Speculations on Heroism and the Heroism of Speculation

Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D.

Ayn Rand described the sense of life of The Fountainhead as "man-worship". This reverence for the greatness possible in each of us is captured throughout that novel. One of its most graphic depictions is the final scene, in which Dominique rides the elevator to the top of the new Wynand Building, observing Roark standing tall atop his consummate achievement.

In Atlas Shrugged, Galt describes the "trader" as the "symbol of all relationships" among individuals. The trader is contrasted with the parasite, as one whose commerce with others is grounded in values rather than coercion or need. Man-worship, to no small extent, is trader-worship. It is a celebration of the human capacity to fashion and promulgate values, to further life as an end in itself.

In this essay, I would like to dissect the concept of "hero", focusing primarily upon its psychological aspects. By analyzing heroism, I believe we can gain a deeper grasp of the psychology of the trader, including those actual traders who help to turn the world's financial engines.

Notice that we typically refer to heroism in the context of purpose. A hero is one who sustains the effortful pursuit of noble ends. Let us look into that more closely.

To qualify as a hero or heroine, one's ends must be noble. They must be clearly tied to the furtherance and enhancement of life. A businessperson who earns a fortune by marketing a worthwhile invention merits a different appraisal than the businessperson who collects the same sum by defrauding consumers. Someone who lives without an overarching life purpose will never be seen as heroic. Neither will someone whose life purpose is the subjugation of others. A hero creates values.

There is more, however. We will not view someone as heroic if the outcomes of their actions are attributable to luck or happenstance. If a person wins a lottery or a scientist stumbles upon a new observation in the laboratory, we might considerate them fortunate, but not heroic. Heroism requires an ongoing, effortful pursuit; it entails a striving. We admire a Roark or Galt because of their struggle in the name of values, their steadfast dedication to the good.

Perhaps the seminal contribution to an understanding of greatness comes from Francis Galton, whose Hereditary Genius represented the first empirical attempt to study eminent individuals. Galton found that genius resulted from the interaction of natural ability and qualities of intellect and personality that "urge and qualify a man to perform acts that lead to reputation." Perseverance, Galton found, was intrinsic to the subjects of his study.

Recent research into the psychology of extraordinarily creative individuals supports this perspective. In his edited volume The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports and Games, K. Anders Ericsson cites a range of studies that find intensive, deliberative practice as a defining feature in expert performance. Accomplished musicians, for example, averaged 25 hours per week of practice, more than 3 times the amount of expert, but less accomplished peers. Moreover, evidence indicates that the quality of time spent in practice differs for experts and non-experts, as well. Experts practice for limited blocks of time, but exert maximum concentration throughout the session, whereas non-experts may practice for longer sessions, but with less intensity.

The ability to sustain effort is associated with greatness in other ways. The research of psychologist Dean Keith Simonton finds that great individuals are distinguished from their less celebrated peers by the quantity of their contributions. Interestingly, the ratio of high quality to low quality creative works remains constant for artists, scholars, and scientists throughout their career. What makes some of these individuals great is their ability to sustain a high volume of creative output throughout their lives. Because a percentage of their works end up making an impact, they wind up with a larger body of recognized contributions simply as a function of their ability to sustain creativity.

How is it that great individuals have the ability to persist in their effortful pursuits? Research from psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi sheds light on the topic. He reports, with co-investigator Maria Mei-Ha Wong, that subjective well-being (happiness) varies greatly among teenagers from different cultures. Across cultures, however, "the perception of high challenge and high skill was conducive to happiness". Csikszentmihalyi refers to the skilled individual's immersion in challenge as a state of "flow". It is literally an altered state of consciousness in which the creator and the work of creation become as one. This is experienced as an intrinsically enjoyable state, impelling the creator to further acts of effort. From the vantage point of the naďve observer, this immersion in creative endeavor might be taken as "workaholism". This misses Csikszentmihalyi's point, however. In the state of flow, effort is no longer work. The creator, quite literally, is hard-wired to enjoy extraordinary efforts.

Interestingly, the research of Csikszentmihalyi and Wong found that sports are a major source of well-being for teenagers. Young individuals seem to understand the dynamics of heroism, albeit implicitly. They play-act the roles of superheroes who save the world or sports heroes who vanquish their foes. No doubt the enduring popularity of sports—from the Olympics to the Major Leagues—rests with their ability to engage spectators in a tangible enactment of the heroic quest. With each event or game, we watch our heroes draw upon their years of dedicated practice to vanquish their adversaries. Their struggles become ours; we are ennobled by their adventures.

This suggests another, more subtle facet of heroism. The hero operates within the context of uncertainty. If we know that a sporting match is one-sided or that a Roark is assured of a successful career because of the support of his rich uncle, our admiration is greatly diminished. Without the tangible possibility of failure accompanying the achievement of values, we cease to think of the actor as a hero. This is because heroism is as much a process as an outcome. We admire dedication to an ideal, constancy of purpose, and bravery in the face of uncertainty. An individual can be heroic even in defeat. Take away the possibility of defeat, however, and there can be no heroism.

In a Wall St. Journal column dated February 2, 1989, Victor Niederhoffer described "The Speculator as Hero". Author of The Education of a Speculator, a book chronicling his life and trading career, Niederhoffer likens participants in the financial markets to "discoverers like Christopher Columbus, creators like Henry Ford, or inventors like Thomas Edison". Each day, speculators test their mettle against the forces of other traders, governmental intervention, and sheer chance. In exchange for assuming risk, they earn the opportunity to profit from new ventures and economic expansion. Quite literally, without the speculator's willingness to brave uncertainty in quest of profits, innovation would wither on the vine, bereft of funding.

Of course, there are unscrupulous market participants, just as there are shady physicians, architects, and businesspeople. These, sadly, receive an undue share of the public's attention. There is less drama in the daily grinding out of profits achieved by a disciplined speculator than in the machinations of a trader who brings his company to its knees. The markets owe their long and unparalleled history of prosperity, however, to those speculators who divert funds from relatively unproductive uses to more productive ones. It is difficult to think of a single modern innovation—from the railroad to the optical network—that has not owed its growth and success to the funds provided by market pioneers.

Jack Schaeffer, in his book Heroes Without Glory: Some Goodmen of the Old West, observes that when we think of the American West, we tend to think of the badmen: the gunslingers, gamblers, and colorful thieves. The West was won, however, through the efforts of the "goodmen". He describes these as "Independent individuals who broke outside the mold of routine living as definitely as ever did the badmen and did this in infinitely more varied and more admirable ways…Men who played out their roles on the side, not necessarily of the law because the law was often a muddle in the old West, but of clean consciences and a reasonable respect for the rights and persons of their fellow men."

The goodmen are the heroes. They are the pioneers, in markets, sports, art, and science, who innovate amidst risk and persist in the pursuit of values. Theirs is the path of nobility and the proper beacon for those aspiring to personal development.