The Art of the Hero
I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.
I was raised on tales of heroes.
The seed was planted by my mother. She read me the entire Lord of the Rings saga, one chapter per night every night, long before I could read by myself. It took root somewhere within me, and as I grew up I developed an insatiable hunger for more such stories, beginning with fairy-tales, comic books and superheroes, then fantasy and science fiction, supplemented with action movies and martial art films. Conan the Barbarian became, and remains, my favourite film somewhere around the age of seven years old. The tragic, uncompromising heroes of David Gemmell captured my imagination when I was nine, and I still go back to his books ever year.
I would play out these stories, typically with friends or my brothers, delving deep into imagination as we hurtled headlong through childhood, slaying dragons, duelling villainous nemeses, waging wars and fighting pitched battles against overwhelming odds and all before dinner. Our games were both intensely physical, involving entire days adventuring through forests and fields, and mesmerically cerebral as we created fables of epic proportions in endless roleplaying sessions, locking ourselves away for days at a time to play them out in the castles of our minds.
As I moved into adolescence the ideals common to all these stories went from inspiration to aspiration; I began to hold myself up to the canvas of these tales, weighing myself against the giant characters that bestrode them – slowly realising I fell far short of what it was to be a hero. Nevertheless I found my choices, my decisions, and even my actions were emerging from the fertile ground of those heroic stories, as I held myself accountable to the values of the legendary figures I read about and watched. In difficult situations I began to ask what would (insert hero of choice) do? How would he/she act? rather than what would be the sensible thing to do here? This no doubt resulted in some extremely stupid decisions… but I survived!
Of course, I came to realise early on that the world was not made of the stuff of my beloved stories; but it seemed to me that it ought to be. And so, with the determination of youth on my side, I embarked on a quest in pursuit of the art of the hero. I didn’t realise at the time what that art was, or even that I pursued it; I was simply driven to make myself capable of living up to the standards set by the men and women of legend I had been raised on.
It began with fighting. Almost every single heroic protagonist I had encountered shared a very definite trait: they could kick ass. Whether with sword and shield, superpowers, firearms, exotic Eastern weaponry, lightsabres or unarmed, the heroes relied on their physical prowess in combat to turn the tide, to save the day, to protect the defenseless or liberate the oppressed. And so I embarked, around the age of nine years old, on what has been a lifelong study of the fighting arts and combative disciplines. I had no interest in the sport versions of these arts, I only wanted to be able to protect myself and others and to be able to respond appropriately and usefully when the sh*t hit the fan. That training took me to the Far East for five years after I graduated from university, just a small part of the life of discipline I embarked upon in order to acquire the skills I sought. And all sparked by stories.
But there were other virtues central to and prevalent in all these stories, beyond mere strength of arms: virtues such as self-sacrifice, humility, compassion, humour, love. Heroes were strong and capable but also gentle, kind, caring. The motivation to use their fantastic skills sprung from a place of empathy, from a desire to help others, to do the right thing, to uphold a principle or resist a great evil. Never from hate or greed or fear or for personal gain. At the heart of heroic action lies altruism – the wellspring from which all virtues flow. Accordingly I began to look for these things within myself, leading to an endless and wide-ranging study of philosophy, esoterica, psychology, mysticism, physics, religion and more. And this, too, came from stories.
The Road Less Travelled By
My path diverged more and more from the seemingly sensible, rational roads into adulthood that most of my peers took, save for the few friends who also sought to embody the heroic ideal, usually far more capably than I ever did. Oh sure, externally I followed much of the traditional format – ending up in post-graduate school then eventually finding a lecturer position at a university and working briefly for a strategy consultancy among other employment experiments – at least for a while. And only at a surface level.
Deep down I was still pursuing the heroic ideal; training, learning, getting stronger and fitter, acquiring practical skills where I could, facing down fears on a regular basis and always judging myself against the stories of my youth. What would a hero do?
This way of thinking took me to some weird and wonderful places and face to face with some extraordinary people, to be sure. And, without a doubt, brought me to where I am today, doing what I do. I haven’t succeeded, I might add: I never matched the heroes of my childhood stories, nor overcame great evils or accomplished legendary feats. I’m not a hero. But I’ve learned the importance of aspiring to be one, no matter what life throws at you. And, importantly, I now know how to recognise a hero when I see one. And I’ve seen a few. Most recently at a certain quite unique event called The Hero Round Table.
The Hero Round Table
In 2015 my good friend, author Chris McDougall of Born to Run fame, released his second book entitled Natural Born Heroes, which, as the title suggests, delves into the heroic arts as it frames itself around the incredible story of the Cretan resistance during World War Two. As part of his research for the work, Chris identified parkour as a spiritual counterpart to the heroic skill-set exemplified by the handful of Greek and British resistance fighters who held 80,000 German soldiers at bay for so long on the island. Chris sought out Parkour Generations to learn more and travelled to the UK to spend some time with us, beginning his own training in parkour and interviewing myself and a few amongst us extensively in order to feature us in the book. A fantastic storyteller of heroic proportions, Chris fitted in with the people of PKGen like a long-lost sibling.
It was Chris who first introduced me to the Hero Round Table, a conference with a name as cool as its premise. He had spoken at the conference in 2014 and had recommended me to the creators of the conference, Matt Langdon and Ari Kohen, who also run a company which delivers workshops on heroism to school children all over the world, the fantastic Hero Construction Company.
I first had the pleasure of being interviewed by Matt and Ari for their Hero Report Podcast, and was blown away by the nature of their work and what they were doing to inspire and help young people to embark upon their own hero’s journey. And so when they asked me to attend and speak at an upcoming Hero Round Table in Michigan, USA, I leapt at the chance. After all, for someone raised on heroism, being invited to a gathering of heroes in a distant land was pretty much the stuff of legend. I have a sneaking suspicion that this one invitation finally validates the past 30 years of my life 🙂
And so I went. As with many of my excursions around the world I had no idea what to expect, beyond Matt and Ari being genuinely good people working for a truly worthy cause, and Chris’ strong recommendation that I wouldn’t regret it. He wasn’t wrong.
The Hero Round Table is a conference event, set over a few days, that brings together a diverse range of inspirational speakers from around the world, all of whom are engaged with typically selfless, positive and philanthropic work. I’ve been to a lot of conferences and expos over the years, most of which are highly focused either on one discipline, one field of study or one outcome: the strength of the Hero Round Table, I soon came to realise, is that it isn’t. The Round Table brings together people from all walks of life, backgrounds and a variety of professions to discuss, exemplify and promote the virtues of heroism. And not just conceptually, but in practice – how do we embody heroic virtues, how do we bring them into the world and make them a reality? In short, how can we be of service?
And boy, does it deliver. The people I met at the event, from speakers to volunteers to participants, were of an incredibly high quality as individuals. Without exception they were committed to helping others, to identifying hardship and suffering and doing their best to lessen it, to making the world a better place. And many of them had sacrificed hugely to do so. As I listened to their stories and their endeavours I developed a great respect for each of them, as well as for Matt and Ari for making such an event a reality.
It would take a dedicated blog site to recount all of these amazing individuals’ stories, but I will give at least a taste of the truly noble and admirable work these people are doing.
Chantelle Baxter founded the non-profit organisation One Girl with the goal of educating one million girls across Africa by 2020. Fuck. After a life-changing trip to Sierra Leone, and from a pretty damn rough background herself, Chantelle was struck by the challenges that women and girls face everywhere and committed herself to doing something about it, and to inspire others to do the same. Bear in mind that in Sierra Leone, where One Girl focuses its efforts, a girl born there is more likely to be raped than to go to high school… She’s set herself one hell of a task and, having already raised millions of dollars on her quest, is well on her way to accomplishing it. I found Chantelle to be humble, genuine, funny and passionate about life and about improving it for others. Check out her TedTalk here, and you’ll see what I mean. An amazing woman.
Jean-Robert Cadet was born in the late 1950’s to a wealthy, white father and an impoverished, black mother. Jean was given to another Haitian family for their use upon the death of his mother. He was four years old.
In this way, Jean became a restavek, or child servant, forced to work long hours in the home of his master. Physically, verbally, sexually and emotionally abused by his masters, he was often lent out to neighbors and friends so that he might work for them as well. Excluded from all family, cultural, civic, and religious activities, Cadet describes himself as an “observer, rather than a participant, in my Haitian culture and society.” Jean-Robert survived this ordeal and eventually found himself abandoned in the United States, homeless and starving. Incredibly he then focused all his efforts on dismantling the restavek system of Haiti. The Jean R. Cadet Restavek No More, Inc. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to ending child slavery in Haiti. The organisation focuses on raising international awareness, conducting national sensitizing campaigns in Haiti and developing and implementing elementary and secondary school curriculum that empowers Haitian children to work together to end child slavery. Wow. Check out Jean’s astonishing work at the link above.
Katherine Bolkovac‘s life was recently the subject of a Hollywood movie, ‘The Whistleblower’, starring Rachel Weisz, Vanessa Redgrave, Benedict Cumberbatch and others, and for good reason. Katherine was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for her battle against government contractors behind the trafficking of women for sexual slavery in Bosnia. Kathy now provides consultancy on whistleblower protection and codes of conduct, and advocates for legislative policy and reforms for government accountability. Focusing on human trafficking for forced prostitution and violence against women, she provides instruction and training on peacekeeping operations at universities, non-governmental organizations, national defense departments, and community organizations. Another incredible woman, Kathy lost her job, her career, her professional reputation and risked her life to stand up to the incredibly dark and powerful forces that were at work in Bosnia. A true hero.
And I could go on. I could tell you about the young, dedicated Hungarian Adam Molnar, part of a heroic group in Budapest promoting everyday heroism through small but significant acts, via tools such as the Hero-I-Am app. Or I could introduce Denise Garrido, former Miss Universe, who now spends her life volunteering in charitable work to help feed and clothe children in developing countries. Or Shawn Furey, whose Hero Training School educates prison inmates in ‘human ecosystem recovery operations’. Or Jeremy Frith, Rachel Sykes, Chase Masterson, Andre Solo, Sylvia Grey, Suzanne Bernier, Ellie Jacques, Carol Sloth, Candace Crane, the Sartor brothers. Or others, many others, who in one way or another dedicate themselves to embodying the heroic ideal and take it upon themselves to embrace the world they found and leave it a better place. All inspirational people with whom I was honoured to spend a few special days.
The Brave, The Few
A common refrain is that everyone is a hero. I disagree. And so do Matt and Ari, the hero experts. The motto of the Hero Round Table is that the opposite of a hero isn’t a villain, it’s a bystander. And how many of us stand by and do nothing when we could, should and must do more? Like the 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in New York who watched a killer stalk and stab a woman to death in Kew Gardens in 1964? Or the hundreds who stood by and watched my good friend Andy Pearson rescue a drunken man who had fallen on to the tracks of the London underground last year? No, not everyone is a hero: everyone may have the potential to be a hero, but it doesn’t happen automatically.
That’s what I chose to talk about at the conference – how to capture the art of the hero. We all know it begins with altruism, the desire to help others, but it’s made possible through those attributes we need to develop, which include courage, capability, resilience, empathy, humility, strength of body and mind, intelligence and compassion. But what to learn? Where to begin? How do we know we are finding and strengthening these attributes?
I refined it to a process, and it aligned well with the core concepts of parkour. That process is:
Step One: Explore
Be curious about all things. Explore life, go on adventures, discover the world and the people around you, and by doing so get the hell out of your comfort zone as often as possible. Be bold. Practice being brave. Stand up for what you believe in.
Step Two: Challenge Yourself
By exploring, you will naturally encounter obstacles, barriers, challenges of every kind. Embrace them, back yourself to overcome them, stand firm. Adversity is what shapes a hero because it provides that element of risk, that vital notion of knowing there is the risk of a personal consequence to doing the right thing but still doing it anyway.
Step Three: Adapt
Regular engagement with challenge will bring about positive adaptations in you as you grow and change in order to find your way through, over and around the obstacles on your path. Be flexible, agile, and you will over time develop the natural fluidity that is encompassed in the non-grasping mind. The art of the hero is in always seeking a positive solution no matter what difficulty faces you.
And that’s it: hero training 101. Apply this process to any field of study, any task, any endeavour, and you’ll acquire everything you need along the way. Exactly what that is will differ from person to person and from journey to journey, but this is a surefire method to make sure you find it.
Heroes are made, not born. Like the valiant warriors and characters in the stories they train hard to acquire the skill, strength, courage and intuition to be able to act in the right way at the right time. As with all things, hero-ing requires practice. The more you do it, the more you stand up to be counted, to help someone else – even in the smallest way – to give of your time, effort, resources and heart, the better you get at it. The easier it comes. The more likely you are to do it when it counts.
And it’s worth it. Not only for those you help, but also for yourself. It’s highly rewarding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Ignore those who dismiss heroic acts as nothing but self-gratification; they are the ones likely to be sitting on the sidelines criticising from a position of safety. If you’re going to sacrifice in order to help those around you then you damn well should at least be able to feel some sense of satisfaction that you are doing the right thing.
It’ll be hard. It might cost you dear. It might claim your life. There’s a reason heroes are few and far between, and a reason they stand out in the stories as the protagonists in the first place: because it’s tough doing the right thing no matter the cost, and it’d be so much easier to fade into the crowd and let someone else sort it out. But who writes stories about people like that?
So check out the great work of Matt’s Hero Construction Company and take yourself to a Hero Round Table event in your neck of the woods, or even one far from your neck of the woods – after all, heroes have to go on journeys. You won’t regret it and you may even find yourself inspired to seek the hero within yourself. And that can’t be a bad thing.