“Never meet your hero” is a microphone-dropping expression.
Whatever happens, you risk being disappointed, they say. Like seeing a peacock up close, heroes just don’t look so magical in the bright light. Sometimes that’s the fault of them being human; sometimes it’s the fault of the stratospheric expectations we have for every dimension of their life.
This is what people say, but you don't have to believe it.
“Hero” here is being used liberally, and not in the “saving a flaming busload of school children” sense. Bruce Springsteen or Sandra Day O'Connor might be your hero. Your distant uncle or your 12th grade English teacher might be your hero. And you might be a hero to someone because of what you’ve done, given, or who you are.
There are only two books by living authors that I read so many times that their authors became heroes to me. The first book I read 35 times when I was in college. When I graduated, I wrote the American author to thank him, but never heard back.
The second book I read more recently, and have reread my notes of it at least 20 times since. I wrote the French author to thank him, but never heard back. After a couple more tries with a couple other email addresses, I got a short thank you.
My family and I were going to France for a conference over Thanksgiving. In spite of the “Never meet your hero” advice, I emailed this man a couple weeks before we left. I asked if he would like to meet for coffee, lunch, dinner, or whatever. He chose the “whatever” option in a very big way.
Day 1. He and his family took us to dinner
Day 2. Took us on his favorite "hidden surprises of Paris" tour
Day 10. Came over to our apartment for dinner and silly laughs
Day 12. Bid us farewell with a "good luck" college present for my oldest daughter
Here’s what stuck me. What I most wanted to talk about when I met him was his book (and others he wrote). I had 40 hours of questions and praise. Yet that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about for more than just a few minutes. He wanted to talk about marriage, delivering pizza (which we both did as teenagers), kids, ups and downs, faith, food, the 1754 French-Indian War, morning routines, board games, bike riding, . . . almost everything but his books, and that's why Alexis Beuve is a hero to me.
He made me meet him not as a hero, but as a person who had a lot of other meaningful dimensions to connect with. He also did so in a very humble and giving way. This had a much bigger impact on me than if we would have talked 40 hours about his books like I had originally wanted. It made the impact of his books on me even greater.
“All actual heroes are essential people. And all people are possible heroes,” said E.B. Browning. This is easy to forget. We forget to cut our heroes slack – hey, they’re just human.
We might also forget that we could be a hero to someone and we might need to be sure we act humble and human.
We might not be a flaming bus-saving headline hero, but we might be a hero to someone we don’t know. Being that humble, connecting, interested person will be your antidote to the “Never meet your hero” warning.
Related Readings on Heroism
No one has a cousin named Tarzan. No one has a best friend named Goat Boy. That’s because we’re not raised by apes or goats, but we're all raised, socialized, and helped by other people.
Some of these people are obvious: parents, close relatives, coaches, and some teachers. But a lot of others aren’t nearly so obvious. They might be that person who recommended we go to one school versus another, helped get us a job, helped lend a hand during a difficult time, or saved us from a desert island that one time by paddling through shark infested waters using only his right arm.
With Thanksgiving coming up, it can be a nice chance to hit pause and think of 2-3 nonobvious people who might have done a small thing that made a big difference in our life. Doing something as simple as this can do your soul good. On one extreme, it reminds us that we aren’t the self-centered Master of our Universe as we might think when things are going great. On the other extreme, it reminds us that there are a lot of people silently cheering for us when we might think things aren’t going so great.
What do you suppose would happen if you tracked these people down and game them a call? It’s four steps:
1. Find their phone number and dial.
2. “Hey, I’m ___; remember me? How are you?”
3. “It’s Thanksgiving. I was thinking of you.”
For about the past 30 years, I’ve tried to do this each Thanksgiving. It used to be the same 3-4 people (advisors and a post-college mentor), then a couple more, and this year I’m adding a new one. For some reason, I always look for an excuse why I shouldn’t make these calls. I always find myself pacing around before I make the first call. Part of me thinks I might be bore them, or they already know it, or it’s interrupting them, or that it’s too corny.
Yet even if I have to leave voice messages, I’m always end up smiling when I get off the phone. I feel more thankful and centered. Maybe they feel differently too.
Still, there’s some years I never made any calls, because I had good excuses. Maybe it was too late in the day, or they were probably with their family, or I called them last year, or I didn’t really have enough time to talk. I’m sure they had some good excuses – way back when – as to why they didn’t have time for me. I’m thankful they didn’t use them.
If you can think of 2-3 people you’re thankful for who might not know it, you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving next year to tell them. They won’t care that you’re a little bit late or a whole lot early. It’s only 4 steps.
There once was a legendary, larger-than-life professor. If Marvel’s 137th movie of this year is named UltraProf, it would be based on John Shank. He taught a dry subject (think Accounting), but his charisma and his orchestration of his class made each class session seem like 60-person David Mamet plays. Every class had passion, drama, and some surprising reveal at the end that people still talked about ten years later. Here’s a quote:
Although the opposite is true, some believed he was only about style. This is because he wore Brooks Brothers braces, walked with a MVP swagger, drove a Dartmouth green sports car, and he had a runway model wife who was like some VP of Finance somewhere. His office was professionally-decorated with French draperies, super-thick Dartmouth green carpeting, and a massive 18th century French desk which sat in the middle of the room so his desk chair could face the doorway. Even his two huge perfectly groomed dogs were effortlessly well-mannered. On Saturdays he’d come to work, and they’d sit on either side of his desk and face the door. They were like lions on either side of a throne, and he was like Odin . . . or John Wick. His dogs keep eternal vigilance. My dog wets on me and then licks my face.
This was 1992. Because he had about the highest MBA teacher ratings at Dartmouth's Tuck School and I had about the lowest ratings, he let me sit in on his classes so I could suck less . . . so I could learn better teaching strategies and classroom management skills. One Saturday during a Tuck alumni reunion, I stopped by his office and told him I had overheard some alumni who were still talking about what they had learned in a class they had taken with him 10 years earlier.
He looked up over the top of his half-glasses, and said, “That’s what they’re supposed to do. It means I’ve done my job.”
He said his goal isn’t to teach students to get a great first job (or to, analogously, get a high score on the GRE or MCAT), his goal is to teach them to succeed for wherever they will be in 10 or 20 years. Although he got outstanding teaching ratings, he brushed them off by saying that teacher ratings mainly measured the moment – they mainly measured the warm feelings a student had at the time. Ratings might capture style (which he was very good at), but they may not always measure long-term substance.
I regret that I never had the presence of mind to ask him how he did it -- how he knew what long-term impact to aim at. Since he was on boards and did a lot of consulting with upper management, I suspect he taught his courses like he was teaching board members and upper management. That is, when he was teaching, he treated them like they were high level managers. That’s one way to do it.
Ten or fifteen years after I left Dartmouth I was in Boston, and I rented a car to drive up to visit John. I wanted to thank him for being so generous, and I wanted to prove to myself that his office, desk, and dogs were as amazing as I remembered them. There was a different name on his door. I was too late. I later learned John Shank had passed away in 2006 in a car accident in Southern California.
I love the idea of trying to teach for a long-term impact. It’s like trying to create long-term memories. I sometimes think I can remember everything John said to me because he was always so intentional with every conversation. Just like he was with his classes.
At the next reunion, if his former student’s aren’t talking about what they learned 30 years ago, they’ll be talking about how hard he tried. That itself was a great lesson.
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