We Need to Radically Redefine Heroism

I think it’s time to radically redefine heroism.

Right now, the definition used by most heroism researchers is:

Taking a risk to help others, without expectation of reward.

This captures the actions of our highest moral heroes, like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Harriet Tubman.

But here’s an experiment: next time you’re with a large group of people, ask everyone to name their heroes. Most of the answers won’t be moral greats like the names above. They will include things like:

  • My mother
  • Nikola Tesla
  • Beyoncé
  • Aaron Rodgers

In most groups, the majority of people will name heroes who have had a personal influence on them, even if those heroes never took a risk to help someone.

Within the heroism research community, this is an issue we shy away from. In fact, many heroism researchers ignore these kinds of heroes and focus almost exclusively on risk-taking heroes. 1 Some researchers even argue that only risk-takers are heroes. Calling anyone else a hero is, to them, misusing the term.

Others go to the opposite extreme: they look at the many types of people we call heroes, and they decide there is no objective definition of heroism at all.2 Under this view, anyone and everyone is a hero as long as someone calls them that. The word itself has no meaning.

To me, both of these positions seem extreme—and mistaken. It doesn’t make sense to ignore 90% of what we define as heroism, and it also doesn’t make sense to just give up the fight. It seems to me that when you ask people to name heroes, they name all the greatest people they know: moral greats like MLK, but also great people they know personally, or the greatest scientists, artists, and inspirations they can think of.

To me, that provokes a simple question: is there something that all of these heroes have in common? 

A Unified Theory of Heroism

I believe there is a way to understand heroism that encompasses all of these heroes—without watering down the moral greats among them. And it requires redefining the key trait we think of as heroic.

I believe that heroism is the act of doing the extraordinary, in any walk of life.3 

Doing the extraordinary means going above and beyond what is normal for someone in your position. That can be very different at different levels—”extraordinary” in a high school basketball team is different than “extraordinary” in the NBA. But any of us can recognize when one individual (or group) achieves more than is normal, more than could have been expected. We can recognize excellence when we see it.

And when we do see it, it gives us a sense of awe. The reason for this awe that we know it takes intense work, effort, practice, or dedication to perform or act at this level. We see what they have achieved, and it makes us wonder what we can achieve.

This awe-inspiring quality is what we call heroism.

When you define heroism this way, something special happens. Suddenly, all the different types of heroes make sense. They have all made sacrifices to achieve excellence in some way. And it becomes obvious why there would be different types of heroes—and why not everyone agrees on them.

Moral Heroes vs. Personal Heroes

Everyone agrees on the greatest heroes. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. did what is morally extraordinary. They really do risk their own wellbeing for the sake of others. They go above and beyond what most of us would do to stand up for what we believe in—and since everyone values morality and justice,4 we all acknowledge that this type of excellence counts as heroic. There is no debate about it.

Other types of human achievement only matter to certain people. Personally, a lot of the heroes I look up to are artists and scientists. Other people would have a long list of athlete heroes. And all of us know individuals we have personally seen do the extraordinary, even if no one else will ever recognize them.

“These heroes are needed every day. Every day you can challenge yourself, and every day you can see your abilities grow.”

This means we have two types of heroes:

  1. Moral heroes, who do the extraordinary act of risking themselves for others. Everyone recognizes moral heroism as heroic.
  2. Personal heroes, who do the extraordinary in their specific art, field or calling. Not everyone considers all of these people heroes.

Personal heroes often get short shrift in heroism research, but I think they’re particularly important.

Sure, athletes, musicians and scientists may not make the same moral difference that Martin Luther King, Jr. made. But that isn’t the only kind of difference a person can make.

Personal heroes lift up everyone around them.They both inspire us and challenge us. It is mastery of their art or role that pushes us all to a higher standard.

And, while moral heroism is important, a person can spend their whole life preparing and never get the chance to give anyone CPR. There is simply no way to know when that kind of heroism will be needed.

Personal exemplars are needed every day. Every day you can get up and work hard on what you believe in. Every day you can make yourself better. Every day you can challenge yourself, and every day you can see your abilities grow.

The heroism of wrestlers, painters, parents, chemists, runners, teachers and dancers is the heroism that drives forward human achievement. It is what inspires us as children and challenges us as grown people. It is attainable regardless of age, size, shape, disability, or health. It is always attainable because it’s the product of the quest to relentlessly do more.

You Cannot Teach Heroism if You Ignore Everyone’s Heroes

I don’t think most heroism researchers would disagree with my two types of heroes. But almost all of the research ignores personal heroes—and that needs to change. Personal heroes are the most common and, arguably, most important kind of hero humanity has.

They’re the most important kind of hero because everyone can become one.

They’re the most important kind of hero because they improve the world every day.

They’re the most important kind of hero because they help us do more and become more than we ever would without them.

That’s not to say our work on moral heroism isn’t important. It’s vital. When we teach people about the bystander effect, they become prepared to take action in a bad situation. When we teach them techniques for empathy and awareness, they can tell when someone needs them. And when we teach them to imagine themselves in the shoes of great moral heroes, they become more likely to make tough choices for what they believe in.

This work changes lives and, in some cases, our work teaching moral heroism has literally saved lives.

But the work is incomplete. We have a duty to embrace the entire range of heroic behavior—the hundreds of ways to to do the extraordinary in every field, not just morality. By cultivating this type of heroism, we create a path of lifelong self-development and self-actualization. We prepare people to be a positive influence to those around them each day, not only when disaster strikes.

As a community of researchers, authors, teachers and philosophers, we cannot create heroism if we ignore everyone’s heroes.

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