Real heroes avoid ruts, drink deeply from life


On a recent trip to Mexico, I met Carl Franz, author of "The People's Guide to Mexico," now nine editions old and the bible for serious travelers to that extraordinary country. Carl has created a niche for himself (though he'd never use such a word) and found a way to follow his quirky bliss -- and to simultaneously make a difference and a life.

I quickly added him to my short list of heroes. I won't embarrass the others by naming them, but among them are authors, a farmer, businesspeople and military leaders. But no Gandhis or Roosevelts, since, on such a personal honor role, I can't sensibly include people I don't know. In fact, I guarantee that you wouldn't recognize more than four names on my 12-person list.

These folks more or less share 13 traits that amount to a pretty good guide to success in general.

* Self-invented. "I am an American, Chicago-born," begins Saul Bellow's novel "The Adventures of Augie March," "and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way." All my Mount Rushmore nominees have chiseled their masterpieces from the granite of life in a distinct, unusual fashion. Standard career path? Forget it. One job, one company? Not even close.

* Ever-changing. I don't think any of my dandy dozen has a split personality in the clinical sense of the term; but surely all are chameleons, not bound by consistency. They've tried on a Nordstrom-full of outfits while remaining desperately and passionately committed to whatever they are pursuing at the moment.

* Battered and bruised. My heroes have screwed up things at least as often as they've gotten them right. "A road without potholes is not a road worth traveling" could be their collective motto. Failures don't seem to faze them; if anything, setbacks amuse and motivate them.

* Inquisitive. No question goes unasked for this squad of achievers. Sometimes I think there's literally nothing that does not interest them. They are determined to get to the bottom of any topic they touch -- on or off the job. (Job? They are what they do; job is not part of their vocabulary.)

* Childlike, naive. This gang that refuses to grow up isn't afraid to ask dumb (v-e-r-y dumb) questions if they don't get it. Their appetite for exploration is far greater than their fear of looking idiotic.

* Free from the past. Gravity has no meaning for this group. They are not weighed down by history. In a flash they'll thumb their noses at what only yesterday they were fervently espousing.

* Comfortable, even cocky in a way. My Hall of Famers are at ease with themselves, unperturbed by the idea of life as an ever-elusive, moving target -- an adventure to be relished, mostly for its detours.

* Jolly. These people laugh -- a lot. They marvel at human intrigues, and their appreciation of the absurd stokes their marvelous sense of humor. All of them have wrinkles that can be attributed only to habitual laughter.

* Audacious and a bit nuts. They'll try anything, from learning a new language to starting a new career, with barely a moment's hesitation. Moreover, by the standards of the majority, they view the world through decidedly cockeyed glasses.

* Iconoclastic. For my pilgrims, conventional wisdom is like a red cape to a bull. I sometimes think they're only happy when they're on the "wrong" side of an issue.

* Multidimensional. We're not dealing with saints. All members of this tribe have flaws, often as pronounced as their strengths. But, then, when was the last time you observed an insipid soul accomplishing much of anything?

* Honest. It's not that they always tell the truth or are above pettiness. Hey, we're all human. It's just that this set is attuned to reality and especially their own foibles. They are consummate and often quixotic truth-seekers, with little time for those who aren't as confused as they are.

* Larger than life. My Gang of Twelve are all heroic. That is, they paint their canvasses, large and small, with bold brush strokes. They are fearless in their own fashion. They embrace the circus of life, rather than shrink from it.

"The creative person is usually rebellious," said Indian businessman Sumit Roy. "He or she is the survivor of a trauma called education." My heroes, too, have survived and thrived by escaping the bonds of their often humdrum origins and impressive paper credentials. If we want more people like them, we'd better consider Roy's implicit message: We are ensnared by institutions, especially educational ones, that do a superb job of stomping out the spicy traits demanded by these spicy times.

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; [407] 420-6200.)

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