Heroes are a double-edged sword.

The shiny side of this particular sword is that they inspire us, excite our creativity and get us started on our own path. Everyone has heroes, even our heroes. No matter how fiercely independent people might be, there’s no question that at one point they wanted to be the next fill-in-the-blank.

On one level, that lofty dream helps us visualize what we want. Think being a travel writer is cool? Check out Anthony Bourdain, Rick Steves or anyone who contributes to in-flight magazines. Want to be an actor? There’s no shortage of success stories there, and they come from all over, even if they mostly end up in L.A. or New York. Want to be entrepreneur? Read about Elon Musk or Lori Greiner, or any of the Shark Tank sharks. (I have not technically seen this show.)

Our heroes don’t have to be famous either. Often, they’re people we know who seems to have it pretty good: one of our classmates who somehow became a touring musician or a local business owner who found the perfect space in which to operate. These people, it seems, have a pretty sweet gig. If we could only get that gig, we’d be perfectly content.

The gritty, unpolished side of the hero-sword is that they can give us unrealistic ideas of happiness, success and how we ought to go about our own lives.

Their stories can be inspiring, but they can also trap us if we view other people’s lives as road maps for our own stories. Reading an artist’s Wikipedia entry will tell us she grew up and decided to be a musician, and before she was 23—voila!—she was making a terrific living and drinking cranberry juice out of golden boots in Sweden (I have not technically been to Sweden). Following a person’s Instagram will just confirm this: Our heroes are traveling the world, meeting and working with exciting people and living the perfect lives. It can make us feel flat-out resentful, if we let it. And, man, is it easy for that to happen.

One flaw in this line of thinking is that we are comparing our real, messy selves with someone else’s ideal selves, or worse yet—our idea of what their perfect life must be like. This already happens with our friends, right? Let’s say you’re having a bad day, so you log into social media to kill time, and all you see in your feed are friends doing “better” than you. They’re happier, more exciting, better-looking, smarter, more athletic… the list goes on. Meanwhile, you burned your pinky and tongue on the Four-Cheese Hot Pocket you had for breakfast, wore your shirt backwards until the guy you like laughed and pointed it out, and you can’t seem to get anything done. Now, here’s Liz, your buddy from the nicer part of town, and she’s posting pictures of she and her friends in a limo for a birthday party, and they’re all smiling and glowing and in total bliss. Right?

Wrong. I’m not saying Liz isn’t happy or successful, but if she is, it’s not the result of a glamorous lifestyle. From a Study.com article about happiness:

  • “There are three main things that make people happy: close relationships, a job or past-time that they love, and helping others. On the other hand, money and material things do not have a lot to do with happiness, and people who emphasize them are less happy than those who do not.”

This means, of course, that the Lifetime Network was right: The key to our happiness and success was inside us all along. They were also right about Mary being the murderer of the Gardening Club. They were right about so much.

So where does this leave us? If you’re a big believer in scientific studies, you might surmise that if you have even a few close friends, a passion of any kind, and you try to help others out when you can, there’s a chance you’re doing better than many people who only seem to show off how much stuff they have. You might discover you want what another person has for all of the wrong reasons. You might also conclude that, if you did in fact somehow gain their fame and fortune, you’d actually be less happy than you are now. Think about that for a minute.

Here’s the other thing of which I have to remind myself, all the time, when it comes to modeling myself after my heroes: There is no set formula for their success. There are ways to make your goals more reachable, but success is often the result of a ton of hard work, risks, and a bit of luck. There are people who get lucky without much hard work, but they are so astronomically rare that trying to follow their lead is a lesson in insanity.

Fortunately, there are some successful people who tell the truth about how they got where they are. Chuck Klosterman, an exceptionally talented sports journalist, pop-culture writer and novelist, is a good example. His Wikipedia page will have you believe that he worked in Fargo, North Dakota, until moving to New York City in 2002, at which time he promptly became The Next Big Thing. The real story, which he’s told before and which I’m paraphrasing here, happened something like this:

  1. He wrote a book about his love for ’80s hair metal as a kid who grew up in the Midwest.
  2. He had no publisher.
  3. Somehow, David Byrne of the Talking Heads found out about the book and asked him to come to New York to do a reading.
  4. The event, which also featured comedian/writer John Hodgman and novelist David Eggers, was scheduled for September 11, 2001 (seriously).
  5. It was almost cancelled, but the writers decided to go ahead with it in an act of noble resistance to terror.
  6. People showed up in droves and loved his reading.
  7. He found a publisher.

Klosterman tells this story in response to the question he gets more than any other question: “How can I become a published writer?” Because that’s what we want, a magic whistle or secret code that will get us what we want without having to go through the trouble of making it happen.

The moral of the story is that success is never a straight line, nor does it usually follow the path we see in our heads. It’s always way weirder than that. All we can do is work our asses off and jump at the opportunities presented to us, even if we think we’re not ready. That’s it. Maybe you won’t go where you thought, but you’ll absolutely go somewhere.

It boils down to staying on your grind, taking risks and being patient. Staying on your grind is probably the most important. You’ll notice in Klosterman’s case that before any opportunity fell in his lap—before an out-of-the-blue call from David Byrne that he initially took for a prank call—he wrote the book.

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