There’s a popular adage that you should never meet your heroes—that the people you come to idolize can never live up to your expectations and disappointment is close to inevitable.
I threw this advice to the wind last weekend and drove to Canada to attend a Jane Goodall talk in Ottawa. Since I was eight-years-old, I have adored Jane. I poured over her 700-page biography, intricately studied her life and watched countless documentaries. I can’t tell if it was the proto-feminist in me who was drawn to her entering a male-dominated field and painstakingly proving her worth time and time again to receive research grants to study chimpanzees in Gombe, or the avid ape lover in me simply being awed by this woman earning the trust of chimpanzees, toying with babies while their mothers looked on affectionately. Regardless, she has been my heroine for quite some time.
When my boyfriend bought me a ticket to go see her, and better yet, meet her, I hate to say that my unbounded excitement was matched with equal levels of hesitation. Partly because I didn’t want to trek to Canada by myself, and partly because a portion of my subconscious wondered whether she could possibly live up to my expectations. What if I was about to ruin a decade of heroine worship?
Nonetheless, a friend drove me to Syracuse and I picked up my rental car, staring dumbfoundedly at the Hertz employee as she offered me the choice between two vehicles. When my Waze navigation, strategically set to avoid toll roads, tried to steer me around the toll booth at the U.S. and Canada border charging just 3.25 dollars (looping just left of the booth and cutting back through an actual field to meet the start of the bridge) I again wondered whether the universe was setting me up for grand disappointment—and possibly a border arrest.
But when Jane walked onstage and the entire theater rose and gave her a standing ovation before she had said a word, I knew I had come to the right place.
For three hours, I listened devotedly to Jane recount the stories of her life, speak of her foundation’s continued efforts on behalf of animals, people and the environment and address constant battles that never quite seemed entirely won or lost. It was a heroine’s story without a clear triumph. But that was where the magic came in: we were invited to be a part of that journey and, eventually, a part of the victory. Days have passed, and I can’t shake that feeling.
There was something distinctly hopeful about the crowd. The children who flocked to the stage afterwards with stuffed chimpanzees, the girl who stood in line sobbing and clutching a childhood book or the many middle-aged men and women who continued to be shameless in their adoration of Dr. Goodall. There was a universality, at least in that theater, to this affection and dedication to the fundamental pursuit of good in this world. I have no intention of staking out chimpanzees in the dense Tanzanian forest. I do, however, feel a little more capable of crafting a career path that is true to exactly what I want to do, with no clear or easy route to success, and a goal of doing good for the world rather than simply doing well for myself.
After the talk, I spoke to Jane for all of 47 seconds and spent most of that time throwing my hands around like a crazy person, avoiding eye contact and blubbering about how she made me who I am today. But at the end of it all, she was there smiling and telling me to fight the good fight.
Whether it’s an intimidating professor whose work you secretly fawn over, one of the many remarkable speakers Colgate brings to campus or even a hero you have to track down yourself you should express your appreciation to and spend time with the people you admire most. Your heroes might be exhausted, you might be another face in the crowd and they might not impart any wisdom that drastically changes the course of your life or the way you conceptualize your personhood. Meet them anyway. If you’re picking the right heroes and there’s a chance you’ll feel anything like I did on that night, it’s worth the risk. It just might be as special as you would hope, and you might find yourself inspired to join your heroes rather than admire them from the sidelines.