"You have to go!” a friend wrote when they tagged me in a post about one of my all-time favorite people coming to speak at a conference at our local college campus. The next day, I got a text from another friend about the same event.
They were right — I did need to go. How often do you get to be in the same room with one of the people you admire most in the world?
This wasn’t like chatting with my career advisor or seeing my favorite basketball coach in a hotel lobby. This was about a chance to meet the person who doesn’t just show me how to get it done but motivates me to do it better — a chance to meet my hero.
And in today’s world, we all need heroes.
A hero is more than a role model.
Role models may teach you how to do something, but a hero is one who inspires you to do it. They turn your perspective beyond the ‘here and now’ and onto something much bigger than ourselves.
“To be a hero [is] to expand people’s sense of what was possible for a human being,” writes University of Santa Clara professor Scott LaBarge. “Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy.”
Or, as a friend of mine said when describing his hero, “he transcends what you think is possible.”
Despite this transcendence, heroes’ lives are rooted in the human struggle.
Heroes are human and inspire through human connection.
Every hero has faced a great challenge, whether it be internal, external, or both. Some — Nelson Mandela, for example — overcame a lifetime of challenges.
LaBarge explained the importance of heroes overcoming a struggle: “nonetheless they rose and accomplished deeds of triumphant beauty. Perhaps we might do so, too.”
One friend recently described to me how he realized the importance of having a hero: “I was able to find strength in the examples set by people who were on the other side of the struggle.” It’s not that his hero (Kesha) was immune to challenges — it’s how she was able to overcome them. A hero is able to emerge on the “other side of the struggle” and help pave the way for those who wish to follow.
What are heroes not? Celebrities.
‘Celebrity’ and ‘excellence’ are not synonymous.
It’s not that famous people can’t be heroic — they certainly can. Look at JJ Watt’s incredible fundraiser for Hurricane Harvey victims or the way Lin-Manuel Miranda inspires young, aspiring artists.
The point is that these people are not heroes because of their celebrity status; they are heroes for their actions or the way they live their lives.
In today’s social media influencer-driven culture, it can be tempting to name those who have achieved fame as one’s heroes. But true heroism is about character, not fame or glory.
Your heroes can range from siblings to saints.
Anyone can be a hero. Not everyone will be, but we all have the ability to be a hero. One might expect a soldier to have heroic instincts, but many of our most timeless heroes lived radically unexpected lives. Think Rosa Parks to Mother Teresa — who could have predicted these women to become the figures we remember them to be? Excellence takes many forms.
Your hero is someone who demonstrates something you value in an extraordinary way — that’s what sets them apart from the crowd. Your hero delivers on what you believe to be beautiful, good, and true.
Their lives resonate a truth that forms how you see the world or how you want the world to be.
It’s okay to let your heroes influence and inspire you.
Of course, control over our own lives is something we all desire. But can you really live a life free of influence? The extreme growth of influencer marketing would strongly suggest otherwise.
Following a good example is one way to accomplish what you desire. However, allowing yourself to be inspired will help you create something of immense value — whether that thing is your work or an experience. You won’t lose a part of yourself when you allow yourself to be inspired, because heroes help you become a truer, better version of the person you want to be.
As one friend shared on learning about her heroes, “their lives spoke something that woke up a part of my soul that had always been there, but perhaps asleep.”
Realizing your heroes can help you find your life’s greater purpose and meaning. According to Dr. Scott Allison for Psychology Today, “heroes help us develop the secrets to unlocking our fullest potential as human beings.”
LaBarge writes, “heroes can help us lift our eyes a little higher.” Letting their inspiration into your mind and heart gives you something, doesn’t take anything away.
My own hero gave my life a higher calling and clearer direction to get there.
Skeptical that any person is worthy of such a title as ‘hero’?
There’s a big difference between inspirational influence and blind admiration.
There isn’t anything good about putting someone up on a pedestal without reasonable evaluation. It’s totally fair to be cynical about people who seem heroic — no one is perfect, and people today are especially good at calling out people's flaws online. All heroes have their shortcomings.
It is having these shortcomings that gives heroes the human connection necessary to truly inspire us and motivate us to work toward becoming better versions of our true selves.
Dr. Scott T. Allison explains, “the elevation we feel upon witnessing a heroic act transforms us into believing we are capable of heroic acts ourselves.”
Who is your hero?
I challenge you to think about the five figures that have the most influence over your decisions — both personal and professional.
Ask yourself, would I call these people my ‘heroes’?
If yes, think about what makes them heroic and how you can follow their examples. If not, think about what kind of person you would like to become. Your hero is as unique and complex as you are. See if you can think of a person who exemplifies those characteristics in a bold and beautiful way.