Who are the people you most admire? Stop for a moment and list the top ten. What do they have in common? The first commonality is you because it’s your list. Write down what about each of them appeals to you and then look for themes. What traits do they share? Financial success? Notoriety? Wisdom? Academic accomplishment? Professional mastery? Good looks? Good deeds? Unique perception or insights? Big ideas? Bold kindness?
I first did this exercise a few years ago and included people I know and people I don’t, people from the past and people from fiction. Themes included humor, kindness, intelligence, civic engagement, presence, persistence, interest in learning, and a strong work ethic – you know, the usual stuff. It started out as a standard list of good deeds and personality traits, but I forced myself to look deeper. The core element in each of the people who are my heroes – whether they are statesmen, scientists, friends, writers, characters, teachers, parents, journalists or entertainers – is that each of them has the courage to be themselves.
Whenever I mention the heroes question in groups (it’s especially useful for improving small talk at parties), a caveat always gets mentioned: having the courage to be yourself should not be confused with being self-absorbed to the point of harming others. I agree with this, though sometimes the courage to be oneself causes discomfort in others. Think about college or career choice, non-normative gender identity, political opinions, fashion sensibility, research interests, spiritual practice, dietary preference, you name it – if there is something we think, do or are, it’s likely to upset someone someplace.
But the people who are my heroes entwine the courage they have to be themselves with one other element that is inseparable from a truly heroic nature: compassion. They have compassion for themselves and live in a way that honors who they are and want to become. They also have compassion for people who are different than they are. This is evident in way my heroes disagree, contrast, connect with, oppose, love, and celebrate other people. They do so with kindness and respect. They demonstrate that having integrity to their own nature does not need to be rude, obnoxious or hurtful even if it is sometimes loud, brash or shocking.
Where are these kind, courageous people in your world? Are they at work, in your community, or at home? Where do you see them in the news? Where have you read about them? Is there any part of them you would like to emulate? Chances are that if you included these people on your list – for you are their common thread – that you do have some of their qualities as well.
Who are your heroes? I suspect that one of them might be you.