Tournament of Books 2015

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores


Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


We Can Be Heroes (Yes, You Too)

Recently, I was feeling stuck with a problem I couldn't resolve. So I asked Nelson Mandela for advice.

I don't need to tell you the details, because the advice was given in strict confidence. But I strongly recommend that if you too get stuck you try getting in touch with Nelson yourself.

And if Nelson can't help, ask somebody else. Oprah Winfrey, perhaps. Or Genghis Khan. Or Lord Byron. Anybody you like, really.

As should be obvious by now, you don't absolutely need to ask the real Nelson Mandela, because he may never get back to youyou don't absolutely need to ask the real Nelson Mandela, because he may never get back to you. But you can ask the version of him who is available to you at any time, in your head. Or your own private version of Oprah, Genghis, or the author of Don Juan.

We all have heroes, though we might not use that word to describe the people we admire. Over time, they may change. (I no longer bow down, as I did when I was a boy, before the very idea of certain sportsmen.) In each case, we admire them for particular qualities — not for the entire, flawed person that they undoubtedly are, or were.

As we grow into adulthood, many of us decide we are too sophisticated to have heroes. This is a great shame, because knowing who your heroes are gives you a good idea about who you are yourself. It underlines and amplifies the qualities and strengths you aspire to (and probably already have in greater measure than you dare to admit).

So if you are stuck with a problem, as I was, it could be that you just need a new perspective. And one way to do that is to sit down with a clear mind, free from the internal critic who tells you that this kind of playful exercise is stupid, and just ask your heroes for help.

After all, we have plenty of negative voices in our head, and it can be quite a relief to argue back with them. So go ahead: populate your mental narrative with some of the people you admire. They're your heroes, and they're fighting on your side.

But when they have given you help, remember that they are only make-believe. They are you-as-Nelson, you-as-Oprah, you-as-Lord Byron. They're part of a game, in which the only player is you. So who is the real hero?

More from John-Paul Flintoff:

÷ ÷ ÷

John-Paul Flintoff is an author, broadcaster, and journalist. He has written several books, including Sew Your Own, in which he investigated sweatshops and global resource shortages. He lives in London. How to Change the World is his latest book.

Books mentioned in this post

John-Paul Flintoff is the author of How to Change the World (School of Life)

Post a comment:

Get Your Gravatar

  1. Please note:
  2. All comments require moderation by staff.
  3. Comments submitted on weekends might take until Monday to appear.
PowellsBooks.Blog uses Gravatar to allow you to personalize the icon that appears beside your name when you post. If you don't have one already, get your Gravatar today!
  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at