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April 2012
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Daily Archives: April 2, 2012

On Learning From Our Heroes

Posted by: Alex Linley


I was inspired to write this blog on the basis of a number of the comments that I received on my last blog, “On Learning to Learn: Four Positive Psychology Principles”. There was a lot of interest in how we can learn from our heroes, and so I share more insight and practical tips on that topic here.


My own hero for learning about this topic is Michael Cohn, who wrote the chapter for my earlier book Positive Psychology in Practice from which all of my learning about learning from our heroes then developed. Cohn’s simple premise was that we knew a lot about positive downward social comparisons – how we feel better by comparing ourselves to people who are worse off than we are, but a lot less about positive upward social comparisons – how we can learn from the people we admire.


For us to learn from our heroes successfully, two basic conditions need to be met.


First, we need to believe that we are capable of change and growth ourselves, what Carol Dweck refers to as a malleable self-image (as distinct from a fixed self-image).


Second, we need to pay attention to the specific qualities of the individual that we want to emulate, rather than trying to be like that person as a whole.


If we believe that we are capable of change and development, and we learn to pay attention to the right things about our heroes, then we significantly increase our chances of being able to learn from them – or indeed from anyone who has positive characteristics that we admire and want to emulate.


The real insight here is about knowing what the “right things” are to which we should pay attention. In essence, these “right things” are:


  1. The things that actually make a difference to the person’s success that we are trying to emulate
  2. The things that it is within our control to do something about
  3. The things that are authentic for us to focus on developing for ourselves
  4. And ideally, the things that enable us to play from and build on our strengths as we work towards success.


In my last post, I mentioned how I have learned from Malcolm Gladwell in this regard, so let me illustrate each of these four points with this example.


First, without doubt one of the things that has made a difference to Malcolm Gladwell’s success is his ability to write well. But, not just that, it is specifically his ability to create meaningful and memorable characters with whom we, as the reader, can engage. Hence, it was particularly this on which I focused in trying to learn from him in developing my own character writing for the introductory case studies in The Strengths Book.


Second, being able to develop my capability as a character writer was something that was within my control, and that I could do something about (through deeply understanding Gladwell’s style by studying precisely how he did it, and trying to emulate that myself). Note that this wasn’t about growing my Afro (like Malcolm) or becoming a staff writer at the New York Times. Instead, my focus was on something that was very much within my ability to develop and do something about in the near term.


Third, developing my character writing felt like an authentic and natural development for me. I had written a lot of academic output, but never anything that was character-based. So, this was a new departure, but one building on an existing skill set, which felt like a natural extension of what I had done before.


Fourth, this activity certainly played to my strengths. I was looking to develop my Scribe strength, focusing on how improving my character writing would help me with what I wanted to achieve going forward. Given that I was focusing on building from a strength, it was a natural and engaging development activity to undertake.


Did it work? I’ll leave you to read the introductory case studies in The Strengths Book and be the judge of that yourself! Nonetheless, I am certainly pleased with what I was able to learn by applying the lessons of positive upward social comparisons.


I hope you are too – and thanks again, Michael (Cohn), for everything we have learned from you, about learning from our heroes.



Cohn, M. A. (2004). Rescuing our heroes: Positive perspectives on upward comparisons in relationships, education and work. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (pp. 218-237). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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