The vast majority of parents, teachers, coaches, and bosses have this in common: We appreciate effort. We recognize that people make mistakes, through foolishness or negligence or sometimes no fault of their own. And we accept that, when they do, their efforts and intentions should matter in how we judge them.
We also recognize that sometimes people do everything right and still fail. A team executes its game plan, plays its heart out, and still loses. A group at work puts in extra hours, develops a killer proposal, and still doesn’t get the job. A kid does his homework, gets extra help, and studies hard for his calculus test, but struggles nonetheless.
In each case, we empathize. We look to support and encourage that kid, those players, such coworkers. We may not actually give A’s for effort, but we certainly appreciate it.
Why? Because, unless we are extraordinarily lucky, life has long since taught us that trying is often the best we humans can do. The gods and the fates and all sorts of circumstances are beyond our control, but we can always choose to try.
Not surprisingly, this choice often represents the essence of heroism in the stories we tell. Consider the following examples, drawn from just a few of our most famous stories:
- A boy named David volunteers to try his luck against a giant named Goliath, not knowing if or how he might succeed
- A teenage girl named Juliet tries to escape her overbearing father and marry the boy she loves by faking her own death
- A “halfling” named Frodo Baggins volunteers to try to find his way to Mount Doom when the best warriors among men and elves can’t see a way to succeed
- A little mermaid tries to understand the human world despite the (ethnocentric) prohibitions of her undersea kingdom
- An unknown boxer named Rocky Balboa trains to fight the (God-like) champion, Apollo Creed, not because he thinks he will win but because he wants to prove that, if he tries, he can go the distance
In each case, the hero is first and foremost the one who tries. Not the one who succeeds–or even sees the path to success–but the one who undertakes the quest, the journey, the effort anyway.
We connect with the hero of a story long before we know how it ends. We empathize, and even aspire to be like them, the moment they accept the trial set before them. We know that they are heroic, at least in part, from that moment on.
The Moral of the Stories
As is often the case, this deep–almost reflexive–response to stories and their characters is, at root, a profound response to the human condition. Effort is within a person’s control in a way that success is not. The victors are those who succeed, but the heroes–our heroes–are those who keep trying.
Remember this when you’re worried about succeeding at something. If you’re pursuing a good end as best you can, then you’ve already achieved the higher goal. You may fail. You may lose. And it may hurt. But worst-case scenario, you still will have been heroic. Certainly in my book.
I love you,