The Story Behind “Heroes, Villains, and Drunk Old Men”

My most popular keynote – Heroes, Villains, and Drunk Old Men – is more than a presentation to me. It’s a deeply personal story, shaped over the course of a decade but made possible by a career-altering 3-minute conversation with the hand-raising genius pictured above.

Heroes first started out as a light-hearted talk called Why Yoda Never Used PowerPoint: Training Tips from Tinseltown. Written in 2007, it was inspired by an insight I’d had while watching an old Star Wars film: every hero you’ve ever seen in a movie only becomes that hero because a trainer/mentor figure does the hard work to make him…well, heroic.

Think about it: Luke doesn’t save the galaxy without Ben Kenobi and Yoda. Rose’s heart in Titanic doesn’t go on (sing it, Celine Dion) unless Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack stops her from taking her own life and shows her a glimpse of how to really live it. Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid doesn’t crane-kick his way to glory without Mr. Miyagi’s home improvement-based training program.

This truth was first described in Joseph Campbell‘s watershed 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Arguably the most influential non-fiction book published in the last 100 years, Campbell explains that every story told about every hero, in every culture going back 4,000 years and in every movie you’ve ever seen, follows a pattern called The Hero’s Journey: an aspiring hero is told he has the skills to save the world, is trained by a wise mentor, fights villains and his inner demons, and ultimately wins a reward that he uses to bless and support the family and friends he fought for in the first place.

(I’ve just spoiled every movie you’ll ever see. Sorry.)

After an in-depth examination of the training techniques of various trainers in Hollywood movies that led me to radically alter my own real-world talent development practices, I collected the most effective ones into the first draft of Yoda. I road-tested it at a few small local gatherings and workshops before submitting it for consideration as a breakout session at the national conferences for both the American Society for Training and Development (now the Association for Talent Development) and the Society for Human Resource Management. I gave myself no chance of being selected out of the 500 or so submissions they receive collectively each year.

Both conferences chose it. The first year I submitted it. OH. MY. GOODNESS.

I can’t overstate how huge and rare this is; there are talent development pros with decades of experience and a list of accomplishments as long as my arm who submit presentation proposals to ASTD and SHRM every year and never get invited on stage. Considering these two events pull in nearly 30,000 attendees every year, presenting at either of them is a career-defining moment. And both in one year for a nobody like me? Unheard of.

The room at ASTD gave it a standing ovation.

The attendees at SHRM voted it one of the 10 best presentations of the 200+ on the agenda.

These remain two of the proudest moments of my speaking career.

They led to dozens more speaking opportunities at state, regional, and national events. Yoda was providing a steady stream of notoriety and results. And since I was a card-carrying member of the “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” Club, I had no motivation whatsoever to change it significantly.

Then Ron Shevlin simultaneously ruined and remade Yoda, and my speaking career, in 3 minutes.

These fateful 180 seconds happened right after I’d presented an abridged version of Yoda at the CU Water Cooler Symposium in 2012. Once the roughly 100 attendees politely applauded my efforts from the stage, I found myself alongside Ron – a giant in the financial services world who runs one of the most influential blogs in the industry – and casually asked for his feedback.

I thought he would give me a blithe collection of affirmations. Instead, he looked me square in the eye and asked, “Are you sure? Because I’m gonna be honest.”

“Ok,” was my faux-confident reply.

“Here’s the deal,” he said crisply. “The problem with your message is that it isn’t rooted in reality. It’s amusing and entertaining, yes, but real people in the real world aren’t going to radically change their lives just because a movie character said they should.”

Ego Crush Mode ACTIVATED.

“You know what would make this a million times more compelling?” he continued. “Real stories of real people doing the stuff you’re talking about. Make them the star. Lose the Luke/Yoda angle. You’ll thank me later.”

In my hotel room that night, I killed Yoda. I never presented it again.

I took Ron’s advice and, for the next year, compiled those real stories of real people. They came from the results I’d seen developing experienced and emerging leaders, from advising other training professionals from across the country, from spectacular flameouts in all areas of life, and from my own experience with those suffering from depression and substance abuse. Their successes were every bit as noble and compelling as any you’d see on the silver screen.

Those stories, and the truths that made them possible, form what is now known as Heroes, Villains, and Drunk Old Men. Two-thirds of the 30+ speaking engagements I do each year are based some variant of its core message

The great joy of telling those stories – from the stage and from behind a lens – is what drives me to find and share even more.

It is the bedrock upon which my business is built, a cornerstone of which was laid in 3 minutes by one of my personal heroes, who broke my heart and made me better and who, since that day, has been an unfailing source of support and honesty when I’ve needed it the most.

You were right, Ron. As always.


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