How to Become a Hero c.j. hayden
   How to Become a Hero
   You Are the Champion the World Is Waiting For


   C.J. Hayden, MCC


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Remembering the peace heroes 

thou shalt not believe the generalsMemorial Day is set aside for remembering our fallen soldiers. We hear much about war heroes on this day. The television schedule is filled with movies and speeches that glorify the sacrifices of war

But what of the peace heroes? Why is there not a day set aside to remember those who were lost while fighting for peace? Heroes like:

Mahatma Gandhi - He led India to independence from England with a massive campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, then fought to end religious strife within his country. He was killed while leading a public prayer meeting.

Martin Luther King, Jr. - Inspired by Gandhi’s legacy of nonviolent resistance, King led the American civil rights movement to some of its greatest victories, and spoke powerfully against the Vietnam War. Shortly before his assassination at age 39, he wrote, “Thou shalt not believe that the generals know best.”

Yitzhak Rabin - As prime minister of Israel, he negotiated for peace with Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine. He was assassinated while leaving a peace rally.

Peace Pilgrim - During the height of McCarthyism and the Korean War, she traveled 25,000 miles on foot, with no money or possessions, spreading her message of peace. “Overcome evil with good and falsehood with truth and hatred with love,” she said. She died in a car crash while being driven to a speaking engagement.

Oscar Romero - As Archbishop of El Salvador, he told the world about the citizens of his country who were being abducted, tortured, and killed by government death squads. He was shot while performing mass.

This Memorial Day, let us remember also those whose heroic contributions were not in battle, but in leading us to a more peaceful world.

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A new hope 

barack obamaIn President Obama's inaugural speech today, he declared, "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear." Yes we did. Because this is the stand that heroes take.

There's no question that these are scary times. As Americans, we are confronted by two wars, an economic crisis, and a failing health care system. As humans, we are facing a warming planet, terrorism, ethnic violence, an HIV epidemic, and widespread hunger. The challenges arrayed against us seem daunting. But impossible odds are the hero's stock in trade.

I speak of heroes because a hero took office today. America's new leader is a man who chooses hope over fear, taking responsibility over placing blame, and unified action over partisan argument. These are heroic choices.

But our new leader is not the only hero this day. We who elected him made these choices also. We rejected fear, and blame, and partisanship. We chose to elect a man who many said could not be elected, who promised us he would shake up the status quo, who called on us for hard work and personal responsibility.

We chose this path, we elected this man at this time, not because it was easy, but because it was needed. Because we believed, like our new president, "that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task." We made this choice because we, too, have the stuff of heroes.

We are the ones we've been waiting for. We're here.

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Is it time to wake up? 

St. Augustine
In his Confessions, the 4th century philosopher and theologian St. Augustine of Hippo writes of being "held down pleasantly, as in sleep," instead of rising to answer the call to an enlightened state. We all know the place between sleeping and waking, when you wake and drowsily wonder, "Should I get up and start my day, or should I luxuriate here in my warm, comfortable bed?" It feels so good just to lie there and ignore the rest of the world, at least for a time. You know you should get up, but perhaps it wouldn't hurt to doze, just for a few minutes more...

Augustine's point was how pleasurable it can be to avoid becoming enlightened, and delay taking action on what you know to be true. Even when you know there is more to life than lying abed, that there are important things to be done, and you should be doing them, it's so much more pleasant to snuggle deeper under the covers and keep your eyes closed a little while longer.

On an average morning in daily life, of course, we do get up, although sometimes a bit later than we should. Usually, someone is expecting us to be somewhere – a spouse, a boss, a child, a client. And so we rise, protestingly, sometimes grumpily, because duty calls.

But answering the call to enlightenment doesn't work quite that way. There is typically no one waiting for you to become enlightened, no expectation that you will be arriving at enlightenment by 9:00 AM, no consequences if you choose not to become enlightened today.

And so the choice is yours alone, and it comes upon you at the most inopportune time – when you are half asleep. How can you be expected, you might protest, to make such a brave choice when you aren't even fully awake? Exactly so. This is why most of us spend as much of our lives as possible in a half asleep state. It's so pleasant here resting between the oblivion of sleep and the responsibilities of waking life. Who wouldn't want to stay here as long as he or she could?

By the very nature of this particular choice, it only comes upon you when you are at your lowest ebb, defenseless, yearning to retain the lusciousness of staying half asleep, even after you know that a more enlightened state awaits you.

The choice is yours to make – sleep or wake, luxuriate in selfish pleasure or rise and meet the day, burrow deeper into your cocoon or open your eyes to what the world needs of you.

Half asleep, your world can be no larger than your bedroom. Wide awake, from your bedroom you can begin to change the world.

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One hero's report card 

Last January, I issued a challenge to readers of this blog and myself to commit one heroic act in 2007. And I made a commitment to my own heroic act: to launch or join a project in support of educating girls in the developing world, and contribute enough of my time and energy to send 30 girls -- a classroom full -- to school. I'm proud to say that I achieved this goal.

In June, I founded the Send Girls to School Project to spread the word about the amazing impact girls' education has on global poverty, supporting five different nonprofits that help girls attend school around the world. As a result of this project, enough donations were made to Educate Girls Globally, Room to Grow Girls' Scholarships, and Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) to send approximately 40 girls to school for one year in India, Southeast Asia, and Africa. (If you made a contribution after hearing about this project, please stop by the Report Card page to let me know.)

A totally unexpected result of this project is that it inspired a song! Singer-songwriter Lisa Safran wrote They Just Need School after learning about the project, and you can listen to it on the Send Girls to School website.

If you made your own resolution to be more heroic last year, how did you do? In my steps to becoming a hero, "take action" is #3, so it's okay if you didn't get quite that far. Perhaps you made progress on step #1, "develop your heroic qualities." That, too, is a heroic act.

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You don't have to do it alone 

The hero's journey can be a lonely one. But does it have to be? Or in fact, do the heroes who ultimately succeed in their quests do so because they were willing to seek out -- and accept -- a considerable amount of help?

In Joseph Campbell's writings about the hero's journey, he describes numerous helpers the hero may require along the way, including mentors, spirit guides, allies, and rescuers. In stories about heroes from mythology, fiction, and real life, the role of these helpers is significant.

King Arthur had his mentor Merlin and the aid of the Knights of the Round Table. Luke Skywalker had the guidance of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the companionship of Han Solo and Princess Leia. Lance Armstrong became a champion cyclist because he was mentored by Chris Carmichael, survived cancer with the assistance of Dr. Steven Wolff and cancer nurse Latrice Haney, and built his cancer research foundation with the help of Kristen Richard, who became his wife. Successful heroes have help.

If you are setting out on a quest of your own, you may already know that you need guidance and support, but where can you find it? One approach I always suggest to fledgling heroes pondering this question is immersion. If you stand outside the new world you want to enter, it always appears mysterious, and usually frightening. You don't know where to go or who to talk to, and because you aren't talking to anyone, you think you are alone with your goals and dreams. But once you take one small step into that world, you immediately make contact with like-minded people. The trick is to be willing to step in before you have it all figured out.

When I first decided to help entrepreneurs become more successful in 1992, I had no idea how to go about it. I didn't know anyone else who did that kind of work, I had no mentors or guides, and no one to help me. If I had stayed in that isolated state, I wouldn't have lasted 15 weeks in my new venture. Instead, it's been 15 years. The reason I've ultimately been able to help so many people with my work is because I've had a lot of help myself. And I found that help by immersing myself in the world I wanted to enter -- before I felt ready to be there.

What this means on a practical level can be any number of activities, for example, attending meetings of like-minded people, reading books about related people and projects, surfing the web to find out who is doing what, taking classes related to your goal or dream, and asking others for ideas, resources, and connections.

One of the most helpful steps to me personally turned out to be getting on mailing lists. Receiving newsletters and announcements from the people and organizations already in the world I wanted to enter introduced me to new possibilities, suggested places I could go and people I could meet, and made me feel as if I was a part of something.

If you are looking for mentors and allies for a social action or advocacy project of your own, the organization FLOW has developed some effective models for connecting people with similar ideas. In San Francisco, New York, and Austin, they've been holding regular "Activation Circle" gatherings to bring together people with a shared vision of "liberating the entrepreneurial spirit for good." And on Nov. 30 in Austin, and Dec. 7 in San Rafael, they are hosting daylong events for that purpose.

I'll be attending the San Rafael event, where the morning will be focused on a particular theme: supporting women entrepreneurs in the developing world. In the afternoon session, attendees will have a chance to interact with each other about the topic of their choice related to any social enterprise, in an open space setting. After attending a session like this in October, I walked away with a tall stack of new contacts and possibilities for my own projects.

One of the fastest ways to end your quest to make a difference before it starts is to believe that you're the only one on that particular journey. If you want to have a successful mission, start looking around for who else should be on your team.

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Discovering the real world 

Recently, I've been exploring the issue of the necessary conditions for people to become entrepreneurs. For me, this is one aspect of a larger question -- what enables people to take action on the change they wish to see in the world?

At an Empowering Women Entrepreneurs event last weekend, I learned that in the developing world, one of the obstacles to successful entrepreneurship is the expense and difficulty of legally starting a business. In Honduras, for example, to open a legal sole proprietorship requires 169 steps, 270 days, and $3,765 U.S.

The interesting fact is that all this doesn't stop entrepreneurs from getting started in Honduras. Instead, they go underground. Up to 89% of all businesses in Honduras operate extralegally. Doing business in this underground economy has many problems. Entrepreneurs have no access to capital, so they can't expand. Businesses can be shut down arbitrarily by the law or local bosses. But despite these difficulties, new underground businesses get started every day.

This phenomenon isn't limited to the developing world. In the urban centers of North America, underground economies thrive. In Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh describes how conventional business owners -- not just drug dealers and prostitutes -- operate in the economic underground. Self-employed mechanics, food vendors, painters, hairdressers, and more are all operating outside the law and without participating in the tax system.

When people are unable to participate in the legal economy because the cost of entry is too high or their path is blocked due to racial, class, religious, or gender barriers, it doesn't stop them from entering the economy. They just create their own.

When I was a street kid in the 70's, I lived in this twilight economy. Money changed hands, products and services were obtained, people worked in exchange for compensation, but no one I knew had a paycheck or a business license or paid taxes. I used to look at the straight world -- the one where people had jobs and stores and checking accounts -- and think that was the real world. People like me, without an education or the right connections or respectable resumes, didn't have the price of admission to that world, so we stayed in our own.

But in an environment where more money changes hands under the counter than over it, isn't that where the "real world" truly lies? In an economy like that of Honduras, there are clearly more people participating in the shadow economy than in the legal one. In the U.S., no one knows how many people make a living in the underground economy, although the number of illegal immigrants alone has been estimated as high as 20 million. Estimates of the monetary size of the U.S. underground economy suggest that it is equivalent to 9% of the legitimate economy, which would make it about $1 trillion per year. That amount seems pretty real to me.

In the 1999 film The Matrix, the transformative moment for the central character, Neo, is when he discovers that the world he has been living in -- where residents have homes and jobs and businesses -- is all an illusion perpetrated by evil machines. The real world is one where a ragtag band of dropouts struggle for survival, fighting against the machines that dominate the planet. This real world exists, quite literally, underground.

In the surface world, Neo is a person of no importance, and feels lost and alone. But in the underground world, Neo becomes a hero and a leader to his people. For Neo to make the transition from the false surface world to the real world underground, he first must be able to see through "the matrix" projecting the false images. But once he does see the real world, the false one no longer deceives him. He can (literally) see right through it.

So what do underground economies and The Matrix have to do with taking action to change the world? Simply this. If you look around you at the world you believe you live in and think you don't fit in, or feel excluded from participating, or you don't have the price of admission, find another world. It's probably already operating right under your nose.

There is a back door into almost every line of endeavor you can name. If you believe that door exists, and are willing to knock on enough doors to find the right one, you can gain admittance. You can start a business with no capital, operate a nonprofit without registering one, or get a job as a researcher without credentials. I mention these three examples because they are all things I have personally done at one time, but many more examples exist.

To set up the necessary conditions for you to take action, perhaps you need to forget about whatever you have been led to believe the real world looks like. Instead, seek out people who are already doing what you want to do, connect with others who themselves have felt disenfranchised or excluded, locate the community where at last you feel welcome. Wherever that is, for you, that is the real world.

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We are the champions 

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed a slight but significant shift in its theme over this past year. When I first began writing on the topic How to Become a Hero four years ago, I described the theme of these reflections as "stepping into your own greatness to be of service to others." Later on, this became "finding your right livelihood on the path of service." But recently I made the decision to declare a new theme for these entries: "you are the champion the world is waiting for."

I first began thinking about the need for more heroes in our modern world after the 9/11 attacks. There were many people who became heroes on that day, called forth by the urgent need of others. But so many aspects of this catastrophe could have been prevented if there were more people called to heroic acts before it began. "Why do the heroes appear only after the tragedy," I wondered. "We should be taking steps just as bold to prevent the causes of terrorism, not just responding after it occurs."

Then the U.S. invaded Iraq, and the news was again filled with stories about heroes. But this time many of those profiled weren't just saving lives – they were also responsible for taking them. "What about the warriors for peace and justice?" I asked. "Where are their stories? Aren't they also heroes?" I launched this blog three months after the war began.

And then came Hurricane Katrina. I watched helplessly from San Francisco as people in New Orleans suffered and died. Days passed, and it seemed that news cameras could reach every area of the flooded city while rescuers and supplies could not.

There were many heroes on the ground, doing what they could under desperate conditions with limited resources. But with very few exceptions, those in charge failed to show leadership, courage, or even a sense of responsibility. Instead, rescue efforts moved forward at a snail's pace as government agencies and elected officials protected their turf, pointed fingers at each other, and delayed critical decisions. Meanwhile, supplies, volunteers, and vehicles sent from outside the area were refused admittance to the city.

It was during that awful week that I realized three compelling truths about becoming a hero:

1. We cannot wait for a hero to come and rescue us.
Like the people of New Orleans, we may be waiting for a rescuer to help our community or cause, but it just may be that no one is coming. The most likely place to look for leadership is not out in the world, but within ourselves.

2. We cannot wait to figure out the best possible course of action. Seeking our ultimate life purpose is a worthwhile endeavor, but meanwhile, we should take action to make a difference where and how we can. We will develop our heroic qualities more by exercising them than by contemplating possibilities.

3. We cannot wait for a disaster to hear the call to heroism. If the only time we are compelled to act is when a disaster is at our door, many options are already closed to us. We can make much more of a difference in the world around us by working steadily to address chronic problems and prevent major disasters from occurring.

There is no one better qualified, smarter, braver, or more talented than you and I to redress the ills we see in the world. There are no grownups to tell us what we should do. There are no leaders we can count on to do what must be done. In the words of Freddie Mercury, we are the champions of the world. It's you that the world is waiting for.

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Mid-year's resolutions 

With the year half gone, I decided it was the perfect time to check in on my New Year's resolutions. Why wait until December to see what I didn't do this year?

This January, I wrote about the idea of including one heroic act in your New Year's resolutions and made a commitment to take on one of my own -- to launch or join a project in support of educating girls in the developing world. I'm pleased to report that last month I launched the Send Girls to School Project.

I've written previously about the important role of girls' education in eradicating global poverty. Lawrence Summers, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, puts it simply: "Educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment in the developing world."

Send Girls to School is an education and advocacy project dedicated to improving education for girls in the developing world by compiling and sharing research, publicizing girls' education projects and supporting their fundraising efforts, publishing original writings about the impact of girls' education, and more. If this issue speaks to you, please consider getting involved.

What important resolutions of yours have gotten lost in the hustle of your daily existence since January? Take a look now and see what you still have time to accomplish in 2007.

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What to do when you don't know what to do 

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of many potential heroes is figuring out exactly what to do. Sometimes we hear the call to make a difference in the world loud and clear... but we wish it could have been a bit more specific. "Get moving!" says the compelling voice in our head. "The world needs you. Do something!" But what's missing from this exhortation is any indication of what that something is.

So then what? Do we wait for another divine transmission with perhaps a few more instructions? Do we begin an intentional quest for our life's ultimate purpose, engaging in study, contemplation, dialogue, and analysis? Do we ignore the call because we don't know what the appropriate action truly is? Or do we begin somewhere, anywhere, not knowing if it's right, and perhaps making a major mistake?

My personal orientation toward action often leads me to "pick up a broom and start sweeping," as I described in an earlier post. I have found that I can learn what the right direction is by choosing a path to take and beginning to walk down it. If it's the wrong path, I find out soon enough. Then I can choose a different one. This type of trial-and-error decision-making usually works better for me than standing at the crossroad trying to completely think things through.

But this works for me because I have a high tolerance for risk and don't place much value on caution. When I took Martin Seligman's Signature Strengths Survey, one of my top five strengths was "bravery and valor." My strength in "caution, prudence, and discretion," on the other hand, was ranked way down at #22 out of a total of 24. So it's no surprise that I'm more willing to leap into unknown territory than I am to carefully consider all my options. In fact, I'm actually better at leaping than at considering.

For me, the best answer to "what to do when you don't know what to do" is clearly to take action in a new direction, because that capitalizes on my strengths. In addition to bravery and valor, I also score high on curiosity, creativity, and love of learning. But mine is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If your strength is in caution and prudence, I would guess that a careful analysis might be a valuable next step. Or if your strength was in spirituality and faith, you might spend time in prayer or meditation. Or if it was in teamwork and loyalty, you might ask for guidance from others close to you.

If there is a single recipe that everyone could follow to determine what to do when you don't know what to do, perhaps it is this: 1) Know what your strengths are. 2) Find a way to use them that will help you move forward. 3) Repeat as necessary.

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A poverty of ambition 

Listening to Barack Obama's podcast recently, I heard a talk and Q and A session he gave for Partnership for Public Service interns last July, where he referred to a "poverty of ambition."

It's not the first time Obama has used this compelling phrase. Here's a quote from his commencement address to Knox College in 2005: "Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. You need to take up the challenges that we face as a nation and make them your own. Not because you have a debt to those who helped you get here, although you do have that debt. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you do have that obligation. It's primarily because you have an obligation to yourself. Because individual salvation has always depended on collective salvation. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential."

It seems to me that a poverty of ambition in our modern world afflicts much more than young people making career decisions. We each must choose -- not just once, but many times throughout our lives -- whether to act purely on our own behalf, or to raise our ambition to something higher than our immediate wants and needs. Too often, we choose simply what serves us in the moment. I'm not talking about just you and me making decisions that affect our own lives and those of our families. Our political leaders, business leaders, and community leaders, more often than not, are limiting their ambition to choices that are poor in every sense of the word. And we're letting them get away with it.

When we raise our ambition to seek out solutions that benefit everyone instead of settling for those that help only a few, we call forth the amazing richness of our human potential. By expecting more -- of ourselves, our leaders, and our communities -- we raise the bar for what is acceptable. A raised bar causes us to stretch our capacity, to explore new ways of doing things, to sometimes simply leap, and by leaping, set a new record for what is possible. In this rich territory of stretching and exploring and leaping, we not only discover what we were already capable of, we make ourselves more capable than we ever could have been without the challenge.

Realizing our true potential as people, as leaders, as a nation, and as a global community requires a higher ambition. It is by growing ourselves that we can truly grow rich.

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One heroic act 

Did you make any resolutions this New Year? According to an A.C. Nielsen survey, over half of all the people in the world did in 2007. The most popular resolutions worldwide were to get more exercise and have a better work/life balance. Other top choices were to go on a diet, quit smoking, avoid bad relationships, and change jobs.

There's nothing wrong with resolutions like these. If we all paid more attention to our physical and emotional health as well as our job satisfaction, the world would be a happier place. But I'd like to see another sort of resolution make the top ten. What if we were all to resolve to do just one thing this year to make the world a better place?

Imagine the positive impact on a global scale if each of us took on just one significant task to better the lives of others or the state of our planet. We all have the capacity to be heroes if we allow ourselves to claim our own greatness. Could this be the year that you take a giant step forward on that path?

Here's my invitation -- choose one heroic act that you are willing to perform in 2007. Look outside yourself and your circle of family and friends to the wider world that is so in need of your skills and talents. What's just one thing that you could do to be of greater service?

I've pondered this question for myself, and decided that my heroic act this year will be to launch or join a project in support of educating girls in the developing world. There are several organizations already doing great work in this area, so my commitment is to forge an alliance with one of them and contribute enough of my time and energy to send at least 30 girls -- a classroom full -- to school this year in a developing country.

That's my heroic act for 2007 – what will be yours?

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Do heroes carry swords or clipboards? 

Walking in Golden Gate Park last weekend, I was startled by the sight of a uniformed Hussar charging across the Arboretum lawn on horseback, yelling and waving a sword. Even in San Francisco, this was an odd sight, but it seems that the Park Band was celebrating St. Stephen's Day with a program of Hungarian music and dance, and a group of Hussar reenactors on horses were part of the event.

A short distance away, a quiet man holding a clipboard was standing. He wasn't part of the special Hungarian celebration. In fact, he's there every Sunday afternoon in the same spot near the Arboretum entrance. "Save the rain forest," he calls out to passers-by, "Sign the petition." I signed his petition a long time ago -- years ago, actually. Because the Rain Forest Man has been coming to the park with his clipboard on Sundays for as many years as I've been taking that walk. I can't recall a time before he was there.

Seeing the Hussar and the Rain Forest Man side by side, I began to wonder -- which of these two men is the better model of heroism? There was the sword-bearing Hussar, strong and brave in his dashing uniform, galloping by on a spirited horse. He was the very image of a storybook hero. Rain Forest Man, on the other hand, is soft-spoken and not particularly well-dressed. Armed only with a clipboard, he stands quietly on the sidewalk instead of charging at his foes.

This type of quiet, persistent heroism is easy to overlook. If you weren't walking right by him, you would never notice Rain Forest Man. I've never read about him in the paper; I don't even know his name. But every Sunday afternoon, he reminds me and everyone who passes that the rain forest needs to be saved. And he's been doing it for years.

It often seems that the warriors with the swords get most of the press and all the glory, while the clipboard-carrying workers toil quietly in the background. But which type of hero is more likely to ultimately make the world a better place? I think in this case the clipboard can be mightier than the sword.

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Help kids learn about the Hero's Journey 

If you have discovered the benefits to your life and career of exploring your heroic side, here's a chance to share that experience with some kids. Donors Choose recently contacted me and asked if I'd be willing to post a challenge to my blog readers. This wonderful organization provides a convenient channel for donors to contribute directly to low-cost classroom projects at underfunded public schools.

Currently, there are two teachers in their network seeking funding to teach the Hero's Journey in their classrooms. A 9th grade English teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina wants to teach the Hero's Journey to students using Lord of the Rings. The cost of 30 copies of Fellowship of the Ring is $309, and this teacher needs another $86 to make the purchase. Another 9th grade English teacher in Sonoma, California has been teaching the Hero's Journey for nine years, using Homer's Odyssey. This teacher has discovered a much more accessible new translation of the Odyssey that students are excited about reading, and needs $682 to buy 46 copies of it.

Please consider making a contribution to one of these valuable projects, and help kids learn to make heroic choices early in life. Read more about the projects and view my challenge here.

And if you write your own blog, consider posting a challenge to your readers related to the topic of your blog by visiting Bloggers Choose.

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Heroes don't need to be famous 

In David Bornstein's book How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, he discusses what makes a social entrepreneur successful. Along with qualities such as the willingness to self-correct, share credit, break free of established structures, and cross disciplinary boundaries, he mentions their "willingness to work quietly." It seems that many of the people most successful in exerting broad influence on how societies fix their problems often spend many years steadily advancing their ideas in small groups or one on one, working in relative obscurity.

Bornstein quotes Jean Monnet, the architect of European unification. In Monnet's Memoirs, he declares that people of ambition fall into two groups: those who want to "do something" and those who want to "be someone." Monnet elaborates: "The main concern of many very remarkable people is to cut a figure and play a role. They are useful to society... But, in general, it is the other kind of people who get things moving -- those who spend their time looking for places and opportunities to influence the course of events. The places are not always the most obvious ones, nor do the opportunities occur when many people expect them. Anyone who wants to find them has to forsake the limelight."

I think this is one of the reasons many who are truly heroes would never apply that label to themselves. Our image of the hero is often confused by picturing only those who achieve celebrity status. We consider Martin Luther King a hero not just because of the work he did, but because he spoke to huge crowds and appeared often in the media. But the March on Washington where King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech to a quarter of a million people was organized by a man you've probably never heard of: Bayard Rustin.

It was Rustin who set the program for that day, coordinated media outreach, arranged for transportation, and took elaborate measures to make sure there would be no violence. Rustin assigned responsible captains to each of the 1500 buses and 21 trains that brought demonstrators to the march, created a detachment of trained civilian marshals to serve as nonviolent peacekeepers, and provided for water, cheap food, toilet facilities, and first aid. Without Rustin, King might never have made his speech, or worse, it might never have been reported if violence had broken out at the march. (You can read this story in Jervis Anderson's book Bayard Rustin: Troubles I've Seen.)

Harry Truman once said "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." This simple philosophy is the mark of the true hero, who may often be someone whose name you will never know.

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The strength of compassion 

In the How to Become a Hero discussion forum this month, we heroes-in-training pondered the question: "Where do we find the strength to take action in the face of opposition, disapproval, or personal hardship?"

I encountered some powerful answers to this question in Pema Chodron's Start Where You Are. Pema teaches how the five strengths of lojong mind training can increase our confidence and inspiration as compassionate warriors. These five strengths are strong determination, familiarization with teachings that awaken our heart, remembering the seed of goodness in us all, reproaching our ego with humor and kindness, and nurturing our aspirations.

A compelling element of Pema's approach to this topic is her emphasis on kindness and compassion with ourselves and others. So often, when we feel we have to be strong, we harden our hearts or tap into our own anger or frustration. But Pema suggests we "catch our thoughts before they... solidify into 'us' against 'them'" and "find a way to realize our kinship with others." If we commit to "use our lives to dissolve the indifference, aggression, and grasping that separate us from one another," we will "feel lighter and more courageous." We can find the strength we need by aspiring to continually develop our compassion.

Reading Pema's words, I was reminded that the word courage comes from the French "coeur," which means heart. The true source of courage is the heart, not the head or the gut. If we wish to build our courage, we must expand our hearts. And by opening our hearts to those who oppose us, disapprove of us, or cause us hardship, we will find a way to include them on our journey instead of needing to fight our way past them to continue on.

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You don't have to be an action hero to take action 

What holds us back from making the difference we could in the world? Sometimes it seems to us that we simply aren't up to the task. We believe that a hero, to quote the Wikipedia, must be someone who "possesses abilities or character far greater than that of a typical person, which enable him or her to perform some truly extraordinary, beneficial deed." Listed with that definition are examples of champions both mythic and historical: Hercules and Gandhi; Robin Hood and Joan of Arc; Luke Skywalker and Nelson Mandela.

The images we hold of these icons are those of people larger than life. Their accomplishments are so breathtaking, their abilities so superior, that we cannot picture ourselves in their league. But Gandhi was a lawyer from a middle-class family who barely passed his college exams. Joan of Arc was a teenaged farm girl. Nelson Mandela ran away from home, was thrown out of college, and was fired from his first job.

Heroes are not just people like us; heroes are us, with the same ordinary beginnings and all of our faults, mistakes, handicaps, emotional baggage, and personal entanglements. But despite all of those obstacles – or perhaps because of them – heroes somehow find a way to make a difference in the lives of others.

Is it possible that the main difference between a hero and a person with good intentions is that the hero turns those intentions into action? It's been my experience that action typically leads to more action. Once you take the initiative to move in a particular direction, you often set in motion a series of events that could not have begun without that first act. A phone call leads to a meeting; the meeting spawns a letter; the letter prompts someone else to send out a group e-mail; the e-mail provokes a dozen replies; and the next thing you know, you've started a movement.

It doesn't always happen that way, of course. Sometimes it takes many calls, meetings, letters and e-mails for your intentions to translate into significant results. But if that is to be the case, isn't it even more reason to start taking action now on the change you want to see?

Every great hero's journey began with one simple act. And at the time they took that step, none of them were extraordinary people. It was taking action on their dreams, beliefs, and passions that made them extraordinary.

P.S. We'll be discussing how to take action on your heroic intentions in the How to Become a Hero Discussion Forum on Mar 14 if you would like to join us.

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Face to face with the second step 

Years ago, someone gave me a Richard Stine greeting card showing a dog climbing a flight of stairs. His nose is pressed against the back of the staircase, his tongue hangs out, and the caption reads "face to face with the second step."

At the time I received this card, I was at a loss for what I was going to do next to earn a living. I had quit my job and rented an office in order to give myself a place to figure that out. I was working part-time as a corporate consultant, but I knew that wasn't the answer. The card expressed my state of mind exactly. I had the time; I had the space; I had a little money to spare; what was next?

I posted the card over my desk and stared at it daily, wondering what my next step was going to be. I wanted to do something important, something that would help people, something that would use my talents and skills more fully. I was all ready to do IT, but I just didn't know what IT was.

In my eight steps to becoming a hero, this wondering, waiting time is the heart of Step 2, Listening for the Call. For someone like myself with five fire signs in my astrological chart and a Myers-Briggs type ending in "J," not knowing what to do next was like being lost in the dark with no lantern, no map, and no watch.... and late for dinner. I felt an incredible urgency to be going somewhere and doing something. Every moment I didn't know my destination felt wasted and irrecoverable. But I was determined not to do what I had always done before, which was to simply take the next career option that appeared. This time, I was going to wait for inspiration. I was waiting to be called.

The hero's inspired call to action can take many different forms. It can be a nagging intuition, a sudden realization, a divine transmission, or a subtle wondering. It can strike out of the blue without warning, or come as the result of a deliberate process of mining one's thoughts, feelings, and muses for guidance. Sometimes you don't even know when it has arrived. You go to sleep one night without it, and wake up the next morning finding it there, as if it had always been.

For me at that time and place, the call that finally came was of the sudden realization variety. One moment I was lying in bed on a Sunday morning reading a magazine, and the next moment I knew what I was going to do. Within a week, I was headed down the path that ultimately resulted in my becoming a business coach. The magazine article triggered the inspiration, but what actually created it, I believe, was all those weeks and months of actively listening for it.

When you find yourself in a waiting, wondering place like this, how do you go about listening? Some people choose meditation; others journal; some pray; others draw or paint. You can learn more about yourself through assessment, participate in a personal growth weekend, work with a spiritual advisor, or explore your options with a coach. But the key is allowing open channels for the inspiration to enter. When you are listening for a particular sound, you're much more likely to hear it.

P.S. We'll be discussing the second step in my How to Become a Hero Discussion Forum on Feb 14 if you would like to join us.

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Let's talk about developing your heroic qualities 

Starting in January, I'll be offering something new to the readers of this blog -- a chance to get together once a month and discuss some of the ideas I've been sharing here. The How to Become a Hero Discussion Forum will meet by teleconference on the 2nd Tuesday of each month from 9-10 AM Pacific (12-1 PM Eastern, 5-6 PM GMT). Each month, we'll discuss one of my eight steps to becoming a hero to jointly further our learning. All coaches, counselors, teachers, writers, healers, leaders, spiritual guides, and seekers are welcome to participate. There is a small fee to join us for any or all of the eight monthly sessions.

Our first meeting will be focused on Step 1, Develop Your Heroic Qualities. This first step was suggested by Joseph Campbell in one of his classic interviews with Bill Moyers. Even if you do not yet know what your heroic quest will be, you can prepare yourself for it. The way to begin is by putting yourself in situations that evoke your higher self rather than your lower.

What is the higher self and how do we evoke it? Susan Thesenga, author of The Undefended Self says, "The higher self is our personal embodiment of and connection to the universal spirit that moves through all things. Meeting the higher self... is an experience usually accompanied by relief, as we feel we are coming home to our true identity, remembering who we truly are... In this expanded identity we find our center and ground." Thesenga suggests that to locate our higher selves, we "...begin with claiming those positive aspects of our personality which are aligned with truth, love, serenity, or beauty." I would add to this list some additional qualities essential for heroes, perhaps compassion, generosity, openness, conscientiousness, and increased awareness.

Here's an example of how this step has worked for me. In the last couple of years before I became a coach, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. First I quit my job to become a consultant. I didn't think that was what I really wanted, but the job I had was definitely evoking my lower self, i.e., making me frustrated and angry. By leaving it, I was released from an overwhelming negative influence. Next, I opened an office. I didn't know what I was going to do there -- my consulting gigs were all on site -- but I felt strongly that I needed that space to do whatever would come next. What I found was that the office evoked my higher self. When I went there, I became focused and creative, even visionary. Getting that office led directly to my discovery of the path of coaching and everything that followed.

Often the way to determine what situations need to change for your heroic qualities to emerge is to look at what makes you act your least heroic. This is quite a different process from examining all the reasons you are not taking action on your dreams. It's easy to get bogged down in the why-nots like "I don't have enough money, time, help, etc." Don't go there. Instead, ask yourself what circumstances most often make you act in negative or petty ways, perhaps expressing anger, resentment, jealousy, selfishness, dishonesty, cruelty, carelessness, discontent, or frustration. Then set about changing those circumstances.

Another means of accomplishing this step is to figure out what needs to be added to your life instead of focusing on what should be eliminated. If helping others makes you feel better about the world and yourself, find a new way to be of service. If expressing your creativity makes you feel more focused and alive, build in creative time for yourself on a regular basis.

As a general approach for taking this first step, I might suggest a combination of inspiration and perspiration. For inspiration, read stories, watch films, or listen to music that reminds you of your favorite heroic qualities. You might read a biography of Joan of Arc, watch Gandhi, or listen to Neil Young's Let's Roll. The perspiration part is putting some new habits into practice that will support you in evoking your higher self. Some useful resources here might be Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Mark Forster's Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play, or Joan Friedlander's Take the Busyness out of Business.

If a lively conversation about this topic sounds like fun to you, please consider joining me on January 10 for our first discussion.

P.S. If you'd like to hear a talk I gave recently on the eight steps (hosted by Eva Gregory's Leading Edge Living), you can listen to streaming audio here or download the file on MP3 here.

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It takes a woman to save a village 

Glamour magazine's December issue features a less-than-glamorous subject as one of its women of the year. Mukhtaran Bibi is a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped by men in her village as punishment for a crime supposedly committed by her younger brother. In her culture, such an event often prompts the victim to commit suicide. But Mukhtaran fought back -- not just for herself, but for all the girls and women of her community.

Mukhtar Mai, as she is also known, brought charges against the men despite numerous threats from their tribesmen, who terrorized Mukhtar's entire clan. When she received a settlement of $8300 from the Pakistani government, instead of using the money to flee, Mukhtar started the first-ever schools in her village. "If women aren't educated, it's hard for them to speak up for themselves," she said.

The schools Mukhtar started were running out of funds when a story in the New York Times brought international attention to her situation. Receiving over $130,000 in donations, Mukhtar used the money to improve the schools and buy cows, which will generate income locally to pay the schools' expenses. She also bought an ambulance and built a police station, and is currently preparing to build the area's first high school, a clinic, and a women's shelter. (You can donate to Mukhtar's projects through the Asian-American Network Against Abuse of Human Rights.)

Mukhtar was called by Glamour "the bravest woman in the world." Despite continuing threats, she has remained in her hometown, working to help others. It's the sort of bravery that doesn't always get noticed. We often think of heroes as those who save the day in a burst of glory, carrying out dramatic rescues or defeating an enemy by force of arms. But Mukhtar's quiet courage must sustain her on a daily basis when there are no journalists or dignitaries around to celebrate her.

In my steps for becoming a hero, the eighth and final step is to stay the course. The ability to keep going when you find yourself alone and scared is one of the most challenging qualities for any hero to develop. Mukhtar has found a source for this kind of strength. She says, "It's because of the support of the world that I feel brave."

P.S. If you are interested in discussing the eight steps to becoming a hero in the company of other like-minded people, please check out my How to Become a Hero discussion forum.

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Heroes must choose 

The past ten months have seen more than their share of calls to heroes. Beginning with the tsunami in South Asia last December, we have seen a wave of natural disasters leaving behind widespread destruction and despair: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in the U.S., Hurricane Stan in Guatemala and El Salvador, and the recent earthquake in Pakistan and India. There are so many people homeless, jobless, and suffering around the world that we may be tempted to throw up our hands in despair. How can we help so many people at once? With so much help needed in so many places, what can one person do?

I have had my moments of wanting to turn off the news and pretend none of this is happening. Hearing so many calls for help, a natural response is to defend ourselves by shutting down our compassion. By turning a deaf ear and hardening our hearts, perhaps we can avoid being overwhelmed, and therefore perhaps remain of some use. But I believe there is a more purposeful solution.

Loren Eiseley, in his book The Star Thrower, wrote a parable that has been widely repeated as the "starfish story." If you aren't familiar with it, here's a synopsis. This story serves as a guidepost to me whenever I begin to feel overcome by donor fatigue, volunteer burnout, or just too much bad news. If my personal contribution can make a significant difference in the life of just one person who is suffering, than it is a worthwhile thing to do.

For heroes to truly be "star throwers," we must choose where our efforts will go. When there are so many places we could be volunteering, donating money, or heading up a relief project, almost any choice will do. If you have read either of my books, you already know my stance that "it doesn't matter so much what you choose as that you choose." By making a choice, you make action possible. And in these challenging times, your heroic action is desperately needed, wherever you choose to take it.

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An invitation to heroism 

In author Debbie Ford's latest newsletter, she shares these thoughts about aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina: "Many people give so much to so many, already. Perhaps you're one of them. It may not be appropriate for you to do more than you already have done in this situation. But if you too feel that ache, keep looking. Maybe there is more to give - and in ways that may surprise you... today I will search until I find a time and place to donate my skills so that I can join forces with the heroes who are giving of themselves so selflessly in this hour of need. There is a hero alive in each one of us. Heroes focus on what can be done rather than what wasn't done. Heroes take themselves out of their comfort zone in order to make someone else comfortable. Heroes open up their homes and their hearts to those in need... Today one small choice, one action, can make you someone else's hero."

There's no requirement that you do more. We all have our own lives, concerns, and challenges, which may already be great. But Debbie's words are an invitation to look one more time and see what else and where else you may be able to contribute. You may have already given money (and if not, please see my list of organizations which are matching donations made for flood aid). But if you have a little time, check with VolunteerMatch, the "volunteers" section of your local Craigslist, your favorite local charity, your professional association, or your church to see where just a few hours could make a difference.

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Hero's Walk in the Park 

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, please join me on Thursday, Sept. 8th for something new and fun. I'll be leading a walking discussion group in Golden Gate Park from 10-11:30 AM. We'll walk a little and talk a little about How to Become a Hero and related topics of right livelihood, life purpose, and being of service. Come enjoy some gentle exercise, fresh air, and pleasant conversation with like minds. There's no charge to participate.

As I write this, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is escalating into a disaster affecting the lives of thousands of our fellow humans. It is a time when many of us will call on our own heroism to serve those who desperately need us. My hope is that this conversation and others like it will in some small way help with that effort.

To find out the meeting place for the Hero's Walk, parking and transit tips, and a focus question to think about before we meet, please email me.

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The fast track to finding your path 

In the current issue of Inquiring Mind, I ran across this powerful statement in an article by Susan Burggraf, titled "Ordinary Buddhas: That Means You, Babe." Writing about finding one's path, Susan says, "Here's the big trick: don't work with what you don't have, don't develop new skills. There are so many doors and so many openings, so there's one that's sized right for who you are right now."

This is one of the keys to setting out on a heroic path. True heroes take action; that's how they become heroes. They don't just think and talk about what needs to be done some day; they start doing something about it now. Instead of taking one more class, reading one more book, earning one more degree, or working one more year at the job that eats away at their soul, they find a place to begin today.

Bilbo Baggins left home without even his handkerchief. Why do you think you need to learn more, grow more, or acquire more before starting out on the path you were meant for? You will never be completely ready. Start from wherever you are.

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When heroes fail 

The tsunami recovery project I've been involved with lately suffered a serious setback when the aid vessel we were raising funds for sank off the coast of Indonesia. The Endless Sun, with 20 volunteers and crew aboard, struck an uncharted coral reef and went down fully loaded with relief supplies.

Everyone on the boat survived, but one of the volunteers tells a tragic story of how no one helped them to shore, but instead scrambled for a share of the supplies floating in the water. Imagine this happened to you -- you're a lawyer from Australia volunteering your time and travelling to Aceh at your own expense to aid tsunami and earthquake victims, your ship sinks, and the people you are there to help leave you to drown and rescue bags of rice instead.

What would be the impact on you of this experience? Would you return to your own country, shaken, and decide you had better look after yourself in the future instead of trying to help others? Or would you reflect on how desperate those villagers must have been to value rice over their fellow humans, and redouble your efforts to be of service to them?

Winston Churchill once said, "Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." Perhaps that attitude is one of the hero's secrets.

P.S. Due to the loss of the Endless Sun and a variety of other factors, the tsunami recovery fundraiser I mentioned in my last post is being postponed to a later date.

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What makes someone a hero? 

When I spoke about becoming a hero in Southern California last week, a question that arose from the audience was why I was suggesting that heroes had to be people who changed the world. After all, wasn't the daily struggle of caring for one's family sometimes heroic in its scope? Didn't a hero sometimes save only one person instead of hundreds or thousands?

I think both of these statements are true. They are simply not the type of heroism I'm talking about. The purpose of holding up as role models people who have made a difference on a global scale is to inspire us to look beyond our daily lives and immediate surroundings. If we are to truly step into our own greatness in order to be of greater service, we need to think bigger than we ever have before. That's why the people I am suggesting we emulate appear to be larger than life.

Is this an expectation? Am I saying that everyone should try to be an international hero? Think of it rather as an invitation. The opportunity exists for you to make more of a contribution than you currently are and to better the lives of more people. In order to do that, you will need to get past your own self-imposed limitations. Learning the stories of larger-than-life heroes can help inspire you to do the hard work this requires. So, if this mission calls to you, then it is you I am speaking to.

Here are some of the heroes I mentioned in my talk:

Jane Addams (1860-1935) was an American social worker and reformer. In 1889 she co-founded Hull House in Chicago, which was one of the first settlement houses in the United States. Settlement houses were a type of welfare housing for the neighborhood poor and a center for social reform. She was a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League, and a founder of both the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. She was also a leader in women's suffrage and pacifist movements. She received the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Dalai Lama (1935-present) was ruler of Tibet and its head of state until 1959, when he fled to India following the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. He is the most respected and venerated Tibetan Buddhist religious leader. The Dalai Lama is still recognized as the head of the Tibetan government in exile, except by supporters of Chinese communism. He is the leader of the Tibetan independence movement.

Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is a national heroine of France and saint of the Catholic Church. During the Hundred Years' War she led French forces against the English. Against all odds, she defeated the English at the siege of Orléans as well as in a series of subsequent battles, enabling the coronation of the King Charles VII in Rheims. Captured by the Burgundians, she was delivered to the English, who had a selected group of pro-English clergy condemn her for heresy. She was executed by burning at the stake in Rouen.

I'll be mentioning more international heroes like these in future posts.

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Heroes on tour in California 

I'll be visiting the Los Angeles area next week to speak on the topic of How to Become a Hero to the Los Angeles chapter of the International Coach Federation. If you are in the area, I would love to have you join the conversation. Here's what we will be discussing:

HOW TO BECOME A HERO: Stepping Into Your Own Greatness to be of Service to Others

Personal power is contagious. When you fully step into your own power as a coach, you can empower your clients to be their greatest. When you hold yourself small, you keep your clients there, too. Learn how empowering your clients requires you to become a hero, a five-step path to developing heroic qualities, and how you can coach others to find their heroic selves.

The program will take place on Wed. Mar 16 from 6:00-8:30 PM at Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. Please reserve through ICF-LA if you would like to attend.

On the same trip, I'll be speaking at two Barnes & Noble stores about my new book Get Hired Now!. Come say hello at Barnes & Noble Del Amo in Torrance on Tue. Mar 15 from 7:30-9:00 PM, or at Barnes & Noble Metro Point in Costa Mesa on Thu. Mar 17 from 7:00-9:00 PM.

Also, if you're in Northern California, I'll be celebrating the launch of Get Hired Now! with a booksigning reception in San Francisco on Thu. Mar 24 from 6:00-8:00 PM at The Canvas Gallery. Join me for complimentary snacks, schmoozing, and a reading from my new book. Please contact me to RSVP if you would like to attend.

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A tale of two trees 

On a visit to Yosemite National Park last weekend, I went on a ranger walk with USPS Ranger Shelton Johnson. The topic was "Yosemite through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier," and for a 90-minute walk through the valley, Ranger Johnson, in period costume, played the part of Sgt. Elizy Bowman of the 9th Cavalry, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. These African American troops who fought for the U.S. in the Philippines and Mexico also served as park rangers in Yosemite in 1899, 1903, and 1904.

Ranger Johnson gave a thoughtful portrayal of his character's personal history. Sgt. Bowman grew up as a sharecropper's son in South Carolina, and joined the Army as a way of improving his situation. Johnson described what it must have been like for these "colored soldiers" to enforce the regulations protecting the park's resources against the mostly white settlers in the area, at a time when the very idea of a park to preserve nature was new and untested. And he shared with us a beautiful metaphor.

Growing throughout Yosemite Valley are a wide variety of trees, including ponderosa pines and black oaks. Ranger Johnson pointed them out to us, and showed how the pine bends under the snow, so that when the snow melts, the pine stands up straight once again. The oak, however, doesn't bend; it tries to hold its upright position as the snow piles higher. Eventually, the oak's branches break under the weight. When the snow melts, the oak is no longer the same proud tree. "Be supple like a pine tree," Ranger Johnson told us, "Don't be rigid and unbending like the oak." That's how to survive.

This is sage advice, I think, for any of us who wish to carry our causes forward in the world. Perhaps we are the ones in the right; maybe we do know the real truth; it could be that everyone around us is wrong or just mistaken. But if we try to stand our ground against an overwhelming force, it may break us. Sometimes we need to bend a bit to get through the winter of criticism or opposition, so that we will still be here in the spring to begin our task anew.

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Trial by fire 

In a recent conversation with coach Julie Fuimano, she asked me where I grew up. That's always been a tricky question for me to answer, since throughout my childhood, on average we moved once per year. By the time I was 18, I had lived in sixteen cities, eight states, and two Canadian provinces. Julie's response to my brief residential summary was: "Oh, no wonder you are good at marketing."

She's right, of course. One of the reasons it has been possible for me to get to know a large number of people in the course of marketing my business is that I don't know another way to exist. My view of the world from an early age includes always meeting new people, and hopefully convincing them to like me. I wouldn't want to imply, though, that I was always good at it.

In fact, I didn't make friends easily as a child, which means with all that moving around, I ended up not having very many. It was actually pretty frightening always having to talk to strangers and being the "new kid" over and over again. But I thought that having friends looked like a pretty good deal, so I kept trying. By the time I became a teenager, I had started to learn the trick of it. Even though it was scary sometimes to reach out to new people, the rewards seemed worth the effort, so I swallowed my fear and did it anyway. The more I did it, the easier it got.

My conversation with Julie made me think. When we do something scary and not only survive, but get what we want by doing it, it seems to retrain our brains. The next time we are faced with a similar situation, we may be just as afraid, but since we overcame it once, it's easier to believe we can do it again. It is literally a learning experience, almost as if the neural pathways involved are being redrawn.

It suggests to me a reliable shortcut to becoming your truly heroic self. Just conquer the dragon once, and you'll be able to do it more easily forever after. Of course, you still have to do it the first time. But if you knew that once you were on the other side of that one frightening heroic deed, it would never be so scary again, that's a pretty strong incentive to walk through the fire.

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What if we were all heroes? 

Thanks to a tip from my friend and colleague Maggie Oman Shannon, I recently read the article Hero Worship by Marie Russell. Marie points out that there are two dictionary definitions for the word hero: 1) a person of great courage and nobility, or one admired for his exploits, and 2) the central character in a novel or play. By this second definition, Marie says, "...we are all heroes, or central figures in our own play" and "... if we are the hero, then we can take charge of the situation and plunge ahead and make changes."

What a sense of possibility this idea creates! Instead of living our lives as if they were dictated by someone else's master script, we can take matters into our own hands and change the plot. In my own experience, I have discovered that this often requires questioning all assumptions, especially those that begin with someone else saying, "You can't do that."

At a number of critical points in my life, I have been told that what I wanted to do was impossible. For example, "You can't get a good job without a college degree." This piece of supposedly common wisdom could have defeated me as it has a number of other people I know. The people who say this often have good intentions -- they are trying to convince you to get or complete your degree. I will admit that having one does make finding a well-paying professional job considerably easier. But not having one doesn't make that impossible... unless of course you believe that it is.

Once you have decided that a task or goal is impossible, it inevitably is so. But if you continue to believe in the possibility of it, there is always something else you can try. As Henry Ford said, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're usually right."

Depending on your point of view, you might label the hero's persistence in trying to do the impossible as plucky and creative, or stubborn and misguided. And perhaps I am just ornery, but when someone tells me I can't do something, my natural reaction is to start figuring out how I can. My response to the "no degree no job" proclamation was to ignore the assumption, and instead ask, "How do people without college degrees get good jobs?"

For me, the answer was acquiring a technical skill. I learned to program computers, got a well-paying job, and as a result was able to eventually get a bachelor's degree because I was earning enough to support myself. But I couldn't have done it without believing in the possibility. In Marie's words, "...we must first accept the possibility that we too are a super hero... before being able to make it come true."

If you are already the hero in your own life, you have the power to change it. As Marie says, "If you are waiting for someone else to make a difference in your life (to rescue you, to save you, to make your life better, to make you whole), then you are wasting your time. No one but you can make your dreams come true."

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This is Ting from China 

I received an email two weeks ago from a young woman overseas. "This is Ting from China," it began. She had gotten a copy of my book Get Clients NOW!, which was translated into Chinese a couple of years ago, and summoned up enough courage to write the author. "I work for a factory specialized in producing flashing antenna," she wrote, "and I should find the oversea customers... but no one tell me what I should do." It seems that Ting had been trying to find buyers for her factory's product -- flashing antennas for cell phones -- by searching for companies on Yahoo and emailing them. But no one was answering her emails. Ting asked, "Could you give me some advise?"

I emailed her back with some suggestions, she responded with more questions, and in our dialogue, more of Ting's story emerged. She is a recent college graduate from a poor family, and has taken this job with the electronics factory to help support her family. But, "I am not a worldly girl," she told me, "and know little about the oversea market... I always at a loss what I should do." Ting has an important job to do, and desperately wants to succeed at it -- for herself, for her family, and for the success of her factory -- but she has been given no training, no tools, and no budget to do it with. When I suggested that letters sent by mail would have a better chance of being read than her emails, her request to do so was denied by management. "The capital of our factory are [not] considerable," she wrote me, "they do not accept my ideal." But Ting didn't give up. If "I only write email," she wrote, "give me some advise what is the effective way."

I drafted a sales letter for her and sent it back with some suggestions about strategy. Ting responded with her thanks: "Since I known you, I became confident, I am confident I can do the job well with your help... I will work hard to learn how to get clients. I belive there is a will there is a way."

Perhaps to Ting, I am now her hero. But to me, Ting is the hero in this story. Confused, scared, and concerned for her future and her family, instead of declaring her task impossible and giving up, she asked for help. She reached out to a complete stranger who she had no reason to believe would even respond. She has acted immediately on every shred of advice I shared with her, even when it took her way out of her comfort zone. I don't know how successful Ting will ultimately be at selling flashing antennas, but I know she will succeed at something in her life, because she will just keep trying until she does.

In my model for heroism, four of the essential qualities are serving others, perseverance, courage, and resourcefulness. Ting has got everything it takes. And by the way, if you know anyone who could use a few hundred flashing cell phone antennas, I have a great source.

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Whatever it takes 

When I was going through coach training at The Coaches Training Institute, we learned a process of values clarification to use with our clients. We first had to try it on ourselves, of course, and it was the first time I had ever set down in writing what my personal values were.

In the process we learned, we were encouraged to give our values a unique name that captured our personal flavor of an otherwise generic value. (You can learn more about this process from the book Co-Active Coaching.) For example, I identified a key value of mine called "persistence" and connected it with ideas such as survival, resolve, fortitude, and determination. The name I coined for this value was "whatever-it-takes."

Picture the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones -- already battered and bruised enough to defeat any ordinary person -- learns that the Ark is leaving the area on a truck. "Truck?" he says, "What truck?" and struggles to his feet to continue the chase. That's the whatever-it-takes value in action.

Now values are a very personal thing, and just because I hold this particular one doesn't mean it's universal. But I believe that this is what heroes do -- whatever it takes to achieve their mission, accomplish their goal, complete the quest. There's no room for "I can't." The hero says instead, "How can I?" while resourcefully looking for another way. I have found that these three words can serve as a magic elixir for the disheartened hero.

The next time you find yourself frustrated, discouraged, or even without hope of carrying on, ask yourself, "How can I?" and just see what happens.

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Origin of the hero 

I've been listening to a class on tape lately on the topic of Ancient Greek Civilization. This is the second class I have taken this way from The Teaching Company, and it's an enjoyable and easy way to learn about a wide variety of subjects. Lesson Five is titled "The Age of Heroes," and according to professor Jeremy McInerney, it was during the Dark Ages from 1200-900 BCE that the hero as we know him today was born.

This was an unsettled time in Greece, when central authority collapsed, and society was structured around smaller units dominated by cheftains and clan leaders. But during this period often thought of as less civilized than the earlier Bronze Age, a crucial development took place: the rise of epic poetry. Wandering poets travelled all over Greece, performing cycles of songs concerning the deeds of great warriors. The greatest of these poems were Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

The poems upheld what we now think of as a "heroic" code of behavior and linked heroism with steadfast adherence to duty in the face of overwhelming odds. The entire mentality of Greek civilization -- codes of honor, their notions of the relation between god and human, man and woman, parent and child -- were conditioned by the world created by Homer and these epic poems. These cultural ideals and concepts have been passed on to modern Western civilization in our political models, dramatic forms, philosophy, art, and a host of other ways. Most scholars agree that the cultural life of the West has evolved directly from that of the Greeks.

My own concept of the hero matches Homer's quite closely, but with one important exception to McInerney's characterization. I believe that heroes should demonstrate steadfast adherence to more than just "duty" when beating the odds. The hero must cling fast to his own vision, mission, and truth, whether or not that is where duty lies as others define it. Too many would-be heroes deny or delay their heroic possibilities because of the compulsion they feel to care for others, fulfill obligations, and live according to rules passed down by their families. I'm not suggesting that in order to become a hero, you should walk out on your responsibilities. But it is necessary to consider carefully whether all the obligations you have assumed are continuing to serve you and the greater good. The necessary freedom (time, money, space, or psychic bandwidth) required to follow the hero's path may be closer than you think.

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No atheists in foxholes 

I've been absent from blogging for some time now due to the mysterious neurological disorder I mentioned in my last post. It became quite serious and incapacitating for a couple of weeks, and has now finally returned to the status of annoying-but-not-disabling. The various health professionals I've seen have still not been able to determine a cause for my symptoms, but have run enough tests to tell me it's neither fatal nor an indicator of any known major disease.

There was a period of about a week when the symptoms were quite severe and the neurologist I saw was suggesting several rather dire diagnoses, none of which turned out to be the case. I was unable to work or do much of anything other than lie on the couch and attempt to distract my anxious brain with old movies. Looking for a silver lining in this very dark cloud, I thought I would take this opportunity to examine my attitudes about prayer.

According to the Wikipedia, the first recorded claim that "there are no atheists in foxholes" has been attributed to Lt. Colonel William J. Clear, speaking on the radio about American and Filipino forces on Bataan being overwhelmed by the Japanese during World War II. Clear was suggesting that men under fire find religion in their most desperate hour, and since that time his words have been echoed from many pulpits. For the record, atheists strongly dispute this claim.

I've never been an atheist myself. At various times in my life, I would have identified my religion as Christian, pagan, agnostic, or deist. These days, I'm closer to being a Buddhist than anything else. Only during my Christian days did I spend any time in prayer. In other phases of my life, I haven't been opposed to praying; I just haven't done it... except in times of extremity.

Faced with an incapacitating illness with no prognosis for recovery available, I decided to pray. They were simple prayers, not for deliverance, really, but expressing gratitude for my life so far and asking for guidance on how to become well again. What I found was that praying made me feel better.

Even without the confidence that my prayers would be answered (or even heard), it simply felt better to pray. It gave me a sense of relief and a lessened burden. On one hand, there was the intellectual acknowledgement that now I had really done everything I could do to get well again. On a quite different level, I experienced the easing sensation of "turning it over" to a higher power that those with faith often describe. I've sometimes thought that turning it over implied being less responsible for the outcome. But I was not in any way abdicating my responsibility to care for my own illness. What I was doing was asking for help in managing it.

On the path I've described to becoming a hero, Step 7 is "Seeking Guidance." Up until now, I've been thinking of this primarily as a necessary step to choosing the right direction and staying on course. But what I now realize is that it can also be a way to lighten the burden of being a hero. Receiving guidance undoubtedly helps the hero do the right thing. But the simple act of asking for that guidance can also provide the hero with the added strength needed to sustain his quest.

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[grid::brand] What brand of hero are you? 

The blogging community is experimenting with something new today -- "grid blogging" -- where a large number of bloggers will be commenting on the same topic on a single day. The chosen topic is "the brand," and looking for a branding topic relevant to this blog, what occurred to me was that there are many brands of heroes. (Close enough?) Here are some that come to mind:

The Adventurer -- Perhaps the classic hero archetype, this hero sets out from his home in search of adventure. The Adventurer's original motives are not likely to be heroic; in fact they are quite often selfish. The Adventurer is looking for fun, personal fulfillment, and perhaps public acclaim. Along the way, however, the Adventurer does something heroic, which may even be accidental, and is forever changed by the heroic act.

The Altruist -- This hero is devoted from the start to the welfare of others, and sets out to take action on their behalf. Rarely intending to become a hero, the Altruist's dedication carries him into heroic territory in order to fulfill the chosen mission.

The Seeker -- Searching for something bigger than him or herself, the Seeker stumbles across an important act that simply must be done. The Seeker throws himself into the newly discovered task with an enthusiasm bordering on desperation, and becomes heroic in the process.

What other brands of hero can you think of? Which brand are you? Which brand would you like to be?

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Coming soon to a bookstore near you 

I was composing a holiday letter to my clients yesterday, and found my fingers typing the following phrase: "...and working on my next book How to Become a Hero." Suddenly, I realized I was making a public commitment to turn the thoughts captured in this blog into a book. Yes, I have been thinking about that for some time, but by putting it in my letter, it instantly transformed from an idea into a plan. Only problem is, I am already working on a book to come out next year, Get Hired NOW! (Have you, too, noticed that some of your most creative work takes place when you are avoiding doing something else?) So the Hero book will have to get in the queue after that one.

But, since there's no time like the present to get started on a plan, here is my tentative table of contents for the Hero book:

  • Ch 1: What is a Hero?
  • Ch 2: The Hero's Journey
  • Ch 3: Waking Up
  • Ch 4: Preparing the Ground
  • Ch 5: Listening for the Call
  • Ch 6: Taking Action
  • Ch 7: Meeting the Dragon
  • Ch 8: Committing to the Quest
  • Ch 9: Seeking Guidance
  • Ch 10: Staying the Course
  • Ch 11: A Hero's Life
I'll be saying more about each of these chapters in future entries. You'll probably be able to tell how much I'm not working on the other book by how much I'm working on this one.

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Altruism or co-dependency? 

I just returned from the International Coach Federation conference in Denver. A colleague of mine who specializes in personality assessment was attending for the first time and wrote me afterward. "I never saw so many altruists in the same room together in my life," he said. No wonder attending that conference feels like coming home to me.

As a confessed altruist, it seems to me that altruism often gets a bad rap. The word itself means "unselfish concern for the welfare of others," according to the dictionary. But there's a secondary meaning that dictionaries attribute only to zoology: "cooperative behavior by an animal that may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species." In practice, I find that many apply this definition to human altruism as well. The perception seems to be that to unselfishly devote oneself to the welfare of others is in some way harmful to the altruist. In other words, we altruists are dangerously co-dependent.

I think it's telling that this secondary definition originates in the world of science rather than that of the spirit. Biology suggests to us that survival is a matter of competition, while spirituality points instead to furthering the species through cooperation. But is there a spiritual doctrine supporting the view that a devotion to helping others must necessarily be harmful to oneself?

In Buddhism, compassionate service of others is given as a path away from suffering and toward joy, not the other way around. In Catholicism, Pope Benedict XIV, who literally wrote the book on determining sainthood, required of the saints that they perform virtuous acts easily and with pleasure and "sweetness." Nowhere does he suggest that they must suffer and struggle to be considered saintly. So is it Puritan Protestantism that's to blame for the glorification of suffering?

While there is no question that the enduring Puritan ethic calls for the denial of worldly pleasures, a close reading of Reformation leader John Calvin indicates that he viewed suffering as necessary not because one should seek it out, but because it is an inevitable part of human existence. He believed that suffering could contain learning; it developed one's compassion and humility and compelled one to look for spiritual answers. He was a humanist who strongly supported active and compassionate service of others in an effort to remedy the evils of his own time. His writings and sermons exhort his followers to serve God "with a joyful heart." What the pragmatic Calvin actually taught about suffering and struggle was not that it should be sought out as an honor, but that it can't be avoided, so one should find some use in it.

Seems to me that these three divergent spiritual sources are all telling us the same thing -- help others not because it makes you feel bad, but because it makes you feel good. Perhaps that's how one can tell the difference between altruism and co-dependency.

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Unpopular heroes 

I heard Alice Walker speak at yesterday's Green Festival in San Francisco on the topic of activism. At one point, Walker said, "If horrible laws are made, we must disobey the laws." Walker grew up in the segregated South, and married a white man at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in her state. Earlier this year, she was arrested for refusing to disperse in front of the White House while protesting U.S. actions in Iraq.

Becoming a hero doesn't always make one popular. We picture heroes receiving public acclaim, but this is only the case when there is a public who approves of the hero's actions. Yesterday at the Green Festival, Walker received two standing ovations. But there are many who support the war in Iraq, and sadly, many who still oppose interracial marriage. By opposing the war, Walker risks denunciation by its supporters and arrest for civil disobedience. By marrying a man of a different color in segregated Mississippi, she risked violence and even death.

The hero must follow his or her own conscience in choosing the path of right action, regardless of the consequences. Seeking approval and acclaim from others may lead to stardom, but there is no guarantee that route will lead one to heroism.

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Like minds at work 

In Maggie Oman Shannon's new blog, Living the New Story, she describes the process of "following the bread crumbs" to find one's calling. Maggie is the author of One God, Shared Hope: Twenty Threads Shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I think the following-the-bread-crumbs method of discovery is vastly underrated by our all-too-linear Western culture. A popular belief that can defeat the would-be hero is the idea that your calling is supposed to descend upon on you at an early age, and you should recognize it at once. In fact, it's probably much more common not to figure out what you're really here for until midlife (at least). And when you do, you will probably realize that you have been sniffing around the edges of whatever it is for quite some time without quite recognizing it.

Speaking of bread crumbs, Maggie's blog has also quite coincidentally reconnected me with someone I encountered while following my own crumb trail many years ago. Jamie Walters and I first met via the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Women in Business directory in 1993. Jamie is the founder of Ivy Sea, "fostering the spirit of conscious enterprise, big vision, inspired leadership, skillful communication, and more conscious ways of living, working, thinking, and being." She's also the author of Big Vision, Small Business: 4 Keys to Success Without Growing Big.

In her recent article, "Authentic Leadership or Mindless Mimicry," Jamie highlights the value of following your own visionary trail of bread crumbs vs. other more well-trodden paths: "What [visionaries] can teach... is the very power of choosing authenticity and following one's own vision versus falling in with the crowd that's mindlessly following some trend and then wondering why they find it lacking in truth and vibrance. Yet there is good reason why so many more follow trends than seek-and-do from their own authentic vision: to follow a fad is much easier; to fall in with the crowd seems less risky. To act from your authenticity requires that you know who you are, at your core, and then find the courage to be that — unmasked — in the world."

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Virtue is as virtue does 

Investigating further the definition of heroic virtue established by the Catholic church, I have learned that Cardinal Lambertini, later Pope Benedict XIV, is regarded as the decisive authority on the subject. In his work on the Beatification and Canonization of Saints, Benedict defines heroic virtue as the habit of performing continuous acts possessing the quality of goodness in a very remarkable degree.

A significant point in Benedict's definition is that it requires good acts to be performed. In other words, simply holding virtuous intentions is not enough. To become heroic, one must act on those intentions, and do so continuously.

Benedict further suggests that the true hero must "perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure." To Benedict, "...pleasure and sweetness indicate a habit already formed and in a degree of intensity amounting to heroicity. It will be seen then that sadness and gloom and depression are utterly alien to the spirit of the saints..."

I find this official pronouncement about the required mood of the hero to be supremely encouraging. We often think of saints as being somber folks, bearing their concern for others as a visible burden. But Benedict's instructions are clear: rather than bemoaning the state of the world, the hero's task is to cheerfully set about improving it.

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Heroic virtue 

In reading about the beatification of Mother Teresa yesterday, I made the fascinating discovery that the Catholic church has an official definition for heroic virtue. "An heroic virtue, then, is a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature, a new motive power stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations, capable of rendering easy a series of acts each of which, for the ordinary man, would be beset with very great, if not insurmountable, difficulties."

I was first struck by the phrase: "a new motive power stronger than all corresponding inborn inclinations." Isn't that what we aspiring heroes are always looking for? How can the call to heroism become so strong that we overcome our inhibitions, self-limitations, and disabling habits? Where is the blinding vision, the burning bush, the flame of inspiration that will keep us going despite all obstacles?

But then I looked again, and saw this: "a habit of good conduct that has become a second nature." Oh.

What if we abandoned the desire for all that Sturm und Drang, and simply began instituting daily habits of good conduct? Could we become heroes little by little instead of in one dramatic moment? Behavioral experts tell us that if we follow a new habit for 21 days, it can become second nature.

What habits of good conduct would you like to begin today?

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Do not wait for leaders 

Mother Teresa was beatified by Pope John Paul today, the first step to officially recognizing her as a saint. Mother Teresa ranks high on my personal list of enlightened heroes, not only because of her unfailing display of heroic virtue, but because of the path she followed to heroism.

At the age of 12, she decided she wanted to help the poor, and began training for missionary work. At 18, she left her home in Macedonia to join an Irish community of nuns working in Calcutta. She taught in a convent high school there for 20 years, but as she approached midlife, she wanted to do more to relieve the suffering she saw all around her.

With no funding of any kind, she started an open-air school for homeless children. She was joined by volunteers and eventually obtained financial support from the church and local government. From these simple beginnings, she founded a new religious order, The Missionaries of Charity. The order today provides food for the needy and operates hospitals, schools, orphanages, youth centers, and shelters in 50 Indian cities and 30 other countries.

Mother Teresa's advice to heroes-in-training was: "Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person."

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How high can you go? 

Another topic that arose in Timo Navsky's Hero discussion group pertained to my suggestion that the first step on the path to becoming a hero was to put yourself in situations that evoke your higher self rather than your lower. Someone asked, "But how do you know what is your higher self?" Hmmm.

I suppose the easy answer is to say "trust your intuition" or something of the sort. But personally, I get frustrated by recipes that say, "bake until done." If I'm using a recipe, I want it to offer a bit more guidance than that. So here are some suggestions on the recipe for heroes.

Ask yourself where you are suffering right now. What situation or conditions are a thorn in your side? If you're feeling a vague dissatisfaction but can't pinpoint it, try using the Wheel of Life coaching tool to locate its source. When you've identified a point of discomfort, ask yourself if doing something about that pain would free you from worrying about yourself and create more expansiveness to turn your thoughts to helping others. If so, you may have identified a situation that needs to be changed to allow your higher self to emerge.

Another idea is to ask what's pissing you off right now. What situations or conditions really make you angry? Now, what can you do about changing those? If you are trapped in anger, your lower self is running the show. This is true even if your anger seems to be about hardships which plague people other than yourself. Use your anger as a symptom to uncover what needs to be addressed, but don't allow it to dictate your actions. This is rarely a sustainable path for the enlightened hero.

Looking for where you are suffering or what makes you angry are ways to identify what you might need to move away from. But you can also focus on what it is you need to move toward. Susan Thesenga, author of The Undefended Self says, "The higher self is our personal embodiment of and connection to the universal spirit that moves through all things. Meeting the higher self... is an experience usually accompanied by relief, as we feel we are coming home to our true identity, remembering who we truly are... In this expanded identity we find our center and ground."

Thesenga suggests that to locate our higher selves, we, "...begin with claiming those positive aspects of our personality which are aligned with truth, love, serenity, or beauty." I would add to this list some additional qualities essential for heroes: compassion, generosity, openness, conscientiousness, and increased awareness. When in doubt about which is the right direction, move toward people and situations that will bring out or increase these qualities in yourself. By doing so, you are grooming yourself to become a hero.

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Who gets to be a hero? 

My colleague Timo Navsky hosted a discussion group based on How to Become a Hero at her beautiful home in San Geronimo last Sunday. Timo first heard me speak on the topic at the Marin Coaches Alliance, and was intrigued enough to want to continue the conversation. Our group of eight had a wide-ranging discussion about my steps for becoming a hero, and as always I learned a great deal from hearing the perspectives of others.

An intriguing question that came up was that of how to define a hero. I've given my take on this in these entries by naming as a hero anyone who steps into their own greatness to be of service to others. If you have overcome obstacles -- external or internal -- in order to help other people, in my eyes you have become a hero. I've also suggested that to do this intentionally requires a certain level of enlightenment, and held up as the ideal the bodhisattva, who strives to become enlightened in order to work toward alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings.

But the question was raised: "Who decides what 'being of service' is?" Imagine, for example, that someone selflessly dedicates themselves to a cause you not only do not believe in, but vehemently oppose. If you are pro-choice, can you honor the heroism of someone who serves the right-to-life cause? If you believe homosexuality is a sin, can you respect someone who heroically works for gay rights? My, what thorny questions!

I considered this question while watching HBO's And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself this week. Pancho Villa was unquestionably a hero to the disenfranchised people of Mexico who he fought for and who fought for him. But to the wealthy class of his own and other countries, he was a villain who robbed and murdered innocent people. After the revolution he fought so hard for, Villa was assassinated, perhaps by old enemies, or perhaps by the new government who considered his legendary status a threat.

Was Villa a hero or a villain? And who gets to decide?

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Perseverance 

"Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another."
    -- Walter Elliott

The 7th and final step in my recipe for becoming a hero is Staying the Course. The least glamorous of the steps, I find it is also the most difficult. Having taken any number of transformational weekend workshops, I know all too well the hero's challenge of facing the ordinariness of Monday morning.

I have always considered perseverance to be one of my most valuable qualities. The strength of the personal value I call "whatever-it-takes" has enabled me to first survive and then succeed. But as I have made my way up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs through the course of my life, staying on task has actually become harder instead of easier.

When I was a teenage runaway, living on the street, my goals were simple. When I woke up in the morning, I was hungry. First I needed to find either free food or spare change to buy food, usually acquired by collecting bottles or panhandling. Then I had to figure out where I would sleep that night. The rest of my day was organized around being in the right place at the right time to get a free meal and a safe place to sleep, which often involved walking many miles. There was no room for self-pity; my continued existence depended on putting one foot in front of the other.

As my life improved and I moved up Maslow's pyramid from seeking food and shelter to looking for love, esteem, and ultimately, self-actualization, I found that, paradoxically, staying on track with my goals grew more difficult. Maslow said, "As one desire is satisfied, another pops up to take its place." But the desire for love and esteem is a craving rather than a compulsion; the pull toward self-actualization is a wish and not a necessity. Self-actualization -- in Maslow's words, "the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming" -- is rarely a comfortable process. Once achieving my goals began to lead in the direction of discomfort instead of toward more comfort, it became much more of a challenge to keep reaching for them.

"Bear in mind, if you are going to amount to anything, that your success does not depend upon the brilliance and the impetuosity with which you take hold, but upon the ever lasting and sanctified bull doggedness with which you hang on after you have taken hold."
    -- Dr. A. B. Meldrum

If you are having difficulty in staying the course today, try re-inspiring yourself with more pithy quotes about perseverance.

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The hero's journey redux 

I've reworked my steps for becoming a hero to include some new discoveries I've made, and incorporate some thoughts about presenting the material. Here is the up-to-the-minute version:

1. Develop your heroic qualities. The way to begin is by putting yourself in situations that evoke your higher self rather than your lower. Even if you do not yet know what your heroic quest will be, you can prepare yourself for it. And in preparing for the quest, you will develop those same faculties you need to hear the call to heroism that has not yet arrived. You are trying on the hero's mantle. Colloquially speaking, your task in this phase is to fake it 'til you make it.

2. Listen for the call. The call is the inspired message that describes your mission in life, vision for a better world, or heroic quest. You may experience it as a strong intuition, sudden realization, divine transmission, or just a subtle wondering. But to hear it, you must first listen for it. Many heroes-in-the-making find specific structures like meditation, prayer, journaling, or artistic endeavors helpful to open up their listening.

3. Take action. It's not enough to suspect or even know what your mission or quest might be. To become a hero, you must act on your heightened awareness. Even if you aren't sure you interpreted the call correctly, it is only by beginning to take action on your understanding that you will be sure. To move into action, you must get past the initial refusal of the call that every hero experiences.

4. Meet the dragon. Your worst enemy on the hero's journey is your own internal dragon of negativity, fear, and self-doubt. This piece of yourself tries to prevent you from fulfilling your heroic destiny. This dragon cannot be slain; you must meet it in its lair and develop strategies for continuing to take action. The dragon will continue to co-exist with the positive qualities that make it possible for you to be heroic.

5. Commit to the quest. It's entirely possible for you to get this far in the hero's journey without yet having made a commitment to your mission. You may be unsure of the authenticity of the call, lack confidence in your abilities, or be surrounded by unfavorable conditions. Regardless, without commitment, your mission will ultimately fail. This is the point when you must declare yourself a hero, ready or not.

6. Seek guidance. The hero's life can be lonely and difficult without the aid of human and spirit guides. Finding sources of ongoing guidance to support your mission can be critical to its success. Books, films, music, and art can all provide guidance, but the best guides are real people and a connection with the divine.

7. Stay the course. In my initial formula, I left this stage out. But yet, it is the most difficult one of all. The hero must keep going despite opposition, catastrophe, and the small, distracting details of everyday life. It's just as hard to be a hero while taking out the trash as it is to be one while your marriage is falling apart. To remain on the heroic path, you must be vigilant and develop perseverance.

Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of Heroes-R-Us.

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Medals for enlightenment 

The process of becoming enlightened is rarely comfortable and often quite painful. Buddhists describe the path of enlightened heroism as requiring bodhicitta, the awakened heart.

When you wake up in the morning, it can be a difficult and painful process if everything is not right in your world. Your worries rush in, body parts may ache, you remember recent upsets and sadness. Waking up in your whole life can be several orders of magnitude more painful than your daily awakening.

My teacher Pema Chodron suggests that we heroes-in-training view the discomfort and pain of waking up in life as a trophy of our struggle. It is a valiant endeavor, and Pema believes we deserve a medal for our efforts. "Award yourself a hero's Purple Heart," Pema says, for the wounds you sustain in your battle to attain enlightenment.

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Ready or not 

According to Joseph Campbell, "the hero is ready for the adventure he gets." When the adventure arrives, it is often not what we expected. We've waited for it, looked for it, hoped for it; suddenly it is here... and it's not quite how we pictured it.

Perhaps we thought we would be excited and energized, and instead we feel apprehensive and overwhelmed. Maybe it's not exactly the best time for an adventure. Just when we thought we had our lives under control, here comes this big messy interruption.

Our readiness for whatever has arrived for us in this moment is a matter of perception. If we believe we are ready, we will enter into the adventure wholeheartedly. If we believe we aren't ready, the adventure will simply carry us along. Either way, the adventure will proceed. Wouldn't it be better to have faith in our readiness and fully take part in what is already here?

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The opposite of greed 

I just returned from a brief trip back in time, touring the historic mining towns of Virginia City, NV and Bodie, CA. Both towns at one time had populations of 10-20,000 people. The former silver mining town of Virginia City has a population of around 1,000 now, almost all of whom cater to the tourist trade. The gold mining town of Bodie is a true ghost town. The only residents are the rangers who preserve it as a state historic park.

On the drive over the mountains, I was reading aloud to my sweetheart Dave from Silver Kings by Oscar Lewis. In short vignettes, Lewis describes the lives of the founders and early residents of the Comstock Lode region. Despite the fact that over 400 million dollars in silver and gold was taken from the area, most of the miners and businessmen died poor, many of them quite tragically -- shootings, suicides, hangings, starvation, exposure, accidents, and illness. In story after story, the cause of so much tragedy was clear: greed.

The boom years of mining in the Sierras provided ideal conditions for the making of heroes. At every turn, there were endless opportunities, heart-stopping adventures, few constraining boundaries, and many people in need. But instead of heroism, the legends that survive are of violence, avarice, and addiction. The Friends of Bodie tell us, "Bodie bustled with robbers, gunfighters and prostitutes... there were 65 saloons (in a town of 10,000)... The mixture of money, gold and alcohol would often prove fatal. It is said that there was a man killed every day in Bodie." Lewis says, "...for 20 years the Californians had skimmed the cream off the Comstock and, having made their pile, shook the dust of the silver towns from their boots and hurried westward with never a backward glance. Thus, while the new plutocrats indulged their taste for display by ornamenting San Francisco with a series of massive hotels and office buildings and residences, the bonanza towns received no part of the wealth they produced." When the boom was over, Nevada was left with 575 abandoned mining camps and ghost towns.

In my recipe for heroism, the first step is "evoking your higher self." The parallel in Buddhist teachings on the path to becoming an enlightened hero is the first paramita: cultivating compassion and generosity. To develop these qualities one must overcome their opposites: the negative emotions of self-absorption, craving, aggression, and possessiveness. Imagine what stories would have emerged from the Comstock if the silver kings had used their wealth and power to establish a culture of generosity, if they had shown compassion to those less fortunate, if they had discouraged aggression and addiction by contributing to the communities that created their fortunes.

It's easy to look at the tintype photos of men with long beards and longer coats and think that times have changed. And it's true that we have seen in recent years some compassionate leaders and corporate heroes. But every day's headlines show us that the world is still sadly lacking in compassion and generosity. Instead of bemoaning this, the place to begin is with ourselves. What can we do, each one of us, to cultivate our own compassion and generosity, and so evoke those qualities in the rest of the world?

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Not just waiting 

In my current formulation of the steps for becoming a hero, number two is "hearing the call." I'm planning to talk to people about their experience of hearing the call to a new vision, purpose, or mission in life -- what was it like, when did it happen, etc. But I'm also interested in what they did before hearing the call that created the conditions allowing them to hear it, recognize it, and let it in.

For example, here are some of the things that my clients and I have done in our own lives to open that kind of listening space:

journaling
meditation
writing poetry
prayer
taking improv classes
martial arts
working with a coach
drawing, painting or sculpture
inspirational reading
personal growth workshops
psychotherapy
shamanic journeying
pastoral counseling
personality assessment
leadership training
career counseling
dancing
hypnotherapy
ropes courses

All of these practices and strategies give you something to do. An important element of the hero's makeup is taking action somehow, not just waiting and hoping that inspiration will occur. But I also notice two prevailing themes throughout these activities: discovering who you are, and learning to express yourself authentically. In the waiting place, before you even know what direction your heroic journey will take, perhaps these are the hero's tasks.

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Trumpets and whispers 

In every hero's journey there is a transformative moment -- that instant where the hero hears, learns, or realizes the essential truth that changes him forever. Sometimes this moment of enlightenment and clear seeing arrives at the same instant when you first hear the call of what is to become your mission. This is perhaps the experience we most often recall from the great heroic stories. The way we remember it is that Joan of Arc saw a vision, heard the voice of God, and instantly knew what she must do. So we wait for the trumpets to sound and the wave of inspiration to sweep over us, thinking that these are the necessary signals of a truly transformative moment.

But in fact, young Joan had been having visions of the saints for years before she finally did what the voices asked of her. In 1424, at age 12 or 13, Joan began to have visions of Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael the Archangel. In the beginning, the saints simply told her to be good and go to church. But then they began to ask her to go to the Dauphin Charles and offer to help him claim the throne of France. It wasn't until 1428 that she acted on the voices she had been hearing for so long.

We don't know much about Joan's actual transformative moment, when she decided to finally do what the voices asked. It has been suggested that it ultimately came about because she knew how desperate the Dauphin's situation had become. In other words, divine inspiration intersected with political and social reality and a growing awareness of what her world needed in that moment. But even for this classic heroine, she first heard the call as a whisper and not a sounding of trumpets, she listened in partial disbelief for years before taking action, and when she finally did act she was still not convinced that her actions would do any good.

What is it that is whispering to you right now?

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Meeting the dragon 

In my current recipe for becoming a hero, I had named one of the steps as "slaying the dragon" -- overcoming your inner demons of fear, self-doubt, and negativity. But in working with this concept, I have realized this name doesn't reflect what this stage really entails. A more accurate label is "meeting the dragon."

In my Person-to-Person Marketing class and Overcoming the Fear of Self-Promotion workshop, I have been teaching for several years about the concept of making friends with your fear. Instead of fighting the fire of this powerful emotion by pouring on more gasoline in the form of resistance, self-loathing, and guilt, I suggest recognizing your fear as a part of you that wishes to protect you from harm. If you make friends with it, you can discover what it needs in order to loosen its grip on you.

On the hero's path, what is necessary is not to slay the dragon, but to meet it in its lair. Go toward it instead of away, become acquainted with it, and learn how can you live a full life despite its presence. The images of slaying and overcoming imply that you can once and for all defeat your internal dragon, that the hero must destroy the dragon in his path before proceeding with the quest. But this is not only misleading; it is an impossible task.

The negative voices of fear, avoidance, and self-doubt will always be with us. The hero's journey requires learning to be heroic despite them. You must meet the dragon where he is, get to know him intimately, and discover how to live your life to the greater good regardless of the dragon's presence.

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Bake in a hot oven for 45 years 

Is there a recipe for becoming a hero? Can one follow a series of steps to travel from self-centered to selfless, from survival to triumph, from lost and wandering to enlightened? There are no guarantees in the making of heroes. The process is more like alchemy than cooking dinner.

But I believe there are steps one can take to move in a heroic direction. In my first formulation of this, I have named five:

1. Evoking your higher self - This was Joseph Campbell's advice about the path to becoming a hero: "Put yourself in situations where your higher self is evoked rather than your lower."

2. Hearing the call - Listening for, and allowing yourself to believe in, the voice that outlines your true path to greatness.

3. Taking action - Getting past the initial refusal that all heroes experience, and taking concrete steps in the direction of your quest.

4. Slaying the dragon - Overcoming the inner demons of fear, self-doubt, and negativity that prevent you from owning the hero's mantle.

5. Seeking guidance - Finding people, places and precepts that support your heroism and inspire it to greater heights.

There will be more about these principles in weeks to come, but this is a beginning. I welcome your thoughts on this topic as it evolves.

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Slaying the dragon within 

I wrote last month about the internal dragon every hero must slay. The dragon comes in many shapes and sizes, but it seems that there are three dominant forms. The first is, "I'm not ready," of which I wrote on Friday. The second is, "I'm not enough." You can take that phrase as it stands, or add your favorite word in the middle: "I'm not smart enough," "brave enough," "talented enough," etc.

The third dragon is, "What will people think?" This can be a tough one to slay, because more than either of the others, it reflects an external truth. Our readiness to set out on the hero's journey, and whether we are enough for the task at hand, are areas where we can hopefully change our thinking. We can come to believe that we are as ready as we're going to get, or that we do have enough intelligence, talent, and courage to begin. But we cannot alter the opinions of others.

We can try to influence what others think, but the fact is that if we are truly to become heroes, there will be those who disapprove. What we are doing may scare them; they may disagree with our course; they may fear losing us from their lives. When they express their disapproval, it will be real, outside of us, an unalterable fact.

The only element truly under our control is how we react to their disapproval. Will we allow it to stop us, or accept it and continue on? And will we allow our apprehension of some future disapproving voice to stop us even before we begin? The trick to slaying the "What will people think?" dragon is remembering that it is still an internal one. Even though it seems to be about the opinions of others, it is really about our own reaction to those opinions. We get to choose whether we will stay home until everyone around us agrees where we are going and how to get there, or we can begin the quest as best we know how, and trust that it is our own right choice.

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Are you ready yet? 

A common misconception held by would-be heroes is the belief that you must be "ready" before beginning your heroic journey. Thinking that you must have your life more together before starting your big adventure, you find yourself waiting to begin, often for years. You may never get started at all, because you never feel ready. When feeling stuck in this place, it can be helpful to remember that the great ones became heroes because they went on the quest. They didn't wait to turn into heroes first and then set out.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the first stage of the hero's journey as beginning with the call to adventure -- Luke Skywalker sees the recorded message from the desperate Princess Leia -- followed by the refusal of the call -- Luke is duty-bound to stay home and help with the harvest. It seems that the place we modern heroes frequently stop is with the refusal. We convince ourselves that bringing in the harvest is the sensible thing to do. But the harvest must be brought in every year, and when we are not reaping, we must be sowing, and cultivating, and threshing, and hauling the grain to market... When will there ever be time to save the world?

The answer, of course, is now. Now, when the call comes. The harvest will always be there, with you or without you. But the call, ah, that is special. It doesn't come every day or even every year. When you hear it, there is no way to know if you will ever hear it again. So if today is the day you hear it, today is the day you should act on it. Ready or not.

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Courage to change... or not 

If there is a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for despondency?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being sad?
-- Shantideva

This 8th century version of the Serenity Prayer is my study verse this week for my Way of the Bodhisattva class with Pema Chodron. Heroes are well known for taking action, finding a remedy when trouble strikes, but this verse reminds us that another heroic quality is cheerfulness in the face of danger and difficulty. Sometimes there is no solution, or at least not an immediate one, and if that's the case, well, is there a use in being sad?

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Taking it to the street 

I wrote yesterday about the importance of turning insight into action. This is a critical step for the enlightened hero. Joseph Campbell said that rather than focus on the meaning of life, we should focus on the experience of being alive.

It's all too easy to become absorbed in the big questions of who we are, where we are going, and why we are here. Not that these aren't important questions, but at some point, we must put into action what we are discovering. Without that action, we may become personally enlightened, but we are not yet being of much service to others.

Once we begin to create an outward expression of the insights, inspiration, or spiritual guidance we receive, they can begin to have a positive impact on those we touch. And this is true even when we begin only by applying our discoveries to our own lives.

So whatever you feel inspired by, bring it out into the open. Share it with another person, or find a way to act upon it. Begin to experience the meaning of it instead if just contemplating it. Your courage in doing so will immediately inspire others to let their light shine also.

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Listening like a hero 

On a 1-to-10 scale from whitebread to woo-woo, I'm probably about an 8. I speak fluently the language of business and am well known for my practical, down-to-earth, step-by-step writing and teaching. I operate my day-to-day life and work on a fairly pragmatic basis. But I also believe strongly in the world of spirit. At crossroads, turning points, and crises, I'm much more likely to rely on intuition, inspiration, and divine guidance than on logical analysis and flowcharts.

On the whitebread to woo-woo scale, my mother was an 11. In the 60's, she served on the board of the Parastudy institute for the study of the paranormal, practiced the spiritual discipline of Subud, and at one point placed me in the home school of the Temple for Spiritual Learning, where we worshipped the Egyptian gods. A typical Saturday night for me as a 10-year-old was to sit in the Parastudy library, reading Edgar Cayce, Joan Grant, instructions for reading auras, and accounts of alien abductions.

I became fascinated early on with stories of divinely-guided heroes. Joan of Arc is the one I recall affecting me most strongly, probably because she was also a young girl. I wished that the spirits would come and speak to me, to tell me what I was supposed to do with my life, to give me a mission. Standing in holy places, like circles of trees and rays of sunlight, I would listen for a message. But I wonder...

If the spirits had spoken to me, would I have had Joan's courage? To not only tell the world what I had heard, but to act on it? This is what I mean when I speak of stepping into your greatness -- once you have had the vision, to be brave enough to share it, and committed enough to act upon it.

Actually, I think I heard many divinely-inspired messages -- at age 10 and 20 and 30 -- that I ignored. I think we all do. Whether you interpret that message as coming from the world of spirit, from inside yourself, or from the person on the other end of the phone line doesn't matter. The way to become a hero is to recognize the importance of these messages, share them with others, and take action to bring them into the world.

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Changing the world a step at a time 

In my Way of the Bodhisattva class this summer, one of the weekly homework assignments is to memorize and contemplate a verse from Shantideva's text. Here is the verse I chose for this week:

"To cover all the earth with sheets of hide --
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But simply wrap some leather round your feet,
And it's as if the whole earth had been covered!"

The hero's journey must begin with changing himself, but also, changing oneself may be a much simpler task than taking on the changing of the whole world. Shantideva implies that by changing yourself you do change the world. At the personal level, the world seems to change when your perspective of it does, but in fact, a change to your own being can have an observable effect on everyone who comes in contact with you. So, before you start slaughtering cattle, put your sandals on.

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Chop wood; carry water 

An often overlooked challenge of being a hero is how to maintain your heroism in between epic adventures. When you are back at home with your family and expected to once again cook dinner or take out the trash, how do you hold onto your heroic qualities... especially if those closest to you are more aware of your warts than your gifts?

This is where the paramitas of discipline and patience can be supremely useful. One must continually practice being a hero under the most trying conditions -- which may turn out to be those of daily life. Instead of looking at mundane chores as tasks that interfere with your growth and development, try viewing them as a training ground for heroism. They are opportunities to perfect the essential skills of discipline and patience by practicing them in real life situations. Remember that one of the feats that made a hero of Hercules was cleaning out the stables.

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Heroism in Marin County 

I have been invited to give my first talk on the topic of becoming a hero at a meeting of the Marin Coaches Alliance on August 4. This is exactly what I hoped would begin to occur when I began writing about this subject less than a month ago. The talk came about due to a chain of events I couldn't duplicate if I tried.

I am thrilled by this example of what I call the "Persistence Effect" in action. Whenever you get serious about a goal and begin to act in a focused, consistent way, results occur in unexpected places. It's almost as if the universe notices how hard you are working and decides to reward you. But these opportunities are not accidents. There is a direct connection between the level of effort you put into achieving your goal and the results you get out of it, even when it seems as if the results are completely unrelated to your efforts.

I could say that I did nothing to make that talk in Marin occur, because I didn't solicit it, or even intend for it to happen. But in fact, I did many things. I have spent ten plus years building a reputation in the coaching profession that results in groups seeking me out to speak. I launched this weblog to discuss the topic of becoming a hero, and have been posting here consistently. I mentioned my weblog to the organizer of the Marin group (in a conversation that had nothing to do with my speaking there) as an example of how people were exploring new topics on the web. And, abracadabra, an invitation to speak materialized.

The next time you read a hero's story where events seem to happen by accident, look below the surface. When John F. Kennedy was asked how he became the hero of PT109, he said, "It was involuntary; they sank my boat." But what were all the deliberate actions leading up to that moment that made it possible for heroism to "suddenly" occur?

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Not found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles 

Pursuing the path of heroism is intertwined with discovering one's right livelihood. The term right livelihood has Buddhist origins, and has been described by writers such as Marsha Sinetar as "work consciously chosen, done with full awareness and care, and leading to enlightenment." Such work must also be "ethical," a tricky term for which I found a helpful definition in Natural Life Magazine: "...consistent with the principles of honest living, treating with respect other people and the natural world... being responsible for the consequences of one's actions."

To become a hero, one must find one's true calling. Some find it before walking the hero's road and that is what points their faces in that direction; others simply begin down the path and discover it on the journey. But regardless of when it occurs, uncovering your right livelihood is what makes is possible to be a hero every day of your life. Without that key element, you may still have a grand adventure and hopefully make an impact, but then your story ends.

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Send in the kleshas 

In my Way of the Bodhisattva class last night, Pema talked about kleshas. She described these as negative emotions that block us from developing ourselves and helping others. The five kleshas usually named are ignorance, self-absorption, craving, aggression, and possessiveness.

These are the flaws of the hero I spoke of yesterday, when I mentioned that the hero could use his flaws to good purpose. Pema suggests that it is sometimes possible to use the energy of a klesha to overcome the klesha itself. For example, if you are plagued by anger, get angry at the anger. The trick is not to let your anger "hook" you in doing so. It is the clear seeing of the true nature of your kleshas that eventually disspells them.

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Essential qualities of the hero 

I've begun a list of what I believe to be the qualities every hero must have; those elements that one must work to build in order to wear the mantle of heroism. The list is incomplete, and there will be much more to say about each of these qualities, but here they are:

Resilience
Courage
Impulse to action
Willingness to risk
Desire to serve
Sense of purpose
Honor
Strength
Discipline
Compassion
Spiritual guidance
Openness to learning and change
Responsibility
Resourcefulness
Focus
Commitment
Humility
Flaws

The last quality may be surprising, but all true heroes are flawed in some way. The hero must find a way to use his flaws to help others, or to rise above them.

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Heroic guides 

On the path to becoming a hero, the hero-in-training often benefits from having a guide. These guides take many forms -- mentors who the hero knows personally, and who give the hero advice; role models the hero tries to emulate, teachers who give the hero instruction in how to develop his skill; spirit guides, real or ethereal, who deliver guidance from the other world; healers who provide tools for the hero to improve his ability to function; coaches who encourage the hero to perservere and help the hero effectively channel his efforts.

I most often look at developing heroes through the lens of coaching, because it is the paradigm I know best. And certainly the umbrella of coaching can include many elements of the other forms of guidance. But the key to effectively guiding heroes is to provide guidance in a form that they respond to.

The pragmatic hero may not listen to words from a spirit guide; the loner may not accept guidance from a mentor. Each hero is unique and must find the sources of guidance that will penetrate his natural defenses against dramatic change and therefore serve his ongoing development.

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Everyday heroes 

In the class I am taking with Pema Chodron on Way of the Bodhisattva, we are focusing this year on discipline and patience. These two qualities are the 2nd and 3rd of the six paramitas -- principles of enlightened living as taught in Tibetan Buddhism.

The entry point on the path of becoming a bodhisattva -- an "enlightened hero" -- is developing generosity, the 1st paramita. But once generosity has awakened in you, you must practice discipline and patience to keep it alive. It's where the rubber meets the road.

Many of us have experienced achieving some level of enlightenment in a weekend workshop or transformative life event. But then you return to your daily life, and it gradually drains away. Heroism requires the discipline and patience to practice, and to fail, over and over again. "Any fool can be brilliant in a crisis. It's the everyday living that wears you down." (Who said that?)

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Power to the people 

In Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins gives his definition of a hero: "A hero is a person who courageously contributes under even the most trying circumstances; a hero is an individual who acts unselfishly and who demands more from himself or herself than others would expect; a hero is a man or woman who defies adversity by doing what he or she believes is right in spite of fear."

In the chapter where this quote appears, Robbins describes what one person can do to change the world. It's a valuable addition to his book on developing personal power. His message is that once you gain control of your own destiny, you can help others to change theirs.

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Dragon slayer 

An important task of the hero is to slay the dragon. But according to Joseph Campbell, the dragon is not always an external enemy. In an interview about the hero archetype in The Power of Myth series, Campbell said, "Your ego holds you in. It's too small. It pins you down like a dragon with what you can't do."

To fully step into your role as a hero, you must first slay the dragon inside yourself that holds you back with all the reasons you can never become great. Campbell says, "In saving yourself, you save the world."

P.S. At the urging of "blog coach" Hal Macomber, I have added a commenting feature to my weblog. Please stop by and post a comment.

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True courage is in facing danger... 

"...when you are afraid." Pema Chodron in her Way of the Bodhisattva class last year described three levels of courage -- that of the monarch, the ferryman, and the shepherd. The monarch develops his own strength to be able to help others, the ferryman works in the company of others to help everyone, and the shepherd puts the welfare of others before his own.

Pema used the metaphor of eating to teach more about this. The monarch eats to gain strength, and so be better able to serve his people. The ferryman shares his food with others in the same boat. The shepherd feeds the others first.

Often we think that heroes must be shepherds and sacrifice all for those they serve, but this is not so. Monarchs and ferrymen can also be heroic when their intentions and actions are to be of service.

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Guards, guides & bridges 

I am steeped in The Way of the Bodhisattva this week, preparing to begin this year's class on the subject with Pema Chodron on Saturday. Listening to the tapes of last year's class, one verse from the chapter on "Commitment" stood out: "May I be a guard for those who are protectorless, a guide for those who journey on the road. For those who wish to go across the water, may I be a boat, a raft, a bridge."

The three examples in this verse illustrate different models for heroism -- the guards who protect their charges from harm and fight on their behalf (Thich Nhat Hanh); the guides who lead people to safety, better fortune, or enlightenment (Carl Jung); and the bridges who carry those they serve on their backs by working directly to keep them fed, healthy, and free (Mother Teresa).

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Channel-surfing to enlightenment 

I use my television these days mostly for watching movies on digital cable, but I haven't had my usual 50+ movie channels the last couple of weeks due to a cable system snafu. So in searching for other video entertainment, I discovered it was PBS pledge time again, which means Joseph Campbell is back on the air.

One click later, I found myself watching the first episode of The Power of Myth, titled "The Hero's Adventure." (There are no accidents, right?) I've probably watched this series a zillion times, but each viewing I find something new. This time, I was struck by Campbell's advice about how to become a hero: "Put yourself in situations where your higher self is evoked rather than your lower."

In the last couple of years before I became a coach, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. First I quit my job to become a consultant. I didn't think that was what I really wanted, but the job was definitely evoking my lower self, i.e., making me frustrated and angry. By leaving it, I was released from an overwhelming negative influence. Next, I opened an office. I didn't know what I was going to do there -- my consulting gigs were all on site -- but I felt strongly that I needed that space to do whatever would come next. What I found was that the office evoked my higher self. When I went there, I became focused and creative, even visionary. Getting that office led directly to my discovery of the path of coaching and everything that followed.

It seems that Campbell's words can be a guide when you don't know what else to do. If you simply remove yourself from situations that evoke your lower self and put yourself where your higher self is encouraged, you begin to step into greatness without even knowing what it looks like.

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Bodhisattva in training 

I spent the weekend with friends in Santa Cruz, and in addition to swimming and sightseeing, indulged in one of my favorite pastimes of visiting thrift stores and used book stores. You can tell a lot about a place by the contents of its used book stores, and the shelves in Santa Cruz are loaded with psychology, metaphysics, and spirituality titles.

I picked up a marvelous resource for the topic of this blog: Bodhisattva Archetypes by Taigen Daniel Leighton. Referring to bodhisattvas as "heroic benefactors," the book describes modern examples of archetypal characters from Buddhist tradition. Some of the named heroes are ones you would expect, e.g. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But others are surprising, for example, Muhammad Ali, Daniel Ellsberg, Bob Dylan, and Clint Eastwood.

Leighton describes bodhisattvas as "valiantly functioning in helpful ways right in the middle of the busy-ness of the world." Without a doubt, that fits my definition of a hero.

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Heroes are made, not born 

My third theme here, and the central one, is heroism. Heroes are those who have allowed themselves -- or been forced by circumstances -- to step into their own greatness. And here is where my definition of a hero may differ from others. I believe that the essence of heroism is being of service.

Sports stars or actors are often named as heroes, and I am skeptical of this practice. Is the act of entertaining one of serving? Perhaps it comes down to the motivation of the hero. If one plays a game or acts a part for the purpose of inspiring others, making them think, or just making them feel better, that might fit. But if the reason the star performs is for the applause, to hear the roar of the crowd, to get the fan mail, can that be considered heroic? I say not.

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The way of the hero 

One of my many influences on the subject of heroism and service has been the classic Buddhist text The Way of the Bodhisattva by the 8th century Indian monk Shantideva. This summer, I will have the incredible privilege of studying this work with Pema Chodron. Pema is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist, now living in Nova Scotia, Canada, who teaches each summer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The focus of The Way of the Bodhisattva is on attaining enlightenment for the sake of the deliverance from suffering of all beings. Powerful stuff, and the very essence of accepting the mantle of heroism.

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Once upon a time... 

Faced with a blank page here at the beginning of my blog, I rely on an old writer's trick and begin in the middle.

What are the essential qualities of a hero? One I know well is commitment -- that sticktoitiveness I hold highly as a personal value. Asked to give that value a uniquely personal name once in a workshop, I called it Whatever-It-Takes. Color it khaki. If you are truly committed to something, you do whatever it takes to make it happen.

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