Opinion

Armstrong and Lehrer: When Superheroes Make Mistakes

We all have our heroes. They’re people we look up to, people we aspire to be. They motivate us. They inspire us. But they’re not perfect.

It has been a rough summer for two of my larger than life role models: Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France champion and cancer survivor, and Jonah Lehrer, acclaimed journalist and author of three bestselling books by the ripe age of 31.

Lance Armstrong said Thursday night that he will no longer fight the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s charges against him for taking performance enhancing drugs. At stake is losing his Tour de France victories and a lifetime ban from the sport.

Jonah Lehrer was found to have fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in his latest book Imagine. His publisher Houghton Mifflin recalled the books, offered a refund to people who purchased a copy, and are reviewing his other titles for plagiarism and the like. In June, Lehrer apologized for recycling content – publishing material he wrote for one publication in another. When all was said and done, Lehrer resigned from his prestigious position as a staff writer at the New Yorker. An ethics lecture he was supposed to deliver in Indiana on Tuesday was cancelled.

It sort of leaves you in an awkward position when an athlete and a writer you idealize turn out to be less than flawless. Watching Armstrong fight his way to the top on the bike and in the fight against cancer instilled in me a huge sense of motivation and an awe of the human spirit. Reading Lehrer’s book opened my mind to new ideas and confirmed my interest in pursuing a career in science writing. But what am I supposed to do? On the one hand, they’ve given me intangible qualities and have shaped my perspective in ways I’m not even fully aware of. On the other, they’ve allegedly made serious mistakes that will cost them their careers and reputations.

After weighing these things over the last few months, I think I’m starting to come to a conclusion. People aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to look up to them, draw inspiration from them. Both Armstrong and Lehrer have had a fundamental influence in their areas of expertise and there’s no denying that. I have chosen to focus on what they have achieved and the good they’ve brought to the world – the Lance Armstrong Foundation, an accessible understanding of how creativity works.

Think about it this way: If you or I injected some steroids into our system, I bet neither one of us could win the Tour de France, not seven times at least. There’s just so much more to it than that; the training, the lifestyle, the pain, and mental preparation.

And we’re all guilty of recall bias, that phenomenon when we conveniently remember the parts of our memories that we’d like to remember and casually forget the details we’re not big fans of. That’s just how memory works. Every time you recall a memory, you encode a new version of it that replaces the old – like saving a file with the same name and hitting ‘replace.’  I am confident Lehrer was not intentionally trying to put words into Bob Dylan’s mouth. But how many of us become Rhodes scholars and bestselling authors before age 30?

It will be interesting to see what fate has in store for Armstrong and Lehrer in the coming months, but there is one thing I’m sure of: my support for them will not waver.

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