Why We Need to Redefine Heroism

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:

Copyright 2017 Andre Sólo


These two types of heroes each deserve a little close-up of their own.

Inspiration Heroes

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

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.

Heroism Today

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.

Andre Sólo, Uncategorized, Writing

Help Me Choose Which Essay to Write

Writing. Photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini.

What with planning the group trip to Mexico, lately I’ve found it difficult to make time to write. But that doesn’t stop me from coming up with ideas, so I have a sort of backlog of potential essays, listed below.

I’ve decided to put social time on hold this week and write at least one of these. The trouble is, I don’t know which one. All of these topics seem important to me, and all of them will be fun to work on, but I just don’t have time to do them all. So I thought I’d reach out to you readers and see which one (or ones) you’d most like to see brought to life.

Note that this isn’t everything I have on my to-do list, just some of the more interesting essay ideas:

#1 What It’s Like to Be a White Person Practicing Vodou

This first came up during a really interesting discussion with my friend the Fly Brother. Most of the time, when I discuss Vodou it’s just explaining the basics like “we don’t stick pins in things” and “no, we really don’t stick pins in things.” But when you get past the perceived weirdness of Vodou in general, it’s even weirder that I’m a white person called to serve African gods. Or is it? I rarely feel out of place as a white person in Vodou, but that itself speaks to a sense of entitlement. What are the ethics of an outsider practicing a cultural tradition?

#2 Update on the Journey to Meet the Gods

I originally framed my journey across the Americas as a quest to meet the gods. Since then, I’ve said very little on the topic. That’s partly because the journey isn’t over yet (“Nope, still haven’t met ’em”) but it also speaks to my changing beliefs. If anything, my spiritual journey and interaction with other faiths has only made me more skeptical of religious concepts. But I still consider myself a priest, and am still committed to this quest. So where exactly do I think the gods can be found?

#3 Joseph Campbell Revisited

One of my most popular posts ever was, to my surprise, Why I Don’t Like Joseph Campbell. I originally wrote it simply as a reference post I could point to when people asked me if I’ve read his work. But it struck a nerve with people, and I continue to get comments on it regularly. From the discussion on that post, I learned two things: (1) Campbell supporters are willing to get really, really nasty if you criticize their boy, and (2) I need to go into much more detail than what I originally offered. That post was written to be somewhat flip, and only gives the broad strokes of what’s wrong with Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” I want to do an expanded version that makes stronger points and offers more supporting evidence… but will that really matter to Campbell’s fans?

#4 Defining Polytheism

While I practice several religions, I consider myself firmly a polytheist: I believe the divine has many faces and that this multiplicity is one of its greatest strengths. Just as there is no one god that everyone can relate to, there is no single doctrine that has everything right. This open-mindedness is built right into the core concept of polytheism, yet many polytheists seem to miss it altogether. They insist that to be a polytheist you must believe the gods are real (why?) and that they are totally separate individuals, not faces of one single power (how do we know this?). To me, polytheism is not only about multiple gods, it’s about accepting—and encouraging—multiple doctrines and allowing people to choose the one that speaks to them.

Which of these would you like to see me write? I like them all and would write them all if I could—and hopefully will, eventually—but for now there’s only time for one. Which would you most like to read?


Get an Autographed Heart of Adventure

Heart of Adventure Preview_front cover jpg

I’m surprised to say there are still some copies of my book left. 6 of them, to be exact.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like out on the road, this is my attempt at an answer. There’s a fear, a thrill, and a sense of awe when you leave your home behind. And if you struggle long enough, there is a sense of purpose and revelation.

Here’s a sample:

Because life, for all its goodness, goes to vinegar in the end. Can you hoard this? Can you keep it in your hands? Your blood is yours to spend, and like no other currency, if you choose to save it you lose it all the same.

That is why heroes bide no fear—not because they’re sure to win, but because they’ve made their pact with mortality.

This is a special limited edition paperback. It includes an invitation to share your critique and help shape the final manuscript. You can buy it for any price you choose:

I’d like to see all of these go to a good home. Act quick!


What do you think of spotlight posts?

Photo by Lotus Carroll.

Readers, I need your opinions.

A few months ago I started doing a lot of “spotlight” posts. These are articles where I basically start with a long quote from someone else’s work, link to that work, and provide some brief comment about it.

I started doing this because I run into a lot of interesting articles online, and if find them interesting I figure you might, too. It’s also a way of giving some public love to the author of the piece (or sometimes, critique).

How often I post these has varied; sometimes it’s been one or two a week, other times I go weeks without a single one. They never substitute in for my own writing: I publish an original essay of my own every Wednesday, no matter what.

Predictably, these posts get few comments or feedback (after all, the author isn’t usually here to talk with), but they do seem to get a fair amount of traffic, and boost traffic to the site overall. That made me think they were reasonably popular with my readers. But maybe not.

One of my most dedicated readers contacted me and told me she doesn’t like them. Her reason made sense: she comes here to read about my philosophy and my adventure, and these excerpts from random articles I read are usually irrelevant to that. They have nothing to do with this site’s topic. She said they’re a good idea but should really be on a different blog.

I think that’s actually pretty insightful. I wonder how many people agree?

Here are three examples of recent spotlight posts:

What do you think? Should I do posts like these regularly, whenever I find an interesting article? Or should I only spotlight material if it connects in some way to the heroic life?

I’m really interested in knowing your opinion. It’s always a struggle knowing how to focus this site and keep its message clear, but interesting. I know a lot of you will tell me to write whatever I want to write—and I appreciate that, I truly do. But I also want to know what you like reading, and whether posts like those get you excited or just get a “meh.”

Please leave a comment and let me know. What do you think? Spotlight posts, good or bad?


How to Sleep Sitting Up

This spring I wrote about how my sister, Zangmo, sleeps sitting up every night—and how I was learning to do the same.

Many of you wanted to know how to do this, and how to make it comfortable. I’ve written a guide which is now available over on The Minimalists.

Where upright sleeping really shines is on a bus or in a friend’s living room. Once you become proficient you can sleep truly anywhere, never worrying about what the mattress will be like. Bad hotel beds, air mattresses, futons—these will be things of the past.

For the step-by-step photo essay, see How to Sleep Sitting Up.

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.


Drop-In Party in Minneapolis

I’m having a party, and you’re all invited!

If you haven’t seen it on the Rogue Priest Facebook page (which you should go like right now to get a lot more updates than you get here), I’m in Minneapolis for the next week or so. And this Saturday I’m having an all-day meetup!

The meetup will happen at the Uptown Cafeteria. On their rooftop patio. That way we can look out over the city and like barons surveying our demesne. Barons with bloody mary’s, coffee and hearty food.

Show up any time 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Saturday, July 28
Uptown Cafeteria (in Calhoun Square), found here.

Look for me, the Giant, and a menagerie of the most fun/creative minds in Minnesota on the rooftop. Everyone’s invited even if we’ve never met before! Come on down!

You can RSVP here.

Adventure Prep, Uncategorized

Upright Sleeping

When my sister lived in a Buddhist retreat, she slept in a box.

This is not the first thing that comes up when you ask what it’s like to spend three years completely sealed in retreat. And as she prepares to take her ordination as a nun, it may not seem like the most important part of her spiritual practice. But for 1600 nights in a row, if she was closing her eyes to sleep it was in the confines of about a 3′ × 3′ wooden container.

It’s not as awful as it sounds. The point is, essentially, that lamas should sleep sitting upright. This way they can do their nighttime practices in the full lotus posture, sleep right where they are in front of their shrine, and wake up to start their morning practices without moving. Or something like that.

But to most people it has no appeal. It’s hard to explain that the box is not a crate, or that it’s quite comfy when you add some pillows. Before her retreat I suggested she stop mentioning this particular part of what she’d be doing. It makes it sound like some kind of extremist cult.

The past few weeks she’s regaled me with the reality of sleeping upright. Several times I watched her peacefully drift off to sleep in improbable places. Her back is board-straight and she moves with grace. It has its perks.

Then I began to think about the applications of sitting upright to sleep. I have no intention of sleeping in a box, but I have this whole “walk 7,000 miles” thing. It will include a lot of nights sleeping outside—probably about 1600—and I’m open to anything to make that easier. Some of the benefits of upright sleep:

  • You stay warmer. The vertical orientation of your body is far more efficient heat-wise.
  • Warmer means no sleeping bag. One lap blanket is all you need. When backpacking, that means less weight to carry.
  • If you wear glasses you can leave them on while you sleep, handy if you need to get up suddenly at night.
  • You can use a smaller tarp over your head and less mosquito netting (no tents here).
  • You develop strong neck and back muscles.
  • When you wake up you’re completely lucid, never groggy. Zangmo and I can’t figure out why this works, but it does.

These are powerful incentives to see if I can acclimate myself to upright sleeping before I start the Adventure. But that’s just two months away! Challenge accepted.

My kid sister Zangmo in her box.

Zangmo told me that when she first started it took her about three months to get used to, and involved intolerable pain and stiffness. However, we don’t believe that’s necessary to learn to do it right: she resisted upright sleeping for a long time, and had bad posture at first.

So I set a piece of particle board against one wall of my room, culled through the pillows and cushions in the house, and fanaggled about an hour of consultation with my resident lama. I’m going to try it for myself.

How will it go? Expect an update next week. In the meantime, has anyone else ever slept sitting up (by choice or out of necessity)? Do you have any other unusual sleep methods that might be of use to fellow adventurers? Hit the comments and speak up. I’d love to learn.


The Harsh Reality of Becoming a Warrior, Part II

This of the story of my training in Jujutsu at Futen Dojo. Part I is here.

The reason for this story is not the importance of martial arts themselves, but of what Sensei told me when he first heard about my adventure.

I should put this in context. When you announce an adventure like mine, you get a lot of criticism. Dump trucks of the stuff. You’ve got people who are scared for you, and will say anything to get you to stay. You’ve got people who have lived a little and want to assess how serious you are. And then there are people who just think the whole idea is stupid.

In the face of that kind of criticism, you learn pretty quickly to just ignore it.

So I weather objections on the grounds of safety, language, health, culture, terrain, income and occupation. Almost daily, I shrug off remixes of the same cautionary tales I heard the week before. Sorry, but if you’ve given me a passionate reason why I shouldn’t go, it probably went in my mental spam filter.

But never Sensei. He gets a free pass to my complete attention (so do my parents).

You could say it’s the years of training. I’m required to treat him with respect, so I’d listen closely to his opinion on any topic. But it’s more than that.

As my teacher, Sensei is uniquely placed to gauge exactly how ready I am. He knows my reaction time. My attitude. My energy. My spiritual state. How I handle fear and surprise. His feelings about this goal of mine are of great interest to me.

So, three weeks ago, stretching on the mat for the first time in too long, we talked. He asked where I’m going after my stint in Milwaukee, and I told him.

“Sensei, I’m walking to Brazil. From Minnesota.”

He nodded his head.

I waited to hear what he would say.

His answer:

“It would be good if you lived through it.”

Photo Credit: "Hanami or Flower Viewing" by Jesslee Cuizon

Life is Itself Beautiful

Life is an easy thing to lose. Martial artists know that too well. We train to learn the many fragile points on the body. We discover how hard it is to protect them, and how easily an outside force can reach them.

Life is an easy thing to lose, but the cost is high. Because life is also beautiful. The experience of being conscious is the first and greatest gift anyone gives us.

What Sensei said to me carried great meaning. His words held no judgement, in the truest sense of that phrase: no evaluation that my trip is bad or good. Like anyone else who cares about me, he might rather I not risk my life. But unlike others, he knows it is useless to tell me not to go. So he didn’t even start that conversation.

Instead, he cut to the quick of it. It would be good if you lived. 

These words carry the heavy implication you might die, and the hopeful assertion it is possible to survive. But do I have the skills to avoid the former, and ensure the latter? There’s no point in asking. The only way to answer that question is on the mat.

A New Humility

Last week I finished another training session, sweaty and blissfully sore like always. I thanked Sensei for the lesson.

“You did well today,” he said.

It was hard to hear. Praise is rare in the dojo, but when given it’s always sincere. I knew Sensei was right. I had practiced hard between classes and did everything he said. Compared to my usual performance, I did great.

But that was what stung so badly. However good I might be by the Drew Jacob standard, I was not very good by the Handling Myself Against Murderers standard. Being better than I was in college doesn’t mean much if I’m not good enough to save my life.

With the past few weeks of training under my belt, I’m aware of a painful fact: Three months of hard training may not get me to where I need to be. 

This leaves me wondering:

  • Can I add more training before my trip? When? How?
  • Are my other pastimes worth it? Should I give up longsword and focus on the most effective art I know, Jujutsu?
  • Should I pivot? What other skills will help save my life – social skills? A spiritual demeanor?

This weighs on me. What would you do, my friends? Blog posts always end with a call for comments, but this is a very serious question for me. If you can imagine yourself in my shoes, how else would you prepare? What more would you do?