The problem with heroes is that the more you know about a person, the more real they become—the more flawed they become, and the less heroic they begin to seem. Neil Armstrong famously shunned the spotlight after being the first human being to set foot on a world other than our own, an accomplishment that is so overwhelmingly incredible that it would be nearly impossible to articulate just what it could mean for humanity in the centuries to come. Although many attribute that to Armstrong’s humble character, I’ve heard more than once that it was also because Armstrong was aware that he could never live up to the larger-than-life spectacle his accomplishment demanded. He was a regular guy with an immense respect for the work that went into his Navy and NASA missions, both from an engineering and a piloting standpoint. But that was the problem: He was a regular guy, with flaws, blemishes, and even things he probably wasn’t proud of. The more time he spent in front of the camera, the better the chance that America would spot his mortality, and judge him harshly for it.
In the age of cell phone cameras and social media connecting us all to one another from anywhere on the globe, mistakes have become pretty tough to hide, and even tougher to rebound from. Justine Sacco’s entire life came to a screeching halt a few years ago when she posted an insensitive and foolish Tweet to her small group of 170 followers. As she boarded a plane from London to Cape Town, South Africa, she posted 12 words that would change the course of her entire adult life:
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