Who's Your hero?
And what does it say about you?
My nephew is going through a superhero phase. He battles little figurines of Hulk and Ironman or he has them gang up to battle the ‘badies’, played unwittingly by the dogs. I’m not sure what goes into choosing your heroes at 2 and I doubt Freddy has put much thought into it but he already has clear favourites. Different heroes resonate because of something within us – perhaps we can relate to their origin story or we like their values. They give us something to model and aspire to. I used to like Superman – a god among men with laser eyes and flight and super strength and Raphael (the Ninja Turtle, not the painter obviously). In later years I would lament not choosing Batman, whose powers were resourcefulness, invention and generally being a badass. I also liked the colour blue and the number 3 and these all seemed like very important parts of my personality.
Occasionally, I like to do a stocktake on my heroes. Like many things to do with myself, these change significantly but slowly so it can be hard to notice. It could be someone I know or an author or businessperson or popular figure but not usually any of the Ninja Turtles because I’m more sophisticated these days. I often find myself working backwards, tracing the origin of new ideas and aspirations or a worldview that has begun to inform my own. I like to think about why they resonate with me and usually how to counterbalance them because I don’t like to be pulled too far in any direction.
I got into this habit in my early twenties when I was studying and focused on writing and very concerned about finding my voice. I wanted to read authors I admired but not so much that I tried to emulate them. I remember chatting with one mate from Uni who wouldn’t read other writers for that reason. He believed in being original and was very concerned about it – me not so much. I know some people believe their character or their voice or their values comes from within, but I’ve always felt too impressionable, so I try to be careful about who is impressing me. Whether reading or travelling to different places, making friends or moving through workplaces I’m always looking for heroes; for people and ideas that resonate. It’s literal character building.
In the last few years, from my quiet corner of the world I’ve been trying to improve my business nous. There has been no shortage of heroes to choose from; the authors and pundits, investors and entrepreneurs I’ve come to know through books and articles and podcasts and online courses. We are not short on access these days. Choosing heroes might be a statement of intent and a signifier - liking Superman said something about me, but it didn’t make me Superman; it hasn’t made me Hemingway or Melanie Perkins. Freddy might genuinely believe he’s the Incredible Hulk, he’s got a pretty good imagination, but most of the time as adults we realise we are a long way short of our heroes. Even as we creep closer it can feel we’re growing further away because of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It holds that the less we know, the more we think we know and the less we appreciate expertise in others. Doing stuff is hard.
So I’ve been wondering about heroes and aspiring generally and whether almost unattainable levels of success or mastery deserve so much of my attention. What does a life like that even feel like? Part of the allure has always been imagining my own superpowers, my own name on the front cover or the org. chart… exalted. The drive for status is primal and there’s always higher to climb but status also holds that different people have vastly different value. Is that really a perspective I want to cultivate? Even if it was me, the most important person in the room, someone else has to walk into that room and feel less important, someone else, many people, will probably feel like impostors who don’t even belong. All of us have felt that and never more than when we meet our heroes.
Angelica and I were talking about our future son again the other day, lets call him Tiger. Little Tiger will have to operate in many different circles, among people with vastly different backgrounds. That’s our life and I hope he can value and respect and learn from all of them. We, Angelica and I, have picked up funny habits like mirroring from years of customer service training and they’re hard to kick. Mirroring is subtly changing how you speak and act to match the people you’re around, to make them feel ‘we are the same’ and make them comfortable. The implication is that if we were different, you wouldn’t be comfortable, and so I will pretend we are not, but I know I am pretending so I must think we are different, and I must be uncomfortable about it enough to think I should pretend. I hope Tiger can be himself everywhere – aware, respectful, but that he carries his sense of value and belonging with him as an equal to everyone. When he aspires, I hope it’s for growth, or interest, or knowledge and not for value. Then he can be my hero.