I have always been prone to a touch of hero-worship.
When I see a current famous figure or prominent thinker whose work I admire, the resulting mini-infatuation ends up leading me to devour hours of their output on YouTube, read every magazine interview and cover story ever published about them, and regularly assault my friends ears with my fawning praise and endless quotation of my favourite parts of their work.
But there’s a danger when you have heroes who reside among the living: They can still fall.
Historical heroes are much safer. The flaws of a Napoleon or a Nietzsche are not going to change. The paucity of biographical knowledge about Shakespeare’s life and character allows us to raise our estimation of The Bard as high as we choose without ever being corrected by someone who knows better. We blindly assume that because the poetry is a marvel, so must be the man himself.
But with living heroes, every passing day is another chance for those we venerate to disappoint us.
Maybe they release that much-anticipated new work and it’s kind of shitty (especially embarrassing when you’ve told all your friends what an undeniable genius they are).
Maybe they have a public meltdown that makes them seem unhinged and foolish even to their most devoted fans. Or they go on TV and say that eating babies is an admirable and worthy pastime, one they are not above indulging on a quiet Sunday afternoon with a platter of cucumber sandwiches.
Maybe they expound bizarre political opinions, or hold a press conference to declare they regularly drop to their knees and chant a prayer to Thor and Odin before every live show.
It’s tempting after these letdowns to completely trash this ‘hero’, see them as exposed for the false idol they always were and begin the search for a new model to whom we can aspire.
But much as I’m prone to having heroes, this tendency to prostrate myself at the altar of admiration has now become tempered by a sober realism about the flaws that frequently accompany greatness. If you follow the lives of enough artists and thinkers, you can’t help but fortify yourself from disappointment with a certain shrewdness, especially once you become aware of the crippling personal and emotional failures of some of the world’s great geniuses.
But who cares about a few flaws? Perfection is a ridiculous criteria for your heroes to have to live up to anyway.
I’ve learnt that it’s much better to admire and model the traits I love in people, rather than model an entire personality. There’s also a certain maturity in being able to see someone as noticeably flawed and prone to error, but without it damaging your love for what they do well.
The more realistic you become about human flaws, the easier it actually becomes to admire the good in people, even when you are keenly aware of their minor (or even profound) failings. You realise that modelling others is a case of absorbing their best facets, without the need to take on the bad.
- To model Christopher Hitchens’s oratory and intellectual bravery you don’t have to also assault your vital organs with a daily cocktail of cigarettes and Jameson’s whiskey.
- To model Don Draper’s ability to tell an engaging story and his hypnotic power over women, you don’t have to nap in your office all day and become a serial adulterer.
- To model Woody Allen’s diligence and productivity in his writing output you don’t also have to suddenly become neurotic and take on a host of paranoid phobias.
- To model Kanye West’s confidence and boldness in creativity (and worship at the altar of the masterpiece that is Yeezus), it’s not necessary to become abrasive, adopt on an oversized ego, or rhapsodise endlessly about Gucci and Nike’s refusal to give you your own clothing line.
There are traits to admire and model in the great, the imperfect, and sometimes even the despicable.
Think of traits within others as works of art in a museum. You don’t have to love every piece to see that the museum still has a lot of treasures to offer.