by Daniel Lev Shkolnik
Odysseus, the Greek hero, didn’t get his name because he went in search of his Odyssey. Rather, The Odyssey was called The Odyssey because it follows Odysseus.
It’s not about what you do, it’s how you do it. It’s not about doing great deeds, it’s about becoming a great person.
The goal is to do what needs to be done for the sake of a cause bigger than yourself. Don’t overdo. Don’t grandstand. Don’t worry if you’ll receive credit or glory for your actions. Just do the thing.
I believe these six keys will help you move beyond a romantic but immature heroism and attain a deep, mature heroism from which to live your life.
1) Don’t try to be a hero. It seems counterintuitive, but this is the most important part of embodying mature heroism: the goal isn’t heroism. Real heroes don’t think of themselves as heroes. They live in line with their values and do what needs to be done. A hero is something others decide you are.
The key difference is between acting like a hero and actually being heroic. You can feel when someone is trying to act like a hero: their actions are overdone. They’re dramatic for the sake of drama. Glorious for the sake of glory. In King, Warrior, Magician Lover, Robert L. Moore and Douglass Gillette write that the hero “acts to reassure themselves they are as potent as they hope they are.” But mature heroism isn’t about doing great deeds, it’s about becoming a great person—the kind of person who, when the time comes, can do what few others can.
2) Serve a transpersonal cause. Find a cause to serve that is larger than just yourself. An immature hero serves him- or herself. Someone who acts from a place of mature heroism, on the other hand, serves a transpersonal cause. This could be a nation, a movement, a god, a community. Whatever it is, their victories and sacrifices primarily benefit others, not themselves. They are loyal to some greater good beyond their own personal agenda. When we cheer on our heroes, whether on a podium as they deliver their resounding speech, from the bandstand as they score the winning point, we aren’t just cheering for them—we are cheering for what they represent: the larger cause or community that they are pushing forward. We recognize those heroes are fighting for us. A mature hero understands they act for a greater cause than their own happiness or fame—and it’s because of this they are able to sacrifice so much. Their success and their failure is tied to the success and failure of hundreds, thousands, even millions of others.
3) Success isn’t important. Values are. This is a hard one to stomach. How can success not matter if so much seems to ride on it? This is especially hard to practice in today’s society where worth is often equated with success. Moore and Gillette caution that “the [person] who becomes obsessed with succeeding has already failed.”In fact, success at all costs can lead us to undermine our other values.Lance Armstrong, the American cycling hero and cancer survivor, turned to doping in order to continue winning the Tour de France at all costs. He sacrificed his own integrity and in the end lost everything.
The archer’s responsibility is not to hit her target. The bowstring might snap. The wind might move the arrow. The deer might jump out of the way. The archer’s only responsibility is to fire her bow with skill —and integrity.
We don’t remember Martin Luther King Jr. because he succeeded in all his work—much of his agenda was left unfinished at his assassination. He did not succeed, strictly speaking. But we admire and remember him as a hero because he fought for a transpersonal cause greater than himself and did so with integrity.
4) Forget about glory. Another hard truth. You may not get rewarded for being a good person. Or even a great person. You can do everything right and things can still turn out wrong. Just like success, you don’t have control of the rewards you get for your actions.
The Bhagavad Gita, a central text of Hinduism and the book Mahatma Gandhi turned to again and again to inform his life’s work, urges us to “relinquish the fruits of our actions.” That is, don’t worry about what will happen after. Focus on your duty—do what you have to do. The rest will take care of itself.
5) Slay the Dragon of Grandiosity. Grandiosity is a would-be-hero’s greatest risk. Grandiosity isn’t so much about having grand ambitions. Ambition can be a positive force: inspiring us and keeping us from stagnation. Grandiosity, however, is the belief that you are greater than you really are and can do more than you really can. This grandiosity manifests in immature heroism as a stubborn lone-wolf attitude—going it alone against an obstacle or enemy that’s impossible to defeat on their own.
Someone embodying a mature form of heroism knows their limitations. The counter to what Moore calls the “Dragon of Grandiosity,” isn’t excess modesty or self-deprecation, it’s to know your limits and get the help you need. That’s it. Swallow your pride and admit when you need the help of others.
6) You will die. And that’s OK. One of the big drives of heroism is immortality. The immature hero wants to do great deeds—write a great novel, overthrow a tyrant, win a religious afterlife—so that they have a chance at beating death.
A mature hero understands the shortness of life and how fragile it is. They know how few their days are. Instead of being depressed about it, they use this awareness to energize their life. To them, everything counts. Each day matters. They know they might be forgotten one day; that’s OK. What matters is that they lived well. And with that knowledge they are ready to meet death at any time. If the moment calls for it, they can act decisively to preserve what matters most to them in life—even if it means sacrificing their own.
Your success is ultimately not in your control. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we can’t control the final outcome. Rudyard Kipling in his poem “If” urges us to “… meet with Triumph and Disaster / and treat those two imposters just the same.” The only thing we can do is act skillfully in accordance with our values. Our responsibility is not to hit our target, it’s to fire our bow with skill.
Become a great person; anything you do will have that greatness within it.