Out of all famous people—living or dead, fictional or real—who do you feel most strongly drawn to and why?
One friend immediately piped up. “Ellen Degeneres,” she said. “Because she’s warm and approachable. She makes me feel like it’s okay to be myself.” Then she paused. “And Mick Jagger,” she added. “Because he’s a free spirit. He doesn’t need anyone else’s approval.”
My next friend got really excited about his person. “Rachel Green!” He yelled (this is one of my loud and extroverted friends). “From the TV show ‘Friends’?” I asked. “Yes!” he said. “Because she started out as a waitress and worked her way up in the fashion industry, which is exactly what I want to do.”
My third friend had a whole long list, but managed to narrow it down to Frida Kahlo, Angela Davis, and Cornel West. These people had true bravery, she explained. In the face of hard times and tragedy, they still forged ahead, inspired the masses, and created art.
The guy I’m currently obsessed with is Napoleon. I told my little group about how he was socially awkward when he was growing up; an introverted bookworm who dreamed of one day following in the footsteps of his heroes, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.
This was a fun exercise to do with friends, but it drove home a very serious point for me. Heroes are important. If we are ever to accomplish great things in our own lives, it helps enormously to keep our eyes trained on someone who has gone before us on a similar path. And the more we learn about our heroes as real people, the more we realize that if they were capable of doing all the things we admire them so much for, then we are capable of those very same acts of courage.
Our heroes also show us a secret side of ourselves. Just as it’s nearly impossible for our conscious mind to recognize our shadow side when it comes into play, it’s just as difficult sometimes for us to discern our unique strengths and talents in action. The people we choose as role models often showcase something that is good in us, some power or capability that might be as yet untapped in our personality. A potential that we can only vaguely sense waiting under the surface of our lives, ready to burst forth and move us into an exciting landscape of new possibilities.
Years ago, when I was still extremely timid, self-doubting, and almost crippled by low self-esteem, I worked for a woman who was the opposite of all of those things. She was confident, successful, a brilliant writer and a sought-after writing coach. She had created and managed writing groups and workshops, written books, and knew dozens of well-known authors. I ended up working very closely with this woman because I was so drawn to her, but I didn’t really know why. It wasn’t until some years had passed that I realized I saw myself in her.
But because I was still so far away (at that time) from being able to believe myself capable of the things she had accomplished, I had no idea that when I looked at her I was really seeing a future projection of myself.
It sounds obvious now, but when we are inside of our lives, living these moments bit by bit, it can be anything but easy to see.
Once we’ve identified our heroes it can be extremely helpful to our own creative efforts if we pursue more information about their work and their lives. Reading biographies and articles about them (and work that they’ve actually written), or viewing works of art that they’ve created, opens up a communication channel. We get inspired by our heroes on an ongoing basis, and we create ties with others who feel the same connection to them. Eventually, we bring in more and more people who are on our positive wavelength and interested in learning and growing in the same way we are.
This not only is a win-win situation for all, but it also helps to counteract a lot of the negativity we’re exposed to through the media, and family members and friends whose views we might be growing away from at the moment.
So, who are your heroes? Who are you drawn to and why? Name their top five strengths and then look inside yourself and make an honest assessment. Chances are, you embody those same talents and are just waiting for someone to give you permission to use them.
One of the things I learned about Napoleon is that he was never embarrassed to ask the most basic and naïve of questions when he didn’t understand something. I tend to ask a lot of questions too, but I’ve always felt a little self conscious about it. Now, with Napoleon as my inspiration, I’m going to ask way more questions than ever before. He gave me permission to be totally free in my quest for knowledge.
What things are your heroes granting you permission to do?