How Training Can Turn You Into a Self-Made Superhero
Pavel Tsatsouline once asked a question to which I did not know the answer and it has stuck with me for a while. “What is the American fascination with superheroes?”
I did my best Clark Kent impression (Christopher Reeve version) and bumbled through an answer. To someone from outside of the American culture it might seem foreign to dream of having superpowers. In our convenient lifestyle, maybe we dream of hardships that show our true character.
A New York Comic Con exhibit of Superman costumes through the ages
Walter Mitty Daydreams
This phenomenon is not new in our society. Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s journey - a journey where the subject gets called from ordinary life to go do amazing things. These themes can be seen from early Greek myths through to stories from more recent times.
In 1939, James Thurber wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in which he told of a meek man who often daydreamed about living a hero’s life (the short story is excellent; follow the link to read it if you haven’t). As we have had our lives made more convenient, it seems we are more inclined to fantasize about difficulties and opportunities to become heroes.
Sean Velas being a superhero with his gymnastics skills
Convenience and Comfort
Tom Clancy summarized our ever more convenient lifestyle in his book Executive Orders: “In America, convenience was a substitute for power, and comfort the substitute for status.”
"As we have had our lives made more convenient, it seems we are more inclined to fantasize about difficulties and opportunities to become heroes."
Is our desire for extreme experiences a backlash against our comfort and convenience? I imagine a laborer from the 1800s looking at our culture of “working out” and questioning why we would need to do that. “Exercise” was simply part of their lifestyle.
Beautiful Things Don’t Ask for Attention
These hero themes can also be seen in workout clothing. Thanks to Under Armour, we can now dress as our favorite superhero. We can also release our inner savage. Or we can be a WODkilla, with a machine gun.
Many of our fitness programs use subtle (or not so subtle) messages to indicate we can train like a military hero. We can go to “bootcamp” or do “Hero WODS.” It might be that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but to go back to James Thurber again, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” At times, the commercialization of military-like fitness feels like we have gone too far.
Karen Smith being her own superhero completing the Iron Maiden Challenge.
If I Only Had the Calling to Be Something Greater
One of my favorite quotations comes from Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash.
Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
Though from my perspective, the age of 25 seems a little off, as I am not sure this feeling ends there.
Karen Kennedy completing her own heroic effort.
Go Be a Superhero
Even after much thought, my answer to Pavel might still contain a bit of bumbling. Maybe as a society things have gotten too easy for us and we have a primal need for a bit more physicality. We can be like Walter Mitty and fantasize about great things. We can go to movies and imagine being superheroes. Or we can go train and approximate our primal needs.
"Training can help us discover our inner strengths, cope with adversity, and use these strengths for greater purpose. We don’t need to be called for some special purpose. We can create our own purpose and be as great as we can be."
No need for radioactive spiders, but the process might take ten years - not ten seconds. All of the self-made superheroes in this article took time to craft their superpowers.
But we can all be our own superheroes. Training can help us discover our inner strengths, cope with adversity, and use these strengths for greater purpose. We don’t need to be called for some special purpose. We can create our own purpose and be as great as we can be. Pick a goal and go for it.
1. Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Third edition. Novato, Calif: New World Library.
2. Stephenson, Neal. 2000. Snow Crash. New York: Spectra.
3. Thurber, James. 1939. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The New Yorker. March 11.
Photo 1 courtesy of Jere Keys via Wikimedia Commons.