Fallen Heroes (Morality and Self-Control)

Good Luck Lance!
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Justin Balog via Compfight

It is sad when a hero falls from grace.

And the higher up on the pedestal we place them, the harder it is when they fall.  For me, Lance Armstrong was about as high up as you could get.  He had an incredible work ethic, superhuman accomplishments, amazing charitable contributions, and was an inspiring speaker and role model.  Seeing his fall from grace can’t help but shake my faith in humanity.  Maybe there are no paragons of virtue.

I felt the same way about Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two other celebrities that had much to be admired for . . . until they exposed their dark sides.

When I think of these amazing individuals, so successful in certain areas of their life, and total disasters in others, I wonder what role self-control has to play.  Their acts of moral lassitude suggest a lack of self-control and yet, in my mind, you cannot attain the kind of success that these three attained without self-control.  Just think of the commitment and dedication, the focus, the avoidance of distraction, the perseverance that all three put in to their crafts.

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Think of the hours of practice and laser focus that made Tiger Woods such a master of golf.  Few others could claim such discipline and mindfulness towards a pursuit.

And I always saw Arnold Schwarzenegger as a true paragon of accomplishment because he reinvented himself so many times.  He was a bodybuilder, then an action film star, then a comedic film star, and then a politician, and rose to the top in every domain he pursued.  You can’t do that without an incredible ability to maintain focus and commitment on your goal.

With Lance Armstrong, in addition to his amazing athletic accomplishments, you can even see his strength of self-control in the way that he lied.  Repeatedly denying accusations and lashing out against anyone who would question him shows a strength of will that few men have.

So these men do have superhuman capabilities.  Strengths that can be admired and learned from.  And yet, they faltered.  Their virtue is tainted.  Now they leave us bewildered and confused when they once filled us with inspiration and hope.

I find myself wondering how these men of will could blunder so badly?  How could these champions of self-control steer themselves so astray?

This is what I’ve come up with:

1.  Self-control can be exhausted.  Roy Baumeister’s research on willpower suggests that self-control is like a muscle that can be fatigued with overuse.  It is not hard to imagine how these superstars who seem so disciplined could eventually have their self-control collapse from the weight of hyperactivity.
2.  Self-control gets allocated.  Because willpower is a limited resource, it may be that highly successful people achieve their goals by allocating their willpower very carefully.  For Arnold and Tiger, they reserved their self-control for their professional pursuits, which brought them extraordinary success, while allowing themselves to be lax in their personal relationships.  In Armstrong’s case, he focused his willpower on his competitive pursuits while relaxing his self-control in the moral domain.
3.  Self-control can be used for evil.  While self-control is an important character strength, it can be used for nefarious purposes.  Lance Armstrong seemed to put just as much discipline into his cheating and deceit as he put into his training.

One thing is certain.  Each of these heroes has disappointed countless fans (including me) who looked up to them, admired them, and even aspired to be more like them.  And yet, each one of them is only a man, and subject to the foibles and failings of all humanity.

As for the question of self-control, I think these men have it in spades.  But like any strength, it’s only as good as the way you use it.

And as for me, I’m in the market for some new heroes.  Who would you recommend?

References and recommended reading:

Baumeister, R. F. & Tierney, J. (2012).   Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books.


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9 Responses to Fallen Heroes (Morality and Self-Control)

  1. Lucille Zimmerman January 22, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    I don’t see it as a matter of self control. I see it as a matter of integrity vs. disintegrate(ity).

    They are not able to combine their good and bad aspects of self, so it’s like hiding one part of their life from another.

    I would rather hang out with someone who could be honest and say I have these good and bad qualities.

  2. Oz January 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    perhaps its time to grow up and get over heroes – everyone had their foibles. or perhaps your heroes might be everyday people – perhaps your neighbor who knows?

    and this isnt about self control – its about values or perhaps an overly inflated view of self

  3. Kathy Gabriel January 22, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    I admire people who have dedicated their lives to serving others in a way that is self-empowering …like The Dalai Lama and Nelson

  4. Kathy Gabriel January 22, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    …incomplete comment .

    I do no subscribe to heroes, (except maybe my mother!) The fact is that we are all fallible. Everyone has said or done something that they are ashamed of or at least not proud of and would rather leave it in the past.

    What is the lesson here? People have all kinds of abilities and potentials ;some manifest, some don’t. How forgiving are we as fallible beings … all of us!

    Who creates heroes/hero persona anyway? Why not just do what you do and do it well without falling for the flash.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy January 22, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    Hi Lucille, I think you are right, this is about integrity first and foremost (or as Oz said about values.) But sometimes self-control is required to live up to our values. I think those who become uber-famous celebrities do have their integrity tested in extreme ways that most of us cannot imagine.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy January 22, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    Kathy and Oz, you bring up interesting points. But I have a hard time imagining a world without heroes. Think about Martin Luther King whom we celebrated here in the US yesterday. Or as you mention, Kathy, the Dalai Lama. There are people who move and inspire us and show us what is possible. I think the key (which is maybe what you are saying too) is to recognize that they are human and imperfect and not put them up on a pedestal. And also to look for the everyday heroes that are not in the celebrity’s spotlight (like Oz said “perhaps your neighbor”.) I think I will look for my new heroes in more hidden mundane places.

  7. Jeremy McCarthy January 22, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

    Interesting comment here about high status (and wealth) being correlated with low ethics >> http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_top_insights_from_the_science_of_a_meaningful_life_in_2012.

  8. Roberta Murphy January 26, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    In this day and age of transparency, I think our former ideal of heroism is almost impossible. A few priests are pedophiles, some politicians have affairs and accept bribes, and an amazing athlete like Lance Armstrong does the dirty deed.

    Lost in the media frenzy are often the actions and commitments that caused them to be heroes to us individually. Lance Armstrong, for me, took the time to respond to and encourage a friend, Clint Miller, who was dying of testicular cancer. For that, he will always be my hero. Clint was not famous, just a glorious human being.

    Perhaps we need to acknowledge that our heroes are human, as are we. They, however, performed in some extraordinary way–and at least for some, remain our heroes in spite of their imperfections–and even their deceptions.

  9. Jeremy McCarthy January 26, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Beautifully said Roberta. And thanks for joining the blog! 🙂

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