Over the last two decades we have asked many people who they thought of as a heroes in their lives. Someone who they found truly inspirational, someone whom they would look up to. Surprising these people are often not iconic figures. They may be a grandmother, or a teacher from their school years. Whoever these people were, they all share a very noteworthy characteristic. They were not seen to be significant on the basis of what they had gotten from life, but rather on the basis of what they had given.
When the contributions made have been dramatic, like Nelson Mandela having transcended the bitterness of his imprisonment to hold on to a unifying vision for all South Africans, or Michael Jackson for his music, we can think of the people involved as the big heroes. When the contributions have been comparatively mundane, like a grandmother who was always there to listen when a person had a problem, or a teacher who would not accept mediocre work and insisted that the person could do better. We can think of the people involved as small heroes.
Whether the heroes are small or big, they are very rarely significant because of the size of their car or their bank account. They are significant because of what they contributed. Elon Musk is a cultural icon. Not so much because of his wealth, but because of enterprises such as Tesla and Star Link and the contributions they have made to our lives. The same would be true for Elton John, Angela Jolie, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Angela Merkle.
Big heroes inspire awe in us, a desire to achieve similar heights of significance. However, it is important to realize that the pursuit of the big bank account and the luxury car will not quench that thirst. To aspire to those heights we need to contribute big, like finding a cure for cancer or writing an award-winning novel.
It strikes me, though, that to have that, one needs a very clear sense of vocation or calling. Something which many of us find difficult to establish.
Questions to explore if you are wanting to establish your sense of calling:
- Who are the recipients of the work that I really would like to do?
- What are their needs and wants?
- What is the transformation I would wish to affect? In other words, what is the difference I will enable for the recipients after I have delivered my product or service?
- Therefore, what is the benevolent intent of my work? How would the world become a better place if I did what I intended to do? Elon Musk, for example said of Tesla that
‘Our goal when we created Tesla a decade ago was the same as it is today: to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.’
Hopefully these questions will help you to establish some idea of what your life could contribute to the world that you’re in. They will help you to explore what really enlivens your heart and makes you feel that your life fits in to a greater sense of design, that it has purpose.
Navigating Your Current Occupation
It is also useful to consider the implication of these four questions to your current occupation. It is not to say that asking these four questions will necessarily require you to change your occupation would you find a new job. You may well find that your current occupation enables the contribution you wish to make.
In order to establish a sense of fit between your aspiration for your own life and your current occupation; you can use the four questions.
Consider what the organization that you’re working for contributes:
- Who are your enterprise’s customers and clients? Who gets served by you doing your enterprise contributing its service or products.
- What are their needs and wants? What does your enterprise invoice them for? What do they pay for?
- What is the transformation that your enterprise seeks to enable? How is the customer or client better after you have delivered your goods and services to them?
- If your business consistently delivered these goods and services and affected this transformation how would the world become a better place?
If you can see a direct line of sight between the benevolent intent for your own life and the benevolent intent of the work that you do, then it’s reasonably apparent that you are doing what is close to your sense of calling. If, however, there is a dramatic difference between what you’ve established for what you want for your own life and what the enterprise wants, it may be appropriate to consider changing your career.
In considering one sense of calling and your desire to become a big hero, it is very important to take note that big heroes come with a health warning. Some of the most destructive and evil people in the world didn’t set off trying to be destructive and evil. They set off trying to pursue their vision of how to make the world a better place. The problem with big heroes is that it is often beneath their dignity to sweat the small stuff. Too easily can relationships people and relationships be sacrificed on the altar of achieving the grand vision. It is too easy for the ends to justify the means. For the small stuff to be sacrificed for the big achievement.
The Small Hero
There is therefore a second way of considering one ‘s own contribution to life. Which is to consider the way of the small hero. In considering the way of the small hero, you would ask the same questions as you asked in pursuit of your sense of calling. But you would ask them directly related to the people who currently populate your life. These would be people like your family, your close circle of friends, and your immediate colleagues, clients and customers at work.
Your exploration of the four questions would be:
- Who are the people that you transact with or interact with on a day-to-day basis?
- What are their needs and wants? It is useful when considering this question also to consider both their material needs and wants and their needs and wants as feeling, thinking human beings.
- What is the transformation that you’re trying to achieve for these people? It occurs to me that this sense of transformation has to have something to do with two apparently paradoxical qualities. In the first instance it has to do with the spirit of protecting those who are in your circle of influence. But secondly it is also to promote their autonomy as human beings. Furthermore, there is a logical order to the intent to protect and the intent to cultivate autonomy. Because it amounts to the willingness to protect people for as long as necessary in the process of them becoming autonomous and independent.
- The logical implication of cultivating people who are autonomous is that you are enabling people who themselves will become heroes in their spheres of influence. They will be the ones who take care, they will be the ones who protect and promote.
Whose Contribution Matters More?
Understanding the role of the little heroes and being willing to be one, means to have the magnanimity of spirit not to be the star, but to cultivate other human beings to be the stars. This unassuming pursuit is probably the most significant contribution a person can make. It speaks to the essence of being here to give or serve. A person who consistently seeks to nurture and enable all those who are in their sphere of influence is unlikely to turn their near and dearest into cannon fodder in the pursuit of a grand objective. However, their contribution is no less significant or important because of that.
You do not need to find a cure for cancer to be a hero.
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