The Agenda, Part II: The Individual As Hero


Welcome to Part II of The Agenda. Part I is here.


I don’t follow professional or amateur sports, but every two years, I love watching the Olympics. I enjoy the stories, the years of training without reward, all in pursuit of a big dream.

To give it all in pursuit of such a dream—I think this is a good thing. If people are dreaming and striving hard to achieve their dream, brushing off the criticism they receive and overcoming the obstacles they encounter, the quest becomes life-affirming to themselves and inspiring to the spectators around them.

Here’s the idea: it’s OK to invest in yourself, to have fun experiences for yourself, and pursue the big dream. You don’t need permission to turn your dreams into goals. Give yourself permission! (I gave a talk about this subject at TedX CMU). That’s why some of the most effective “big dream advice” is very simple: yes, you can really do that. What’s the worst that can happen if it doesn’t work out?

A few years ago I read most of Ayn Rand’s work, especially the novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. While I don’t identify with all of her values, I think she made a very good case for the individual as hero, and the belief in oneself as an end result instead of a means to something else. (In modern times, Ayn Rand’s novels have become like the Bible, the Koran, or any other controversial work: loved by many, hated by many, and actually read by a few.)

The Big Dream, Quests, and Motivations

You also don’t have to apologize for pursuing a big dream, because a distinguishing feature of such things is that not everyone relates to them. “But why do that? Why visit every country in the world—is it just to check off a list?” For me it’s not about a list—I’ve been traveling for 10 years and go back to plenty of places I’ve been before—but if it was about a list, what’s wrong with that? Set your own goals and define your own success. It’s your life, right?

A while back I was walking around Manhattan at night and went to sit in Washington Square Park. While I was there, I saw a street musician … with a piano. A real piano, not a keyboard or digital piano. Later I found out it was Colin Huggins, who hauls pianos all over the city (even the subway!) to play for passersby.

I thought that was pretty amazing. I can see why other people would shrug their shoulders and say, “Who cares? What’s the point?” But there is a good response to this question: a lot of people do care, and even if they didn’t, I get the sense that Colin would carry the piano around New York anyway.

When I first started doing interviews for this project long ago, I had a hard time answering the question about motivations. Why wouldn’t I go to every country in the world? was the first thing I thought of. If I have the opportunity and the desire to undertake such a challenge, I almost think it would be irresponsible not to.

Then I read a bunch of other books and realized that almost everyone who pursues a quest has a hard time explaining their reasons. Dean Karnazes, another hero of mine, struggled with the question through his whole first book. (He finally gave up trying to explain and started telling stories, which was better.) No need to explain, Dean. I get it. The compulsion to pursue a dream is accompanied by its own sustaining power.

If you have a dream, make it yours and take action to turn it into reality. I think the world would be a better place if more people did this. That’s why it’s OK to have a dream and pursue it with your whole heart.

Go big! Do something monumental! Be your own superhero!

In the next post, we’re going to look at how our lives are connected and why we ultimately need to find a way to contribute instead of just consuming. But I also think it’s OK, and even fundamentally good, to have big dreams and pursue them with everything you have.


Part III of the Agenda will arrive next Monday. Here’s wishing you well from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’m at the flagship Borders store tonight, then on to Chicago for a big event with Alexandra Levit tomorrow night. Over the weekend I’ll be in Madison and Minneapolis. Details are here.


Image: Jon

Subscribe now and you’ll get the best posts of all time.


  • Eduard says:

    That’s a good reminder Chris.

    Many people have this idea somewhere in their heads that they need to be special or have some extraordinary, unusual qualities to dare and dream big. That’s silly in my view. Dreaming (realistically) big and acting big is the best thing for the normal, ordinary person.

  • Lois Hudson says:

    Another inspiring and motivating post, Chris. Thanks for keeping us moving!

    I, too, (even though I, too, don’t agree with some of her philosophies) admire Ayn Rand’s writings. Thoughts from Atlas Shrugged still pop up years (many) after I first read it.

    Time to go work on that dream.

  • Kristen Sloan says:

    I think people get hung up on the what’s the worst that can happen if it doesn’t work out. People are scared of failure, embarrassment and what others think of them. Thanks Chris for inspiring us that we can dream and go for it. And if it doesn’t work out, it’s alright.

  • Hannah says:

    Thanks for delving into this subject, Chris.

    It’s hard to talk about something that moves one forward, where there is thought involved–or so I am finding–with the average person who has given themselves over to repetitious patterns of earning an income or relating to others. Something shining left this world when people stopped creating their own work and started working in factories for others. I am of the opinion that shining thing was “independent thought”, or “originality”.

    This summer I was asking a fellow berry-picker what he would rather be doing than the job he held, and he, like many others there, couldn’t think in those terms. Life doesn’t offer you what you want, was the implied response.

    Then a female voice floated over from the next row, “she’s cross-examining you, Bob.” She wasn’t kidding. I had crossed the line of chitchat permissible on a job.I don’t think life offers you what you want, either. You have to go after it. I guess that involves thought and effort.

  • Gary Wilson says:

    It is incredible to me how difficult it is for other people when you decide to follow your dreams. Their opposition can really drag me down. It takes real courage and sometimes as Paul Graham puts it, a decision to fly in the face of conventional definitions of what is normal in favour of what is really normal i.e. that which makes me happy, healthy and sane. Even small decisions can be tough. I just applied to work a 4 day week rather than a 5 day week and got a lot of resistance for this in my company. But I was steadfast in my request and it is becoming a reality. It is great to know that there is a band of fellow activists out there!

  • Sinoun says:

    These words always have a way of moving, inspiring and igniting that little spark within me – the one often overcome with doubt and self-consciousness and the feeling of “what’s the point?”

    I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed with anything you’ve ever written. And while I don’t always leave comments, I want you to know that your words truly do make a difference in my days.

    So, thank you!

  • Paul Berube says:

    For anyone striving to be a successful entrepreneur, going against conformity and establishment, or simply being remarkable, the ultimate fictional hero is Howard Roark of the Fountainhead. By refusing to compromise or conform while pursuing the realization of his dreams, he is subjected to nearly unbearable adversity and hardship yet succeeds in creating his noble vision.

  • ami says:

    Thank you for challenging people to pursue dreams without justifying them to the world. I think having that level of commitment – to yourself – and being able to honor it without needing outside validation is important to *begin* our quests. At the same time, I think *eventually* we have to be able to articulate the value of the dream (even if only to ourselves) in a clear and motivating way in order to avoid getting stuck mid-way. Great post.

  • Julie Wise says:

    Loved your comment “if you have a dream, make it yours and take action to turn it into reality. I think the world would be a better place if more people did this.” I so agree! Each of us in our own way has the option of bringing more joy, beauty and magic into the world (like Colin Huggins and his piano) by listening to the voice in our hearts and following where it leads. Our dreams are unique to us, yet woven together create a fascinating tapestry that inspires everyone around us to ever-greater heights!

  • Devin says:

    Hi Chris,

    I am a big fan of dreams and the heroes quest. I recommend the “Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, which explains why we, as people, need mythology, stories of quest and transformation, and Campbell explains it all beautifully. Perhaps my favorite book of all time. It is also on DVD.

  • Casey Friday says:

    Inspiring. You don’t need a reason to do what you love. It’s all up to you and your own volition. I’ve begun to pursue my dream, and it’s freakin awesome. There’s not a better thing a person could do than to satisfy their hearts’ desire.

    This post is fantastic.

  • Nathan Hangen says:

    Dean Karnazes changed my life. After reading that book, I became a runner and raced in over 25 road races and triathlons over the next 2 years.

    From there, I’m here. Small world 🙂

  • daniel andrade says:

    WOW! “be the hero, it’s up to me” is the first line of my goal sheet that I update every month. I read the statement and think that I need to be the hero of my life story and not an extra in somebody else’s story

  • Meghashyam Chirravoori says:

    I LOVED this post. 🙂

    What I loved the most was that immediately after reading it I felt inspired to continue acting on my dream of living a life where I experiment, learn things like lucid dreaming and the law of attraction and share them on my blog as I experiment with them.

    Thank you for making my evening at least one bit more exciting. 🙂

  • Amanda Wang says:

    Four months after I was diagnosed with a mental illness that almost destroyed my life, I decided to ride my bicycle 545 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 7 days (for those living with AIDS/HIV). I didn’t really know why I wanted to do it, I just knew it would be a life changing experience.

    Suffice to say, it didn’t disappoint… and lesson learned: when you pursue one dream, you finally realize you can pursue a whole bunch of other dreams… and yes, those are people who end up changing the world.

    Thanks for the post Chris!

  • RJ says:

    “I don’t follow professional or amateur sports, but every two years, I love watching the Olympics. I enjoy the stories, the years of training without reward, all in pursuit of a big dream. “

    Love your writings and work chris. Maybe im cynical, but I take issue with this statement you made above. There is HUGE reward and incentive for these athletes. Many of the medal winners in the Olympics sign multi million dollar contracts with many companies. To think they are allt training just for the “fun” or personal results I think would be disingenuous and naive.

    Also of course the tremendous NON monetary rewards they achieve by self fulfillment and achieving ones goals.. which may be more in line with your point..

    Any ways, just wanted to bring that up. Keep up the great work!!


  • Barak Rosenbloom says:

    You’ve helped set the course for the rest of the day with these last two posts – thank you!

    Sometimes I forget the dream I’m turning into reality.

    Sometimes I forget that the thing there is to do next really matters to the dream, whether I want to do it or not.

    Sometimes I get caught in a half-awake funk, aware only of how absurd and unattainable my dream are. That’s when it’s time to either go back to sleep and dream some more or wake up fully and get into action.

  • Brendan McCall says:

    I like the enthusiastic sentiments of “The Individual As Hero.” I would add that heroic individuals are inextricably linked to a community, and oftentimes that the successes of a single person are the result of a larger group.
    I´ve directed, and helped acting students develop, a number of Solo Theater Performances. And while every performer may be the writer & creator, their performance is supported by the technical staff, the designers, as well as (perhaps most importantly) the audience.
    Greater leaders throughout history–from Martin Luther King to Gandhi–were powerful in large measure because of the vast numbers of men and women who courageously stood by them, supported them, lent them their minds and hearts.
    Entrepreneurs, athletes, leaders, visionaries–these individuals are only as heroic as the brave audiences and communities that entrust them. No one is an island. Not even heroes–perhaps especially not heroes.

  • Satya, Fierce Wisdom says:

    p.s. all you out there struggling with the dream, remember, there is no victory without a battle. The true hero must overcome his/her greatest demons, or in this case it might be hell’s gatekeepers, to emerge from the battle with victory.

  • Kevin Phillips says:

    I echo Brendan’s observation. It needs to be highlighted. “Hero” is, almost by definition, a hero in relation to others. Conformity, group think, Nietzche’s “Herd,” all point a tendency we all have to choose security over vitality. Isn’t the courage to be heroic simply a willingness to offer one’s unique gift to the world, whatever that gift might be? Personal indulgence outside of relationship with others is addiction, not heroism. The strength to give voice to one’s personal autonomy in the face of others who feel threatened by the gift you have to give is heroic when you stay connected despite the criticism.

  • Henry says:

    Thank You Chris for the amazing post. I always look for your posts for direction and that extra boost of energy to push me even harder to have no fears when pursuing what may seem my unrealistic big dreams. I have to keep constantly reminding myself that no one, no matter how talented, smart, persistent and hardworking you are, can do it alone.
    If it is possible then it would not be as fulfilling or meaningful, because quite frankly that’s selfish and narccisistic. Most of my peers and people my age have way too much ego and think that we don’t need any help or that we know everything, and they wonder why they never get anywhere in life, or obtain short-term success, never lasting and short lived.
    So, just have to remind myself so my dreams are not as daunting as well as for my ego’s sake to, that no matter what supernatural talent or power you have: NO one does it alone.

  • Brooke says:

    love it love it love it love it!!!!

    I’ve heard this story from so many people. “Why?” I, too, have had a lot of big goals that I’ve pursued, just because I’ve wanted to. I’ve run marathons, I’ve traveled to many countries (tho a mere drop in the bucket compared to you, Chris!), I have a graduate degree, I play multiple musical instruments…

    Yet when I started out on each of these pursuits, most of those around me sat on their butts and just asked “why?” Sometimes, I just didn’t have an answer besides “because” or “why not”. Now, I say, “this is my way to get the most out of life”.

  • Monica says:

    Thanks for this post! I haven’t read Dean Karnazes but I will certainly look for the books now. What a relief to know that it’s not necessary to explain the WHY of what I do to anyone…not that I bother with that very often 😉

    Also, thanks for the nod to Ayn Rand and her books. I will never understand why architecture instructors insist on having their students read this book when it really is about the “Individual as Hero”, and NOT about designing buildings! She was a philosopher, but most people (those who don’t read the books!) keep making her out to be something she wasn’t…sigh!

  • mary says:

    Wow Chris, I have enjoyed your posts for the past couple of weeks but, for some reason this one just sang to me. So simple, yet well put. Why not? Thank you…

  • tara - scoutie girl says:

    Ayn Rand wasn’t required reading while I was in school… but I picked her up after college. I don’t agree with a lot of the philosophy she espouses as well but I’m fascinated by the stories she uses to communicate it. I love that she makes me think and question myself.

    More people should read things like that!

  • Alex Blackwell says:

    Action is empowering and action is intoxicating – it’s the best natural high there is!

    Thanks for the reminder.


  • marlon @ productivity bits says:

    For the hero, life is a battle to win. Everyday brings adversity to win over. So, for him, “living out” life is about celebration of victory. I guess this is innate to everybody. We have a certain part in our hearts that tells us we can win no matter what. Now, on the other hand, as long as there is a hero, there also is the villain. We must first slain the villain before we can claim the victory; only then can we merit the right to be called a hero.

  • Coach Dawn says:

    Have fun in Madison! I went to college there and it’s just an all around fabulous place.

    Dream chasers are fundamentally misunderstood…thanks for reminding us that that’s ok.

  • Ken Apple says:

    Joseph Campbell says that the hero’s journey in modern life is about the individual asserting him or her self against the machines of society that try and tell us how to live our lives. The machines of culture, government and business are not there for our benefit, but their own. Time to escape.

  • Steven H says:

    Great stuff Chris. Ayn Rand is a personal favorite of mine too. One of her predecessors, Nathanial Branden, is a psychologist who does great research on self-esteem. His book “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” is one of the best self improvement books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot). It echoes many of Rand’s ideas but without the rant against altruism.

    I too like to watch the Olympics (and other sports, most notably Baseball and Football) so I can sit in awe and meditate on the sheer will power and practice these athletes have dedicated to get to where they are. It’s very enchanting in a way.

    “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, by not the desire to beat others.” – Rand

  • Ramblings of a Woman says:

    I think that we each have many dreams. Some are to be pursued now, some are to be put on the back burner for a time. Thanks for this post to help us keep our dreams important! I am working on getting rid of the unnecessary so that I have time, room and energy to complete my dreams!


  • Mark Powers says:

    Thanks again, Chris- I love the “be your own superhero” approach! It’s so true that almost anything you set out on can bring the shoulder shrugs from others that don’t get it, especially the BIG goals. I’ve been dealing with that a lot just recently with my new TheDonatingDrummer project. But, why wouldn’t I, right? Kudos to you for passing along the great thoughts and continued motivation!

  • Heidi says:

    Thanks so much for this. I’m having a dreadful time trying to explain my families plans to people. I think I just need to do it then they will understand.

  • Aaron Baldassare says:

    You said it right, Chris. Being ridiculed and misunderstood is a rite of passage for all my heroes. I know you’ve been there. It’s getting to be where I take it as reinforcement. The payoff is beautiful.

  • Will Hutchens says:

    Years ago I gave a speech at my high school graduation. It was the typical ‘grab life and go for it’ speech, and one of the lines in it was “what separates the great ones from everyone else is that they have the courage to follow their dreams.” Today, I still believe that having courage in the face of society’s expectations and pressures is the biggest key to leading a remarkable life. You also have to have unyielding self-confidence. It is not easy, and I thank you for working to inspire the rest of us.

  • lois says:

    Thank you Chris for reminding us that the pursuit of a dream is not selfishness but a necessity. I am often asked why the compulsion to travel. Why do I choose to live this way and move from country to country and live like a nomad instead of settling down at my age and do what any proper woman would do. I choose to live differently. But I did not just choose to be different. You’re right, we don’t need to explain.

    Thank you for being an inspirational traveler to all of us.

  • Kim says:

    I loved how you said “If I have the opportunity and the desire to undertake such a challenge, I almost think it would be irresponsible not to. ” I live in a country where desires are seen as secondary to fulfillment of one’s responsibilities to their families, employers, and often religion. We often live to meet other people’s expectations and in fear of the judgment of others, without thinking that we also need and have a responsibility to live for ourselves.
    Thank you for your writing.

  • Lynchburg Realtors says:

    Unquestionably believe that which you said. Your favorite reason seemed to be on the net
    the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I
    definitely get annoyed while people think about worries that they
    just don’t know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side-effects ,
    people could take a signal. Will likely be back to get more.

Your comments are welcome! Please be nice and use your real name.

If you have a website, include it in the website field (not in the text of the comment).

Want to see your photo in the comments? Visit to get one.