League of Everyday Heroes: Scott Allison
The next installment in our League of Everyday Heroes is one of the stars on our advisory board. Dr Scott Allison is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond in America. He is a co-author of the Handbook to Heroes and Heroism, one of the fundamental texts in the heroism field, and authors his own blog.
How would you define a hero? Do you define an “everyday hero” differently?
I’ve blogged extensively on heroes, and here’s a nice summary of my ideas about the definition of a hero:
We’ve found that people’s beliefs about heroes tend to follow a systematic pattern. After polling a number of people, we discovered that heroes are perceived to be highly moral, highly competent, or both. More specifically, heroes are believed to possess eight traits, which we call The Great Eight. These traits are smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring. It’s unusual for a hero to possess all eight of these characteristics, but most heroes have a majority of them.
… Now our heroes have to accomplish far more than show great ability. They must also perform some exemplary action in the service of others.
What does it mean to you to live a heroic life?
As Joseph Campbell said, it means recognizing that you are part of something bigger than yourself. It means discovering your true calling, your true self, your BEST self, which ironically is no-self (hence the term ‘selflessness’). Living a heroic life means recognizing that we are all connected, that everyone and everything is One.
Who are your heroes? What makes them heroic to you? How has their influence impacted your life?
My two favorite heroes are my grandmother and a baseball player named Roberto Clemente. My grandmother is heroic because she exemplified selflessness in everything she did. For her, helping other people was always her top priority, and she spent hours mentoring me and role modeling heroic, caring behavior toward everyone she encountered.
Roberto Clemente was a Hall of Fame baseball player, but that’s not why he’s my hero. When he found out in 1972 that earthquake victims in Nicaragua needed food and medicine, he loaded up an airplane and personally flew relief supplies from his home in Puerto Rico to Nicaragua. Tragically, the plane crashed and Clemente was killed. He represents the consummate hero who is willing to sacrifice his life to help others in need.
How do you feel about superheroes? Are they entertainment or are they damaging to the heroism research community? If you’re a fan of superheroes, who’s your favourite and why? What superhero do you identify with the most?
Superheroes are a puzzle to me because they are not realistic portrayals of anything or anyone I see in my real world experience. They do have symbolic or metaphorical value in demonstrating how something bad can be turned into something good. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are orphans who turn their displaced pain into socially redeeming value. Spiderman and the Hulk are victims of painful accidents and both show us how adversity can yield treasure. If the metaphorical value of super-heroism can be made clear to people, they can do us and society much good.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
At the risk of sounding like I’m a contestant in a Ms. Universe pageant, my superpower would be bringing about world peace. I remain convinced that inner peace at the individual level can be found through heroic enlightenment. If a critical mass of the world’s population achieves inner peace, then collective peace would be within our reach.
What is your opinion on capes (as they relate to heroism training)?
Heroism training is extraordinarily important and I’m thrilled to be involved with the Heroic Imagination Project’s efforts to train emerging adults to adopt heroic mindsets. These training modules have been adopted worldwide and they are growing at a fast clip, thanks to Phil Zimbardo’s extraordinary leadership in this movement. Capes themselves may be part of the process of enabling people to view themselves as heroes, of changing mindsets, of bringing about heroic transformation.
How would you suggest someone can become more heroic?
I tell people to do something every day that scares them. Heroes cannot play it safe, they cannot remain comfortable, they cannot remain unnoticed. Do something daily that gets you noticed, scares you, and makes you uncomfortable — ethically, of course!
How has a failure set you up for later success? What is one of your “favorite failures” (of your own experience)?
Failures are humbling, and being humbled always reduces the size of the self in relation to others. Failure “right-sizes” us, makes us more compassionate toward others. My failures are too numerous to mention, so I’ll simply say that I’ve failed many times personally, professionally, romantically, relationally, emotionally, and physically. The beauty of falling resides in the trampoline effect (as Richard Rohr calls it) — the idea that failure opens us up to “loving and learning”. If we’re on the hero’s journey, we bounce back upward to new heights that are only made possible by the failing itself. Joseph Campbell recognized the many paradoxes of the hero’s journey, which include the ideas that we have to suffer to get well, we must surrender to win, we have to sink into an abyss to find treasure, and we must give it away in order to keep it.
At the end of a full day, or after an emotionally draining experience, what is your favourite self-care activity?
Self-care is underrated because we’re no good to anyone unless we take care of ourselves first. After a long day, I enjoy meditative resting or a good meal out with my wonderful wife Connie.
What is your vision for the field of heroism?
To be honest, the best vision for the field of heroism has been articulated by Australia’s own Olivia Efthimiou, who envisions a dynamic synergism among heroism researchers, trainers, and community agencies. Olivia, Zeno Franco, and I have begun conversations about initiating a Heroism Studies Research Center. Here are some of Olivia’s bullet points about this plan for a Centre, which I believe can be achieved within the next decade:
- An integration of the research and education/training, around carefully credible, strategic and cross-disciplinary/mixed evaluation methods and practices.
- Strong cross-sector partnerships – community, policy, potentially industry. Anything else, in our view, and it will fail or not have half the reach it could. These partnerships make the centre accountable to producing strong outcomes that can be directly applied and benefit the partnerships and communities, and scholarship. We would need to identify what these are – much of these would be there with the esteem and networks of many of our researchers, but some might require outreach.
- Oversight of research projects and work on heroism, as far as possible, globally – we need to build a master list of past, current and prospective projects. We need to do this now – it will be a huge mess a few years down the track, and I know projects that have done this and the issues it generates. This will allow much better coordination and planning.
- A key aim will be to encourage greater collaboration between established researchers working in other fields who have written something small on heroism – we need to be much better around incentivising greater involvement, for both up and coming AND established scholars. Right now we think we have far greater % of researchers who have casually published on heroism that we are yet to fully capitalise on.
- We will need to develop a compelling mission statement, e.g.,. The Heroism Studies Research Centre’s (HSRC) mission is to foster holistic well-being, promote heroic awareness and action, and build resilient individuals and communities in a wide range of settings by developing high-quality, policy and community relevant research through robust and innovative evaluation methods.
- An international centre can be funded and virtually situtated across multiple institutions.
- Funding from major funding agencies is crucial.
If you could share a single message to everyone in the world, what would the message be and why that message?
The message would be that if we want the world to change, we must be willing to change ourselves. Sages, scholars, and philosophers throughout the ages have all converged on this same idea, so it’s far from original. Outer change is only made possible by inner change. More suffering comes into the world by people taking offense than by people giving offense, and this fact alone drives home the Big Truth that our only hope for fixing our broken world is for us to fix our broken selves. Heroic transformation is all about seeing the world through a new set of lenses, a different pair of eyes. Life is a painful journey, and as many have said, we either transform our pain or we transmit it. Heroes are those who transform their pain and work toward achieving a union with the world, whereas villains are those who remain stuck in their pain and then project it onto innocent others. The hero’s journey and hero training should be taught to young children worldwide. If we can reach people when they are young and malleable, we have a chance to change the world and perhaps even save it.
For more of Scott Allison’s outstanding work in the field of heroism, watch his presentation at the Hero Round Table hosted right here in Geelong in 2015.