In his latest book, Natural Born Heroes, author Christopher McDougall, details the spectacular story of some unlikely heroes on the Mediterranean Island of Crete during World War II. British Special Operation Executive agents Xan Fielding and Paddy Fermor form the two main subjects of the book, but as McDougall details their execution of kidnapping a German general without bloodshed, he discovers that the entire island of Crete is packed full of heroes. In fact, heroism can be learned. “The art of the hero, wasn’t about being brave; it was about being so competent that bravery wasn’t an issue,” McDougall writes.
Throughout the book (a great read, btw), McDougall cites example after example “normal” “everyday” people accomplishing unbelievable feats in the face of challenges through their ability to be relevant and useful in the given circumstance. Further, according to McDougall citing ancient Greek texts, this art of the hero can be broken down into three areas: skill, strength and compassion.
McDougall states: “The Greeks didn’t just sit around hoping for heroes to appear—they built their own. They believed heroism was an art, not an accident, so they developed skills that were passed from parent to child and teacher to student.“
The ancient Greeks broke heroism down into three categories: skill, strength and compassion. Whether we’re punching the clock in a 9-to-5 cubicle in some dank office building or we’re Navy Seals planning a hostage rescue, we need to be skillful, strong and compassionate. If this is the case, then heroism is not born, not merely a genetic anomaly we either have or have not, but a way of life than can be taught, learned and applied.
Wherever we are right now, we can become more skillful, stronger and more compassionate.
Being skillful may seem obvious for us to be useful and relevant in our lives, but there is subtlety to what skillfulness really means. Many make the mistake of viewing skill as expertise, which is to say we aren’t skilled unless we’re one of the top in the world in whatever the given task is. That’s like saying Michael Jordan was the only basketball player on the planet. We see this over-simplification isn’t true. There are many skilled basketball players, Jordan is just at the top.
Another way to look at skill is known as the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule. To continue our basketball analogy, here’s how the 80/20 rule applies—80% of the scoring in basketball is generated by 20% of the maneuvers. So if we are learning how to play the game, we would want to concentrate on the 20% that generates the bulk of the scoring. Leave the other 80% to the professionals because, quite frankly, we will get into an area of diminishing returns very quickly. Leave the other 80% to the specialists.
Developing skill in any area is a practice in learning the basics of any field or task and mastering those basic components. Thus it is fairly simple (not necessarily easy, though) to become proficient and skilled in any new pursuit in a short amount of time. And the more skilled we are across a wide range of pursuits, the more useful and relevant we are when the occasion arises.
How do we become more skilled? Find new pursuits. Master the basics. Repeat. In the meantime, the pursuits in which we need to become experts will find us.
Strength in the sense of the hero and relevance refers to our physical prowess as much as it does our minds. While boosting up a 500-pound bench press is impressive, it is not very useful or practical and doesn’t fit much into relevance or our topic here of heroic strength. If the art of the hero is being competent to the point where we don’t have to think and can immediately spring into action, then our bodies must achieve some level of competence. What type of strength is useful?
Flexibility and adaptability both mentally and physically are aspects of relevant heroic strength. We must be able to put ourselves through a variety of movements physically when challenges arise. We must also be able to stay steady through the stress mentally and not crack under pressure.
We must be quick when necessary. Physically, this means we need to be able to sprint a little bit (think catching a bad guy, escaping a dangerous scenario or grabbing your toddler before they run out into the street.) Mentally, this means the ability to make quick and confident decisions without hesitation.
We must have endurance. Our bodies must be able to endure stress and fatigue at lower intensities for greater amounts of time. Mentally, we need to develop endurance to keep us focused and positive for the completion of tasks, or managing prolonged periods of stress in less-than-ideal situations. When we are struggling economically, building a new business, at war, dealing with a loved one who is ill or in the hospital, raising children, these are all areas where both physical and mental endurance are necessary and relevant.
Without endurance we quickly run the risk of becoming irrelevant.
How do we cultivate endurance? Take on new challenges. Set a goal and stick to it until the goal is accomplished. Don’t quit when things get hard. Laugh when we’re tired. Do things when we don’t feel like doing them.
Heroic Work and true relevance are impossible without compassion. As McDougall notes in Natural Born Heroes, it was the Germany’s lack of compassion and accountability to their fellow man that lost them World War II. While the German death squads certainly had legions of soldiers who were skillful and strong they lacked compassion, and therefore got their proverbial lunch eaten by a bunch of sheep-herders and officer school rejects despite being outnumber and outgunned.
Another way to look at it is although strength and endurance are great assets to enhancing our lives on this swirling blue orb, when misused or not used in the service of our fellow men and women, we are nothing but manipulators. We turn into spoiled rotten children who have all the means but have attempted to shield ourselves from responsibility or discipline. Without compassion, we become supreme wasters of our talents, and inevitably are chained to an ego that is out-of-control.
We see many professional athletes who sadly fall into this category. They are very skilled, very strong, but lack compassion. So for all the $$$ some of these guys and gals make, and for all of the means they have accumulated, many of them are constantly in and out of “trouble” because their feats have not been used in service to their fellow men and women so they no longer identify with John and Jane Doe because they have pigeonholed themselves inside the shadows their lifestyle.
While we all must count our blessings, we must be able to see ourselves in our fellow man.
As Ian Maclaren once said:
“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Our gifts are meant for service. If we fail to see the battle our fellow humans are fighting, then we will be chained to our egos forever and die in the black holes of irrelevance.
How do we develop more compassion? We expose ourselves to new things, new adventures, new ideas, new people. If we sit in the same corner our entire lives, much like a garden, our soil, our thoughts and ideas run out of nutrients and we grow fallow. Complacency is the enemy of relevancy. Complacency is the opposite of a life well-lived.
McDougall puts it simply, “Heroes are protectors, and being a protector means having enough strength for two. Being strong enough to save yourself isn’t good enough; you have to be better, always, than you’d be on your own. The ancient Greeks loved that little interlocking contradiction, the idea that you’re only your strongest when you have a weakness for other people . They saw health and compassion as two of the chemical components of a hero’s power: unremarkable alone, but awe-inspiring when combined.”
So let us carry the torch, daily to better ourselves lest we fade into the blackness of our egos and irrelevance.