Late last fall, I had the opportunity to be in the presence of a woman who was courageously sharing the story of her miraculous and messy life from a stage – it was a wholly riveting and raw experience.
However, at one point as she was speaking about her journey, she referred to a certain thought leader as being her “biggest hero.” While these particular words were likely an innocuous choice, they struck a deep nerve in me that conjured up some disquiet and uneasiness.
In the moment I fully understood that this woman’s primary intention was to express gratitude and convey that this teacher had served as a deep well of motivation, inspiration, joy, and comfort in her life. But at the same time, I could palpably sense a sort of longing, an underlying sentiment of “not quite enough.” Something along the lines of: “If only I could be as wise, brave, beautiful, known, celebrated, successful…”
And it’s been this part that I haven’t been able to shake ever since. Because, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, I totally dig stories where women save themselves. I also love it when they’re able to unapologetically claim the glory of doing so.
Appreciation vs. Exaltation
There are countless artists, authors, leaders, makers, and musicians for whom I have endless amounts of appreciation, admiration, and even full-on adoration. I also have a small, but mighty list of teachers, mentors, and guides I cherish and respect like mad. And of course, I’ve got an exquisite collection of friends, sisters, colleagues, and other dear ones who inspire, impress, and render me awe-struck on a regular basis.
Without a doubt, I’ve been influenced, impacted, and irrevocably transformed by many of their ideas, creations, and contributions.
I’ve been moved to tears and brought to my knees in the face of the magic, beauty, and brilliance they’ve brought to the world.
I’ve been ignited and propelled into action by bearing witness to their audacity, authenticity, and ingenuity.
In some cases, I’ve been held and humbled by their support, encouragement, and unconditional love.
But I have never, and will never, call any single one of these people either “my hero” or “my idol.”
Like, not even Oprah, the Dalai Lama, or Dave Grohl.
And that’s simply because assigning anyone an elevated or expanded status above or beyond us is entirely dangerous and destructive business; pedestals are meant for statues, not human beings.
The Problem with Pedestals & The Twisted Truth
When we endow others with any kind of super-humanness (in the absence of extraordinary circumstances like running into burning buildings, organ donation, or diving into frigid waters to save lives), we put both them and ourselves in precarious and potentially harmful positions. Here’s how:
We inevitably create wildly unrealistic expectations on all sides.
When we start handing out hero status to others, we drastically narrow the margin for error (ahem, humanity) for everybody – essentially setting up the optimal conditions for all kinds of failure, disappointment, and other hard feelings.
On the one hand, when we go about striving to replicate a life that isn’t ours, we ultimately dismiss our own gifts, diminish our unique potential, and deny the power of our own voice in the futile pursuit of trying to become somebody else. And really, emulation and/or imitation never turns out well in life or business – not only is it soul-sucking, it comes across as inauthentic at best and desperate at worst.
On the other hand, we don’t typically tend to afford a whole lot of grace to our “heroes” in the face of faltering or effing-up. The media is disturbingly rife with examples of this on a daily basis. As the trite saying goes, “We often hurt the ones we love the most.” And as it turns out, that hurting can get diabolical pretty damn fast, particularly when we’ve never actually been face-to-face with that “loved one.” Hello, relentlessly cruel and sensationalized tabloid news.
Without a doubt, when we make idols out of people, one or all of the following is bound to happen:
At some point, we determine we suck when we can’t become them (never gonna happen – there’s only one them and one of you, boo)
We decide they suck when they fail to live up to the grossly distorted version of perfection we’ve bestowed upon them (likely gonna happen – via a trip to rehab, a poorly timed or offensive comment, an indiscretion, etc.)
We blame them for sucking (ahem, being human), shattering our trust, and crushing our dreams. And then some of us feel inclined to tell the rest of the world how much they suck via social media soap boxes or over wine with girlfriends.
Sadly, the twisted truth of it all is that a lot of people actually revel - whether privately or very, very publicly - in the stumbles, misfortunes, and (perceived) failures of others. Somehow the playing field seems leveled when someone “falls” and there are far too many who take solace and comfort in the adversities of others for their own self-affirmation. Rather than embracing our shared humanity and extending care and kindness, these folks tend to take every opportunity to zealously hop on the criticism bandwagon and even actively participate in the “take-down.”
It’s a very real thing y’all and it’s been called “tall poppy syndrome.” I’d encourage you to Google it, but for expediency sake, it describes the phenomenon where people are resented, attacked, cut down, strung up, or criticized because they have been inadvertently classified as superior in some way.
At the end of the day, when we make our love, respect, and appreciation of other people solely contingent on their achievements, accolades, or accomplishments, we rob them of their “humanness.”
When we measure our success, worthiness, appearance, and impact with a never-ending comparison yardstick, we rob ourselves (and the rest of the world!) of our greatest potential, grandest possibilities, and most genuine contributions.
If there are any heroes in this world, they live within us – not above or beyond us. I like to think that the majority of us are loving, generous, fierce, fumbling, and fallible warriors fighting the good fight for our “one wild and precious life.” And when we do it out loud and on purpose with as much integrity, creativity, compassion, and courage as possible, we all win.