Learning From Real Heroes

Posted on November 13, 2004 by Robert Ringer


Americans love to throw around the term heroThey not only ascribe the word to illiterate athletes, but to people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as well.

An extreme example of the latter would be the infamous Iran-hostage “crisis” that ended after 444 days on January 20, 1981.  With Kim Jong Il’s best friend, Jimmy Carter, spending more than a year trying to remove his thumb from his left nostril, Iran’s version of Crazy Guggenheim — Ayatollah Khomeini — had things pretty much his way.

But once Ronald Reagan was elected president, Kraze Khomeini started envisioning a nuclear cloud over Iran for the next 400 years.  Which in turn motivated him to come to his senses and release the hostages.  Like every other civilized person, I was happy for both the hostages and their families.

Nevertheless, when the media started portraying them as heroes and New York held a ticker-tape parade for them, I was baffled.  You happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you’re hailed as a hero?

I think a little perspective is called for.  Heroes are people who accomplish extraordinary feats under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, such as the firefighters who marched into the World Trade Center towers in an attempt to save lives while everyone else was scurrying to get out.

When I think about genuine heroes, two names that come quickly to mind are Mattie Stepanek, a courageous thirteen-year-old boy who succumbed after a long battle with muscular dystrophy, and Christopher Reeve, who died as a result of complications from an infection caused by a bedsore.

At the age of ten, Stepanek wrote Heartsongs, a poetry book that became a New York Times #1 bestseller.  He followed that remarkable feat with four more poetry books, two of which also became New York Times bestsellers.

Mattie was a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, and Larry King Live.  His messages were always upbeat, positive, and inspiring.  Few adults have ever spoken with more wisdom and deep insight into life than Mattie.

Reeve, who became a quadriplegic after a May 1995 horse-riding accident, was beyond amazing.  While his difficulty in breathing was enough to make a strong person grimace when watching him on television, Reeve found the time, energy, and determination not only to continue acting, but also to direct a film, take an active role in fighting for stem-cell research, testify before Congress, and appear on virtually every major television talk show.

Other than recognizing them as true heroes, what else can we learn from people like Mattie Stepanek and Christopher Reeve?

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. 

It seems somewhat ironic that the joint subjects of this article are a scrawny 13-year-old kid and Superman.  After a lifetime of observation, it’s become clear to me that size, physical strength, skin color, gender, and ethnicity, among other things, are of little significance compared to attitude.

It’s wise to ignore vote-hungry politicians, self-anointed crusade leaders, and other social charlatans who encourage the deployment of victimization excuses.  Racism, “glass ceilings,” and a prejudice against such factors as age and physical disabilities are not so much anachronistic as irrelevant.

If people want to be racist in their attitudes, that’s their business.  You owe it to yourself to focus on doing what you have to do to succeed.  If an employer wants to shortchange himself by limiting the advancement of females, again, that’s his business.

Never lower yourself to fight for the right to be where you aren’t welcome.  Instead, gravitate toward people and companies who focus on results.  Think as an individualist, and don’t allow yourself to be swept up in the hysteria of group complaints.  It is your mind-set and your willingness to take action that will determine your success.


Though human beings, through the gift of free will coupled with action, are able to exercise a great deal of control over their destinies, the inevitable will always be one of man’s greatest nemeses.

The National Safety Council says that a fatal accident occurs every five minutes in the United States, and a disabling injury occurs every two seconds.  There is no question that we have the capacity to stack the odds in our favor when it comes to leading longer, healthier lives.  Yet, in a head-to-head battle, we are no match for the inevitable.  This, however, does not mean that a person should become a fatalist and stop trying.  That would be irrational on its face.

What it does mean is that you should always keep in mind that there’s an offsetting positive to every negative, and the offsetting positive to the inevitable is that it teaches a wise person humility.  Do everything possible to stack the odds in your favor, work hard at success in all areas of your life, but make certain you don’t become so enamored with yourself that you start believing you’re omnipotent, immortal, or both.

Remember, you’re always just one bad break away from becoming a quadriplegic, incurring a terminal disease, or suffering a fatal accident.


It may sound trite, but you should be grateful when you wake up every morning, especially if you have been blessed with good health.

Given that a handicap is defined as anything that makes achievement more difficult, each of us is burdened with many handicaps.  Not necessarily physical handicaps, but handicaps just the same.  Broken marriages, financial problems, lack of a track record — the list of factors that can make achievement more difficult is infinite.

Brooding over a handicap, whatever it may be, is a surefire way to increase its negative impact on your life.  You brood, you lose.  Whenever you feel as though the temptation to feel sorry for yourself is taking control of your emotions, refocus your thoughts on genuine heroes like Mattie Stepanek and Christopher Reeve.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  Heroes are great teachers.  They lead by example.  All that is required is that you be ready to learn.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.