In every tradition, in every culture, in every corner of the world, we find legends of heroes; the doers of great and impossible deeds.
These archetypal characters share many common traits. Superhuman strength. Invulnerability. A skill level beyond common folk. Great wisdom. Powers that no mere mortal could hope to wield.
Scrawled across the walls of caves, etched into stones of ancient pyramids, recounted in the oral traditions of the Celts, sung in the Sagas of the Vikings, transposed onto the pages of novels, and inked into the minds of every child reading comic books. These myths and heroes have always been with us.
They were the ideals of humankind. The notion of human perfection and excellence that all could strive for.
Even the heroes that were less than perfect, those with flaws and weaknesses were there to teach each generation the foibles of hubris, and the notion that we can always do better.
And whilst the traditions of storytelling and the deep cultural importance of these heroes have effectively disappeared for many of us, their remnants and essence still remain.
We see these inspirational characters in our movies and on the pages of our novels and comic books.
What if we could reclaim the original purpose of these heroes? To use them as a catalyst for improvement?
At the age of eight I made the firm decision that when I was grown up the job I’d really like was Viking.
Watching Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis in the film The Vikings, I wanted to throw axes, drink ale from a horn, run the longboat’s oars, and tear at chicken legs with my teeth.
I would even steal and hide bread rolls until they were stale to get that real Viking feast feeling.
That was it, I was definitely going to be a Viking.
Then I watched David Carradine, shaved-headed and stoic-faced, portray Kwai Chang Caine, in the 70s series Kung Fu, kicking arse and righting wrongs.
That was it, I definitely wanted to be a wandering Shaolin Monk.
Watching Errol Flynn swinging through the trees of Sherwood Forest, and later the wonderfully trippy Robin of Sherwood, lit the fuse for my love of the woods, of social justice, and of wearing tights.
That was it, I was definitely going to be a crossdressing bandit.
And so I drank in these heroes like a lost desert wanderer, finally making the decision that I was definitely going to be B.A. Baracus, Strider/Aragorn, McGyver, Batman, Rocky Balboa, Kendo Nagasaki.
Needless to say I finally grew up.
Needless to say that is a big fat lie.
Two heroic characters stayed with me:
- Strider – The Tolkein Ranger. He could traverse the landscape silently. He was a master tracker. He understood herbal medicine. He was a bad-ass with a bow and arrow. He could live off the land. He could fight with a sword. He looked out the small folk and never backed down from a fight. And he smoked a pipe.
This heroic persona was one of the main reasons I spent so much time in the woods by myself. At times I was a lonely kid, but being Strider made that okay. I was out there, being hidden and protecting the wilds.
It was also the reason why you might have caught a glimpse of a twelve year old smoking a pipe on the other side of a bush.
This ultimately led me to becoming a wilderness skills and survival instructor, a legitimate way to live out my fantasies in an adult world.
2. Wolverine from the X-men comics – The grumpy mutant, with a bad attitude, a metal skeleton, claws and an inability to die.
Wolverine was everything I wasn’t.
Strong, robust, and resilient. I was weak and podgy, with a ridiculously poor immune system and chronic asthma.
He was fearless, self assured and gave zero fucks. I, on the other hand, felt a continual sense of nervousness, low self worth, and a desperate need to people please.
I really wanted (still want) to be Wolverine. I even grew ludicrously large sideburns, in the vain hope they were the secret to his powers.
And so I continued on, secretly and with slight embarrassment, trying to live out elements of my fantasy persona.
I chalked it up to childish whimsy. I just needed to grow up.
And then I came upon the secret of myths and heroes in the most unlikely of places – a primitive living and survival skills book by Thomas J. Elpel. In it he describes his fantasy persona of the native scout architype.
He would look at all the skills that character exhibited and make them his goal to learn these skills.
I suddenly realised that that was what myth was. It was a way having a list of standards, of skills and attributes to aim for.
It doesn’t matter how unrealistic those attributes were (metal infused bones for example), what was important was the journey to attain them.
You see, although I could never hope to become Strider, I could become more like him than I currently was.
I studied herbalism and tracking. I learnt eskrima to fight with weapons. I trained to become an archery instructor. I upped my wild food foraging game. I learnt about natural movement to better move through the woods.
And I wasn’t a mutant like Wolverine.
But I decided to get stronger. I started to put myself in increasingly uncomfortable situations to make myself more resilient, be that cold plunges, endurance races or public speaking. I focused on my gut health and immune system. I ate and did things that would naturally increase my testosterone and human growth hormone, and thereby increase my ‘mutant healing factor’. I tried (and still try) to empty my bag of fucks on a regular basis.
What started as a childish aspiration, became a life goal.
Eventually it didn’t matter that my reason for starting was living out a childhood dream of invulnerability and getting hot Elven chicks. How I ended up was a more useful, happier and hardier human being.
And as pioneering physical educator Georges Hérbert (1875-1957) said:
“Être fort pour être utile”
Be strong to be useful.Georges Hérbert
Being a useful human being is a super power that is attainable to all.
Have I reach hero status? Not even close, I’m lightyears away. But every day I get a little bit closer. On a skills and physical level I’d say I was hardly recognisable to the kid I started out as, but I have plenty of room for improvement.
The trick is to love the journey more than the destination. That way you don’t care how far you still have to travel.
How to unlock your own super power
So what kind of hero do you want to be?
Wonder Woman? James Bond? Boudica? Indiana Jones? Cú Chulain?
Whoever your heroic role model is, or what type of hero you want to be, now you need to dissect the attributes that make them great.
Literally make a list of everything that makes them them. Think physical, mental, skill and character attributes.
If it helps, think of it like a Dungeons and Dragon character sheet.
In fact, if D&D is your thing then head over to Nerd Fitness, they have a whole system based on D&D character-classes specifically for creating a health and fitness plan.
Reverse engineering who we want to be is a great way of designing a curriculum and process to get there. If you start with the idea of what sort of physical attributes you want, it is much easier to develop a training plan to get there.
This is all about goal setting and understanding your WHY , and it beats the pants off the endless paralysis of analysis that comes with trying to pick the ‘right’ programme.
Okay then, Batman. You may not have Bruce Wayne’s fortune or an underground lair, but what’s to stop you from learning a martial art and working on your mobility?
Jedi Master, you say? What about learning to meditate in order to feel the balance in yourself and the galaxy? Or spending some time examining your fears and weaknesses. After all, fear is the path to the dark side.
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”Master Yoda
Well hello Lara Croft. I’d say joining a local climbing wall and parkour group would be on the cards. And getting into ancient history and starting to learn another language couldn’t hurt either. Top it off with some basic survival skills and you’re on your way.
Using myth and heroes as inspiration to our personal grown is both plan of action and an incredibly enjoyable and interesting way of doing it.
But finding your secret alter-ego doesn’t just end with gaining new attributes.
Using your secret identity
Once you have figured out your new hero persona it’s time to don the cape and mask. (Not literally, but if it works for you then knock yourself out.)
Many high level performers use the technique of having an alter-ego. The most well known are the late basketball legend Kobe Bryant and all round superstar Beyoncé.
Both used the technique of having another persona.
Beyoncé takes on the role of Sasha Fierce, a persona that emerges when she feels the nerves before a performance.
Bryant created the persona Black Mamba, after the deadly assassin in the film Kill Bill. Black Mamba was the stone cold killer on the basketball court and a way that Bryant could keep his personal life and professional life separate.
For me this comes into affect when I am feeling apathetic, bemoaning my misfortune, or thinking about quitting.
“What would Wolverine do?” I ask myself.
If you see me running through torrential rain with a stern angry face, or you hear me yelling as I pummel a punchbag, or roar when I summit a mountain, be warned, that’s not me, that’s my Wolverine persona.
And yes, I am wearing tights.
Every one of you is the hero of your own story, and it’s in your power to decide what sort of hero you are.
Let us know your secret identities in the comments. We promise we won’t tell.