Who Are You Looking At?

On a recent episode of Jordan Peterson’s podcast, Professor Peterson’s guest was former navy seal now businessman and author, Jocko Willink. One of the topics touched on was Jocko’s military career. Jocko noted that from his earliest recollections the only thing that ever captured his attention as a prospective career was that of solider. He enjoyed playing the part as a child. He migrated to the military after high school. He was driven with the direction of wanting to be not just a solider, but a good one. Even though his notion of what good was may have been vague as a young adult, he went from military recruit to becoming a Navy Seal. Once within this realm, he had separated himself as a good solider. He now shifted his sights to aspiring to be a good Seal. Again, there was no guidebook or recipe for what constituted a good Seal. Jocko depended on making this assessment with his own eyes and the suggestions from peers. He asked himself and others who were good Seals. What was it about them that made them good? Was it strength? Was it skill? What made them stand out to him and others? He used his personal vantage point to determine what the traits were in those that were “good” with hopes of developing a plan for himself to build the traits identified. As he aged and became more experienced, his view of what a good seal was also evolved. It was an iterative but intentional process. It wasn’t sophisticated and didn’t rely on some in born skill or others. Jocko’s interest and intention in improving trained his success scope to focus on what would help him become a better Seal.

“What makes a hero? Courage, strength, morality, withstanding adversity? Are these the traits that truly show and create a hero? Is the light truly the source of darkness or vice versa? Is the soul a source of hope or despair? Who are these so called heroes and where do they come from? Are their origins in obscurity or in plain sight?”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, White Nights, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, and Selections from The House of the Dead

Watching Jocko reflect on his efforts to become a better Seal on Professor Peterson’s podcast reminded me of a picture from Transworld Motocross magazine back in October of 2014. The picture shows a young boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, resting his head on his hands which cling to the fence separating spectators from a motocross event. The boy’s eyes are fixated on the track where the action is happening. Other spectators in the background sit comfortably in their seats eating burgers, drinking beers, and enjoy being distracted by casual conversation. Spectators are being entertained while the young boy is all business, eyes locked on, laser-like, the activity. The caption at the bottom of the picture reads, “Watching your heroes is when dreams are born…This is Motocross.”


The intenseness of the stare, the seriousness with which one looks at something is a great indication of whether something matters to them. There’s something about these types of stares that shout this matters to the viewer. It may start simply as, “wow, this looks cool, maybe I’d like to try that.” Then it may become, “I think I could do this.” In time, these stares evolve into “I want to be come this person. I will do this.” The stares sear the image into the identity of the one staring. The deeper connection inspires the viewer with a target to which to aspire.

It seems that we’re all looking for someone to stare at. The power who we look at gives us is real. The energy we get from striving to be like someone else is useful as it assists us in working to get better at something. Marketers know this very well and build entire campaigns around ideas like “Be Like Mike.” Basketball legend, Michael Jordan, was put forth as someone for youth to aspire to be. From Gatorade, shoes, cereal, and more, viewers were encouraged to “be like Mike.” Are we conscious about those that we’re staring at for guidance and motivation? Are we letting marketers dictate to us who we should try to emulate? Who is it you are trying to become more like? What types of examples are you considering? What types of examples are you putting in front of your children, your colleagues, your staff? Are you being intentional about what values/characteristics you want your role models to present?

It is ok to look backwards in order to help you progress in the other direction. Those that you look to for guidance and inspiration need not be current figures. There are plenty of exemplars from the past whose efforts we can learn from. This is one of the biggest benefits of studying history. Learning the lessons of others’ past affords us the opportunity to avoid the school of hard knocks. Stoic philosopher Seneca worked to learn from the lives of others he respected. He would encourage his students to pick a role model against which to measure themselves. Choose comparisons that will guide you. Choose those that offer lessons that help. As you select those that you want to be more like, consider asking questions like: What do or did they do well? What was the source of their skill/success? Did their success come at a cost? Who are you looking at? Who are you studying?

“Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.” ― Mark Twain

In Dedicated, Pete Davis writes, “One way I have discovered my values is by collecting heroes. I try to learn about different people’s lives, see which ones inspire me, and then learn what I can about the ones who do.”

Who are your role models in business? Who do you celebrate in your business as an exemplar of excellence? What characteristics are we celebrating? Is it technical levels achieved? Is it performance results? Is it a consistent process? Is it a calm and supportive demeanor? Is it an ability to work independently? Is it those that work the longest? Is it those that have been loyal and with a business the longest? Is it those that are community minded and contribute to making a difference outside the office? Are we celebrating those based on what they have, what they’ve done, what they’re doing now, or something else? Are we celebrating someone for the outcomes they have achieved or for the process they follow? What does who we’re recognizing in our office say about the kind of business we’re trying to be?

For example, Jordan Spieth, won the Masters golf tournament several years ago as a 21 year old. As impressive as his performance on the PGA was and is, he’s well known for his humility. When asked about it, Spieth deflects with statements like, “if I talked about how humble I was, I wouldn’t be very humble.” Winning a major is life changing for golfers. Spieth was asked how he thought his Masters’ victory may impact him. He offered, “I want what I do off the golf course to be more important than what I do on it.” He went on to talk about his family’s support as being a foundational influence to his success while emphasizing his drive to make a difference through a charitable foundation.. Contrast Spieth’s approach with a former UFC middleweight fighter, Luke Rockhold. A week after Spieth won his masters, Rockhold fought a legend, Lyoto Machida. Rockhold beat him soundly. Rockhold presented in exquisite physical form. He made short work of Machida beating him in one and a half rounds. During the post fight interview, Rockhold was asked how he felt about the fight. His response? “Did you hear my fight song when I came in?…. ‘I’m the best there is’….well… I’m the best there is.”

If we’re choosing Spieth or Rockhold as our target, what does that choice say about us? Is one looking out and valuing humility and service while the other is consumed and focused with what’s in it for them? What if we’re using as our target someone like Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights who sees winning as the only thing? If we believe, as Ricky does, that “If you’re not first, you’re last,” then how will this perspective influence our actions? It’s like the difference between emulating Bobby Knight and John Wooden. Both men were legendary college basketball coaches whose teams saw plenty of on court success. However, the way they went about achieving that success was as different as night and day. Knight was legendary for his tantrums and chair throwing antics. He led by fear and threat. His players either contributed to the team’s performance or were on the bench. He left a legacy of hurt behind. Wooden’s approach was wildly different. He defined success as bringing one’s best effort to each practice and game. He wasn’t worried about the outcome. He was interested in the future of his players. He wanted to be evaluated not by NCAA Championship trophies but by what his players accomplished off the court. His positive legacy lives on through players that echo Wooden’s philosophy decades later. Our approaches are heavily influenced by those we hold up as heroes.

What do the following quotes suggest about the quoter?

“The real heroes are the librarians and teachers who at no small risk to themselves refuse to lie down and play dead for censors.”― Bruce Coville

 “My own heroes are the dreamers, those men and women who tried to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in small ways or great ones. Some succeeded, some failed, most had mixed results… but it is the effort that’s heroic, as I see it. Win or lose, I admire those who fight the good fight.”― George R.R. Martin

 Who are your favorite heroines in real life? The women of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who risk their lives and their beauty to defy the foulness of theocracy. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Azar Nafisi as their ideal feminine model.”― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir

“I am of certain convinced that the greatest heroes are those who do their duty in the daily grind of domestic affairs whilst the world whirls as a maddening dreidel.”― Florence Nightingale

If we know who someone holds up as a hero, do we have a better sense of who the person is, what they value? Are any of the above picking famous or popular people?

In Four Seconds, Peter Bregman writes, “Why not start a collection of pictures of ordinary people, about whom I know very little, but who inspire me with some quality I want to nurture in myself?” Designer and author, Ayse Birsel, offers two questions which take us a step further. They are part of her Design your life program. She encourages each of us to consider: Who are your heroes? And What steps are you taking in your life to become more like those you admire? These are insightful questions to pose to yourself. Who are your heroes? Who are you looking at? Why? What is it about them you find admirable? What is it about them you would like to emulate? In what way would you like to be more like them? What small step can you take to move you in the direction of someone you admire?

“As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”― Ernest Hemingway

Apparently, Albert Einstein was once asked by the New York State Board of Education what schools should prioritize. His answer wasn’t STEM stuff. He didn’t think kids needed to know Newton’s laws sooner. Einstein offered, “there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgement.” Einstein believed that education engages students by holding out heroes for them to dream about. Showing kids what they could become by showcasing models of what we ought to be like was a priority for making schools successful.

Entrepreneur and author, Patrick Bet-David invested in having an artist create a custom piece for his office. The artist with Bet-David’s input detailed ten of Bet-David’s heroes in an office with him. The are surrounded by books, some standing, some sitting. Bet-David is present in the art piece as a learner benefitting from the guidance of his heroes. He picked his ten heroes as they each represent at least one of his core values. He has written in depth about what these values are and how he consciously selected his heroes based on how they represent the value which is meaningful to him. Maybe, we don’t have the luxury of hiring an artist to create this type of piece for us, but we certainly can give some thought to who and why we may want to keep someone front of mind as a source of inspiration or guidance for us. Having heroes helps us think through the tough questions with which we’re faced. We can pause and ask what would X do? Bet-David also believes that having heroes to consider in our decision making elevates our aspirations. We’re each able to choose our own counsel. Bet-David writes in Your Next Five Moves, “Who do you have in your mentoring vault, whether dead or alive, that offers perspective and counsel?”

As a Father’s Day idea, Brad Meltzer put together a book called Heroes for My Son.  Meltzer aspired to introduce fifty-two meaningful individuals to his sons. He wanted to inspire his sons as they aged with the efforts of others that Meltzer valued. Hopefully, you’re lucky enough to have a father or be one. In either case, enjoy celebrating Father’s Day weekend while considering your heroes.

PS: Did Jocko settle on a defining characteristic of good seals? Yes, over time Jocko came to see a single, core, variable that was at the heart of those that were consistently seen as high performers in his field. He saw them elevate the ranks while maintaining the respect and admiration of peers. It has become the basis of what he has tried to do with his life post military service and is the core of the business coaching practice he now pursues. What Jocko learned was that if you want to stand out consider extending a hand out. Lead with a helping hand and that skill will likely increase your demand.