Were you born a hero or are you training to become one?

Are heroes born or made? The answer is surely both and neither, but I think it’s useful to consider the dynamics here for a minute. We tend to save these questions for the late night drinking party when the wine bubbles up our silliest questions. Frivolous or not, the answers to questions like this can put a light on some of our subconscious biases and beliefs that shape our day-to-day activity. 

This might happen because the word “hero” evokes memories of out-of-this-world mythical creatures we read about in our comic books. And while we could discard heroes as a childish constructs, they are foundationaly important to us. Let’s think about it: Our parents were our first guardians, real super-humans who not only took care of us but who knew the answers to every question we could think of. We moved into adolescence inspired by many adventurers and troublemakers. These stories were so inspiring to the early people that they became the catalyst for the development of writing. It’s through these stories (like Gilgamesh’s saga) that we understand our past and our place in the universe.  We may think less about heroes these days but deep down we (all) would like to be one. Maybe we don’t hold imperialistic ambitions as some of the conquerors from our history books but we would all want to be the Steve Jobs’es of our companies or the perfect parents to our children. Heroism is nothing more than the vessel of our dreams and aspirations. 

So are heroes born or made? Or to put it another way: who’s cooler Batman, the self-made eccentric vigilante or Superman, the benevolent Kryptonian God?

"A tale of two saviours" - Drawing by yours truly 

"A tale of two saviours" - Drawing by yours truly 

  • The Superman camp: Some of us are attracted by the all-powerful cape-wearing superhuman. His powers awe us but it’s his altruism, his love for the small and vulnerable that make him the best superhero. We tend to think heroism results from a pre-existing condition and that benevolence for the weak is what separates the hero from the villain. Superman was born a God, and like him, all heroes exhibit a mark of destiny we, the regular people, don’t. The underlying belief is that big important people owe their success to factors outside of their control, like wealthy parents, access to a certain education, being in the right place at the right time, access to people or resources are beyond the reach of the majority. Life looks more like a choice from a series predefined options and we like to think more of what we should become if we take a certain path rather than what we can create from a blank canvas. 
  • The Batman fan-club: Some of us appreciate the sheer insanity of becoming Batman every-night. Unlike his more-powerful colleague, Bruce Wayne had to work to become Batman and every time he wears the suit he put his life on the line. What’s strikingly different from his alien frenemy is his motivation. He became Batman pursuing a selfish reason, seeking revenge for the murdering of his parents. We, Batman fans, drew inspiration from the struggle of an ordinary human who practiced many years to be able to sit at the same level as a celestial deity. We believe we should be more concerned with our own interest and support our life through our own efforts. Life is more of decision to pursue greatness, a journey filled with traps and dangers that will strengthen the fabric of a true hero. The true heroism is in the journey itself.

And these two camps can have distinct approaches to life, and these have been the subject of philosophic debate for thousands of years. Which leads me to the quote below (one of my favourites - thank you Tim Ferriss):

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.
— Archilochus

The search for true heroism

Archilochus, a Greek poet and soldier who lived 2700 yrs ago, is credited with this saying. I am always blown away by the deep ideas our great-great fathers were concerned with during times of constant insecurity and permanent danger. What I find remarkable about this instance is that Archilochus opinion put him outside the main orthodoxy of the time. He was part of the Batman fan-club in a time and place where everyone was madly in love with Superman-like figures. The Greeks at the time were deterministic and all their early heroes are instruments of fate more than will. Greek tragedies are filled with characters that act more like hamsters spinning their fatalistic divine wheel. They all commit amazing deeds in their perpetual struggle to escape their fate, only to realise that it is because of this evading effort they have meet their fate. 

Almost all of our early stories exhibit strong predestrianism (or fatalism) - the inability for people to change their destiny. Stoicism stands aside as an ethical framework focused on personal virtue, a practical approach much appreciated by the Romans. However the deterministic view was shared by most of Greeks philosophers and they passed it on to the Christian Church fathers, who used them to add a layer of intellectual polish for Jewish tribal myths. Influenced by Plato, Augustine of Hippo, the saint that gave Christianity its philosophic kernel, advocated for predestination, a conclusion deriving from the existence of an all-knowing and all-powerful creator. He postulates that God is the only one who can perceive the passing of time, since time is nothing more than one of God’s creation. For a petty man, trapped in the present, expectations are illusions we use to think about the future. And since our destiny is already decided St Augustine concludes that our virtue becomes nothing more than  man’s will over his body to adhere to God’s commands.

The fall of the Roman empire put almost all philosophic development on hold, giving the Church a monopoly on thought. The Renaissance marked our rediscovered appetitive for the Greek thought but it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that we saw Batman fans getting the limelight. Liberalism, a philosophy focused on the rightful pursue of one’s happiness became the philosophic foundation for the modern world. 

After a troubled 20th century, marked by the conflict between authoritarian regimes and the protectors of the new found liberal ideals, the discussion about heroism is as important as ever. 

Heroism and YOU

So are heroes born or are they made? A simple question that most of us offer a simplistic answer, dictated by the daily influences. Maybe you like Batman more …. Maybe you admire the divine representation of Superman. 

Our interpretation of heroism can reveal some of the heuristics we base our every-day decisions on. We can humour ourselves with an intellectual answer but our true feelings will be revealed to us by our daily decisions:

  • In business: If like Archilochus we believe in the power of training we will emphasise execution over vision. We can notice the dichotomy with our father Steve Jobs. Some of us think Jobs’s uncanny ability to see the future was his top heroic skill, while the other group gets inspired by his relentless drive.  
  • In areas of personal development. Most of us, as evidenced by the plethora of materials on the subject, believe motivation is the secret ingredient that heroes use to reach their expectations. The other group, like our Greek soldier, discounts the power of motivation and places consistent practice on the pedestal. 
  • In areas of public policy: The left-leaning citizens act like one’s heroism is dependent on others. We could all be heroes … if only others (usually the more-gifted) people would help us more to break through the heavy societal smog. As the right-wing members of society we value personal responsibility more and take it upon ourselves to achieve greatness. 

So, what would you say? Are heroes born like Superman? Or are they made, through training as Batman (and Archilochus) wants to make us believe. I look fwd for your opinions.