“Never meet your heroes. They’ll surely disappoint.” It’s a common phrase, and one with some truth. But maybe that’s a good thing?
When I was a teenager, I devoured a book on a runner who might have been the epitome of toughness and grit. After all, he ran himself to the brink of death to win a marathon. I remember thinking: this is what I have to be like—to channel the ability to tolerate enormous amounts of pain, to want it more than anyone else. That man was Alberto Salazar.
Years later I got to work alongside him. Unless you’re new to following my work, you’ll know that didn’t exactly turn out well.
It’s strange being severely disappointed by those you once worshiped as a kid, the people you built up to be the epitome of what you desired, champions who, through hard work, perseverance, grit, and determination, found a way to reach the top. I often think back to what fifteen-year-old Steve would think seeing this version of Salazar instead of the ones he imagined as he looked at the posters on his bedroom wall.
It’s easy to get jaded. But to me, there’s more value in crushing simple caricatures than living in the delusion of hero worship. It’s better see the messy reality that comprises people, even those who have accomplished great things.
In his book Same as Ever, Morgan Housel writes of a similar phenomenon: “It’s easiest to convince people that you’re special if they don’t know you well enough to see all the ways you’re not.” It’s easy to look at others who are more accomplished and valorize them. We think they must be special, they must have some secret sauce or talent that us mere mortals can only aspire to. Distance fools us into thinking the world, and people, are unidimensional.
We don’t do this only as kids; it’s commonplace in adults as well. Just look around and see how many adults dare not question their favorite politician, athlete, star, and so on. It’s the entire basis of social media. Create a caricature of a person you can parade around on Instagram that looks real, but hides all the messy bits.
Meeting externally successful people and seeing that they are flawed humans is important. We get to release from the simplicity of youth, or face massive cognitive dissonance. We get to deal with reality and stop comparing ourselves to an unrealistic ideal.
You see that even the brilliant scientist you admire probably gets things wrong somewhere. Or the self-help author whose work you love will probably have some views that are counter to yours, or maybe even be a bit cringe. It can go further: someone who is brilliant on the page or screen could be a jerk in real life. I’d argue that nothing has helped shatter the myth of greatness around billionaires as much as “X,” formerly known as Twitter. We get to see them freak out, lose their minds, get addicted to social media, and rant and rave. In other words, these people who supposedly figured out how to win the game still struggle with all of the things that you and I do. Maybe they have a special talent in a narrow domain, or got a bit more lucky than someone else, but in the end, they are human, and often the most flawed of all.
So if you get a chance to meet your heroes, do it. Some may be massive disappointments, others minor, and perhaps a few will live up to the hype. Either way, it’s a reminder that people are more complex than hero or villain, good or bad. In other words, life isn’t like Instagram. And that’s a good thing. The more we see people as people, the better off we’ll be.