The World Needs More Heroes (Thankfully, They Exist)

I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes lately.

This summer, my colleague Andrew Daniels pitched an idea to tell a story a day for a month. I liked the idea, and we tried to come up with a subject: what would be complex enough, evocative enough, and interesting enough to keep people engaged for 30-odd days.

Thus was born Every Day Heroes.

And a slight obsession with all things heroic.

It started with the negative: Andrew pitching possible heroes and me shooting many of them down. It was completely a gut thing, which made me feel rotten. I don’t like giving people invisible targets and, frankly, it wastes a lot of time.

So I began to pull together an Equation of Heroism. I went to Audible and found a recent, relevant and interesting book, What Makes a Hero: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, by Elizabeth Svoboda. On my Nexus tablet, I read what I thought was an unrelated book, Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection.

What was surprising was Svoboda’s dissection of heroism started with compassion, and the Buddhist loving-kindness meditation. One who can’t see the humanity in others, and its reflection in one’s self, isn’t about to reach for the heroic. And Brown’s book made the point that true authenticity in our lives requires that we face up to it all—the joyful and the heart-breaking—and in that facing we can find our compassion for others, and ourselves.

I began to articulate a definition of heroism. There were discrete elements: being of use to others, level of risk to the others, level of risk to yourself, how many people would benefit from the act, creativity in your “solution.” It led in time to an Equation for Heroism.

So here goes. My equation runs like this …

[Level of jeopardy] x [number of people at jeopardy]/2 (if more than 2) + [jeopardy to hero] x [ease or difficulty of heroic act] = heroic score

I’d score the items on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being of little or no effect to 5 being the greatest possible. If you leaped into a pool full of crocodiles to save a baby, you got a “5” for “jeopardy to hero.” If you walked across your family room and took a lollipop out of a baby’s mouth, that’s a “1.”

That helped. Andrew pitched a guy who had suffered grievous injuries in Iraq, losing a leg. He had recently separated from his wife, quit his job, and opened a CrossFit gym. Gutsy? Sure. Heroic? I didn’t think so. The equation told me he was acting to find himself, and while my heart was with him in his search, it’s not exactly heroic. I called candidates like him “eventual heroes.”

The equation also helped me decide what kind of stories we should do and how many of certain categories: the guys who overcome a medical issue and raise money for a cause are heroes, but we don’t need too many of those stories. The obese guy who loses 150 pounds as a role model for and a gift to his kids? Sure, but again, a few of these in the course of a month go a long way.

In working out a 31 heroes in 31 days conceit, I found the most compelling item in the equation was creativity, the person who imagines a fresh way of bringing the heroic impulse to bear. Ricky Smith, for example, who traveled the country doing random acts of kindness (#RAKE). The video we shot with him on a rainy day in New York City showed just how out of the norm a little kindness can be in the Big Apple—and how much our world needs some playfulnesss. (My favorite moment is when he offers an umbrella to a soaked young lady, who at first refuses it. “You can have it,” he says. “That’s why I bought it. It’s called niceness.”)

Or Pittsburgh bikemaker Michael Brown, who agreed to do what others wouldn’t for fear of liability: make bikes for people missing limbs.

Or car salesman Mark Rolands (talk about playing against type), who gave a kidney to a co-worker.

And so it went for 31 days. People doing the right thing. Like Cleveland postman James Jones, who noticed a 92-year-old on his route wasn’t collecting his mail, and bugged the police till they checked and found him nearly dead in his home. He survived.

“We’re the eyes and ears of our community,” Jones says, speaking for himself and his fellow mail carriers. “Every morning when we clock in, we gather around and discuss the importance of being safe and taking care of our customers. It’s our responsibility to look out for them.”

But it’s not just the mail carriers. It’s all of us. We’re all heroes. And it gets to the heart of heroism—that we’re accountable to each other. That what we do matters. And that we can improve the lives of each other.

So do it. And if you’re parent, make it part of your day to encourage the kids in your life to be heroes. If you want resources, there’s an amazing organization—the Heroic Imagination Project—that can help you to inspire the children in your life to be the heroes inside them.

And while Men’s Health is done publishing a hero story a day, we’re not done with heroes. We’ll tell a couple of these stories each week. Coming soon: the Lancaster, Pa., teen who responded to an Amber Alert by tracking down and unnerving a potential pedophile until he released a 5-year-old girl. Talking with the young man made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Being in the presence of heroes will do that to you.

It also makes the world seem simpler. Back to Rolands, who gave a kidney. Big decision. Must have involved a lot of sleepless nights.

Uh, no.

“I knew it was not only the right thing to do—but in this case, the only thing,” he says. “It’s such a great feeling to be able to help out a friend.”

It’s simple. We all know folks who do it. We know we can do it as well. If only we’d start.

So start. Perform an act of heroism today. You’ll feel better. Equally importantly, someone else will as well.

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