What makes a hero?

In our epics, heroes are made because of their deeds and actions, and not their outcomes.

In the Iliad, Patroclus, tired of Achilles’ hesitance, wears his armour and leads the Greek troops to battle the Trojans. He then pursues the Trojans, killing several enemy troops, until Apollo stuns him. Hector, the commander of the Trojan troops, then slays him with his spear. The Iliad celebrates Patroclus as a hero despite his demise at the hands of Hector.

Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna, knew for certain that he could enter the Chakravyuha, (the discus formation) but not escape it. Yet, despite the odds being firmly against his favour, he steps into it, slays several Kaurava warriors and meets his end. Abhimanyu is celebrated for his valour, and not because he could survive the great war of the Mahabharata.

The ancients understood that our outcomes are not entirely in our hands. As metaphors, they attributed this to the whims gods, their politics and their favouritism. Ancient wisdom reflected this emphasis on inputs rather than outputs. The Bhagavad Gita reminds us of how we have the right only to our labour, and not its fruits.

In present times, we have less mythological models to describe the world. We have replaced the vagaries of divine beings with the forces of chance, randomness and chaos. We have narrowed down the causes of several diseases to congenital factors, vectors and pathogens. All of this gives us a feeling of control over outcomes that the ancients never had. This leads us to institute systems with a focus on outcomes (quarterly sales targets, KRAs and KPIs) rather than deeds, decisions and inputs. Further, we attribute successes or failure squarely to individuals (the new CEO has turned the situation around at Microsoft – something that his predecessor could not do).

The world often does not subscribe to our elaborate models. Oftentimes, our feeling of control is illusory, and leads us to have a myopic focus on outcomes, leading us to believe that we are responsible for all the success and failure we experience, and to strive to be successful at any cost – by cutting corners, compromising our morals and by performing acts that aren’t particularly heroic.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Similarly, an illusion of control over our outcomes is worse than their admitted ignorance.

Inspiration: Fooled by Randomness – Nassim Taleb

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