The Humble Hero Problem

The Humble Hero Problem

I just did what anyone else would have done.

That’s what you hear when you interview a hero after they’ve just done something that nobody else did.  An ordinary person comes upon an extraordinary situation and performs extraordinarily.  Their response is to focus on their ordinariness.  (I promise I won’t use the words ordinary or extraordinary again in this post)

  • Man lands a plane in the Hudson River – something no-one has ever done.  “Just doing my job”.
  • Man lies under an oncoming subway train to protect a fallen victim.  “I said to myself, ‘fool, you’ve got to go in there and help’”
  • Woman saves 2,500 kids from the Nazis by stealing them away daily.  “I am haunted every day that I didn’t do more.”

Humility is one of the cornerstones of the hero.  If someone declares themself a hero, you can rest assured that they’re not.

What if they say they’re training to be a hero?  Is there a humility problem there?  It’s something that’s been brought up to me and I wondered about it.

I didn’t wonder long, though.  We heroes-in-training are not showing off.  We’re preparing for a time where we might need to step out from the crowd.  We’re training to change the world – to be ready to make the right choice when it’s presented to us.

I often compare hero training to first aid and CPR training – you might never need it, but you’ll be glad you took the time if a situation ever calls for it.  No-one would call a CPR-certified person a showoff.  It’s what happens after the event that shows humility.  Or not.  Bring someone back to life and do a victory lap for the press – that’s lacking humility.  Same thing goes for someone who performs a heroic act.

So say it loud and say it proud.  You’re a hero-in-training.

image from Flickr

About Matt Langdon

I'm writing the Hero Handbook. This site is my notepad.

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10 Responses to The Humble Hero Problem

  1. Joshua Gordon August 8, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    “It’s what happens after the event that shows humility”.

    Great line, Matt. Really. I immediately thought of my dad. He’s not necessarily a ‘heroic’ kind of guy. He gets his fair share of attention though, as the pastor of a growing, positively effective church. (Doesn’t it suck that I need to clarify ‘positively effective’ when talking about church?)

    He always says “I reflect the greatness of those around me.” He’s continually deflecting praise he receives to his support cast.

    I like that about him.

    Keep bringing the awesome, man.

    - Joshua Gordon

    • Matt Langdon August 8, 2011 at 10:52 pm #

      Thanks Joshua. I think humility is such an important thing to promote in our world of reality TV and cashed up athletes.

  2. Kristen August 10, 2011 at 9:45 am #

    I was wondering the same thing. I think I have a “problem” with humility. I take it to the opposite extreme, whereby the very idea that I want to be a great person fills me with guilt.

    No doubt as I try to put away self-defeating insults, I will encounter accusations of arrogance and trying to be “too big for my britches.”

    I don’t want to be a hero so I can look good to other people. I want to achieve the heart of a hero so that I am no longer a coward. And I want to be heroic so that, when I die, I can feel like I mattered, even for a moment. If this is arrogance, then I guess I have to live with the label.

    • Matt Langdon August 10, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

      That is not arrogance. That is having a goal, a mission, a purpose. The people worried about the relative size of your britches don’t have such things.

  3. Drew Jacob September 19, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    Maybe it’s because I come from a non-Christian background (we polytheists don’t consider humility a virtue), but I’d say there’s another sort of humble hero problem:

    Heroes shouldn’t be humble.

    Humility often implies meekness, which holds one back from taking decisive action. Heroes (or wannabe heroes) should never be arrogant, but being honest and proud of their training and abilities is a good thing.

    When I finish a day of training at the dojo, I can honestly assess my skill level. If I was off-balance, I can say that without being humble or modest about it. If I did better than I ever have before, I can note that as a positive effect of the training and use it to guide what sort of practice I should be doing.

    Being bold, confident, and honest in one’s skill is a trait every hero needs, in my opinion. Deferring that “it’s what anyone else would do,” is, on some level, dishonest. Most people wouldn’t do the heroic thing, so don’t try to blend into the crowd; own it, be a role model, and inspire others to follow in your footsteps.

    • Matt Langdon September 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

      I certainly agree that meekness has no place in a hero, but don’t you think when someone who is doing something heroic explains how awesome they are essentially loses their status?

      I don’t think being bold, confident, and honest are the same thing as un-humble. I like to think of humility as the anti-reality TV trait. Humility is not showing off. I think we both agree there, but figured I’d check.

      • Drew Jacob September 21, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

        I think one should neither be arrogant nor humble, but occupy some third attitude I’d just describe as being “level.”

        That said, if they’re going to mess up one way or another I find it a lot less annoying if they err on the side of being arrogant.

  4. annette rowe August 15, 2013 at 9:41 am #

    I work with women in Flint at a rehab program. When they leave I tell them to look at the two sisters here who have helped them get a new start and believe in themselves. I remind them to pass it on to someone else when they leave. I love your story and would love to help you in any way you need. Looking forward to being part of the workshop in Nov.

    • Matt Langdon August 15, 2013 at 11:18 am #

      Thanks for the comment Annette. Can’t wait to meet you and hear more about that work.

  5. Kai October 19, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    Drew, Matt I love the quality of your discussions especially at other places on the site, but I just would like to add that there is a fine line to walk also considering reaction hero training along the lines of the CPR and the NYC firefighters 9/11. There has been created a hero complex which caused a lot of damage in the wake of this especially in emergency training and search and rescue campaigns. It has been documented because – sorry I will have to find the research again – it lead to quite dangerous behaviour after the traumatic events in the USA – just wanted to add to the difficulties around this especially in north american myth and media jungle. I also like your distinction between good decision and trained to act, which is more a jedy reflex thing with swift commutation and reaction speed which can only be trained unless the individual already possess a very quick mind.

    looking forward to continued discussion all the best kdc

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