroism. For example, I’m inspired mostly by great artists, while I have friends who are inspired mostly by great athletes. But just because our definition offers us a platter of different heroism flavors to choose from doesn’t mean it’s completely in the eye of the beholder.

That’s because, first of all, the basic mechanism of what’s happening is the same no matter who inspires you. A person achieves something or comports themselves in a way that goes above and beyond what you’re used to; you feel a sort of awe by their example; you wonder to yourself how you could live up to it, if you yourself are capable of achieving the sort of thing they did. And you then take motivation from their example and challenge yourself to grow or improve in some way.

The fact that this process can start with different kinds of exemplars isn’t surprising, any more than the fact that PTSD can start with different kinds of trauma. “Trauma” is very subjective: two patients may have developed PTSD from vastly different experiences. That doesn’t stop us from understanding that it’s the same condition, that their brains are reacting to protect them in the same way. It doesn’t make the definition of PTSD “subjective.” Neither is heroism.

But it is true that each individual gets to decide for themselves who and what inspires them. That means that we can’t just decide who’s a hero and who isn’t (this is a good thing). Instead we have to allow that people can have “heroes” of their own and that it isn’t our place to tell them they’re right or wrong.

And it doesn’t have to be wholesale. As I outlined yesterday, heroism still has to be a force of good. The inspiration at play must be a positive force, inspiring an individual to strive to be a better person. That’s still a relatively high bar, and that’s the reason that we don’t call everyone who inspires us “my hero.”

But accepting this definition does require us to open the door a bit. It means that you can call someone a hero even if don’t find them particularly impressive; even if I find them droll. This is a very uncomfortable position for many people. Often, we want a straight yardstick so we can glance once and say: “Nope, that’s not heroic.” Instead, I’m saying we all have the same mental wiring about heroism but some of us will have very different heroes than others.

I think this position is a good one even though it’s not easy for everyone—because it allows us to understand why people see heroism so differently. We’re all busy focusing on the particular examples who inspire us, whether that’s artists or philosophers or people who save hundreds of lives. Instead we can focus on the unifying force that underlies all of our hero choices.

In other words, inspiration as heroism doesn’t mean that one person’s villain is another person’s hero. But it does mean that one person’s hero can be another person’s meh.