Principles of Heroism


You could settle for an ordinary life.

Or do you feel like you were meant for something better?

Something special?

—Captain Christopher Pike, Star Trek

I love stories of heroism. The daring plan, the desperate final battle, the last-minute turnaround just when all seems lost—all that. These story elements remind us that what seems impossible might just be doable if the right people are willing to commit to it.

It took me a long time to figure out the role of the hero in modern society. When knights in shining armor first appeared, their garb was supremely practical, because brigands were threatening the innocents of the land, and the knights' job was to cut them down in personal combat. The idealized gunslingers of the Old West performed the same task. Today, conflicts are won not with swords or guns but with words, ideas, and hard work. The nature of the conflict has changed: In most of the civilized world, evil no longer threatens our bodies, so we turn instead to defeating the evil inside ourselves and encouraging others to do the same.

Heroes are hard to find, almost by definition. But they never go away; every era has had its heroes. They never go away because the need for them never goes away. Entropy never gives up, and neither do those who serve it, so new heroes must arise in every generation or evil will prevail. Our world needs heroes—men and women of proven good character who are willing to put others' well-being above their own.

I've decided to become one of these people. What follows is a set of principles I've developed to help me along the way. It's posted here for anyone who decides to follow the same path.

1. You Get Skill Points For Everything

It is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are. It does not matter that we will not reach our ultimate goal. The effort itself yields its own reward. —Gene Roddenberry

Role-playing games have taught me a lot about heroism. One of their most important lessons is that you are in control of what kind of person you are. This is modeled with a simple rule: Whenever you do something, you get better at doing that thing.

So, you think, practice makes perfect? Yes, but there's more to it than that. Everything you do gets you skill points in that activity whether you want them or not, and there's an opportunity cost when you choose to do one thing instead of another. Cheating, manipulating people, even whiling away your time doing nothing—all of these are activities you can sink skill points into. Skill points that probably could have been better spent elsewhere. Every one of us probably has a few skill points we wish we could re-spend.

We can't get those points back, but the good news is your supply of skill points is limited only by your lifespan. There are a lot of things you can get good at, and you have lots of time to learn. Just be intentional about which skills you're earning points in. If there are two approaches to a problem, take the one that will give you the kind of skill points you want.

2. Life Is Conflict

Go! Confront the problem. Fight! WIN! And call me when you get back, darling. I enjoy our visits. —Edna Mode, The Incredibles

If you don't want to live your life hiding from every problem that comes your way, you're going to need to spend some points in skills that will help you overcome those problems. When problems show up, don't avoid them—confront the problems, overcome them, and take the skill points they grant. This is how you level up into a more capable person.

Be warned: your obstacles will fight dirty. There are forces at work which would like you to remain downtrodden and powerless. Attempting to better yourself practically guarantees that resistance will materialize. You must push through it. Don't flinch when something makes you uncomfortable. Learn to recognize fear and overcome it. Accept pain when it leads to something good. Life and freedom await you on the other side.

I'm not here to tell you it will be easy. It's not meant to be. I'm here to tell you it will be worth it.

The struggle will be long and hard, so pick your battles. You cannot be strong in everything. Decide which issues are really important to you and attack them relentlessly; let the unimportant stuff slide.

3. Honesty Is Fundamental

Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps only when we have the discipline to overcome the pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to truth. That is to say we must always hold truth, as best we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth. Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs. —M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

The hardest villains to defeat are the ones that live inside you. If you're serious about improving your character, start by being brutally honest with yourself about your own thoughts and actions. You still need to be able to forgive yourself when you screw up, but you have to acknowledge your own character flaws before you can get to work on fixing them.

Seek out and expose every lie that's taken root in your life. Think carefully about the things that others tell you are true, and be especially careful about the things you tell yourself. Be wary of easy answers. Reexamine conclusions that favor you and yours. Think about the side of the story you're not being told.

The most harmful lies are the ones we tell ourselves. We use these lies to make ourselves more comfortable. Lies like "it's hopeless; there's no point in doing anything," or "[those people I don't get along with] are [stupid/crazy/evil]", or "[thing I did/might do] is OK because [justification]." Telling ourselves these things is much simpler and less painful than grappling with the real world in all its nasty complexity, so we just make up something that seems to make sense and move on. But living inside a ball of comfy lies is a small, miserable existence. If you want a powerful, joyful life you can be proud of, learn to operate on a truth-only basis, even when it hurts to do so.

4. Embrace Complexity

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. —Louis Brandeis

The human brain is marvelously good at finding patterns. It's one of the few information-processing tasks we're still better at than computers. Our brains are such apt pattern-finders that we often seem to find patterns where none actually exist, and we get emotionally attached to patterns we consider desirable. This is a big root cause of faulty and often hurtful thinking.

On some deep, instinctual level, humans really want to believe the world makes sense. And not just on a broad scale; everything that happens needs to fit into some meaningful narrative, or we feel that something is wrong. This is where confirmation bias comes from, along with victim blaming and other fallacies.

Every person carries a tiny, emotional model of the universe inside their head. This model of the way things work heavily influences who they are as a person. Because the universe is big and complicated, we tend to simplify our models, and that can get us into trouble.

Pick the group you like the least:

Let's say you're watching TV and someone says or does something outrageous. (On TV, this happens a lot.) As you process this event, you probably consider the source: Is this person a man or woman? Shabby or well-dressed? Democrat or Republican? Gay or straight? You analyze every category this person fits into and then adjust your opinion of those groups based on this person's behavior.

But here's the problem: When you adjust your opinion of every   based on the actions of one person, your mental model of that group is probably not getting closer to reality. They didn't all do that thing; only one of them did. But you're not really viewing them as individual people; you're too far away for that. So you mash what you know about all   into one big proto-  in your head and attribute the actions of every   you know to that person.

Problem is,   are a big group. They don't all agree with each other; often they work at cross-purposes. So when you mash all their actions together, the result is an incoherent mess. The only way to make sense of the result is to declare that   are crazy.

Spoiler alert: They're not crazy. Your mental model is wrong. The members of that group are individuals, not a collective; the actions of each of them seem quite reasonable from their perspective.

So be careful about generalizing people into groups, and especially about any pejoratives you assign to those groups. When you get angry at  , unless you know the people in that group quite well, the thing you are angry at might exist primarily inside your own head.

Default to Kindness; Practice Love

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. —Ian MacLaren
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Loving someone when they're being nice to you is easy; true love is loving someone when they drive you nuts. Love is a skill that must be developed like anything else. Look for opportunities to level up your love. A boss fight is coming, and you don't want to be underleveled when that day comes.

There will be situations where you simply don't have it in you to be loving to the people around you. If you can't be loving, try to at least be kind. You know very little about what others' lives are like. Your words have power, so use them responsibly. Criticize constructively or not at all.

This is our everyday epic: The good within us against the evil, living victoriously one skill point at a time. The choice is yours: Will you be a protagonist or a background character?