Rocky Balboa: An Unlikely Role Model for Men

If you ask any young boy who he wants to be when he grows up, you will hear ‘an astronaut’, ‘a rocket scientist’, ‘a professional footballer’, ‘a pilot’. I suppose a correction for Gen-Alpha should be made by adding ‘a youtuber’ and ‘an influencer’ to the pool of answers, but the general theme surrounding the answers to such a fundamental question is achievement. Boys are told to succeed from the minute they become mobile. “Sure, you can do it”, they hear when they are about to take their first steps. “You’re a real champ. you’re are real pro, Billy”, a boy will hear after kicking a ball, and it doesn’t matter if he’s really showing promise or not. What matters is setting little Billy on a path to success. Now Billy knows he not only wants to be an astronaut or a pro wrestler, but he is convinced it is an achievable goal.

Ask Billy who his heroes are and he will list his favourite superheroes. Maybe he’ll add Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James to the list, but from his point of of view, these all-star athletes are superheroes, too. They are superhuman. His idols are all supernatural. They can fly and punch through walls and – thanks to their superpowers – they always save the day. And you might think it’s alright. In fact, it probably is OK to let young boys idolize these fictitious gods because it is important for him to look up to someone. It’s important to set the bar high. Because a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, right?

But we all know that it is statistically impossible for every little Billy to grow up to become an astronaut. A career in the top echelon of professional football is unattainable for most little boys as well. Most of us at some point realize we’ll never reach those goals and summarily put these dreams to bed. I was fifteen when I realized I’d never become an astronaut or a pilot and it didn’t matter how hard I tried. My poor eyesight was a deal-breaker. A part of becoming a man is revising those childhood aspirations and settling for something we can actually achieve. But then again, nobody tells us how to get there any more. In our teens we are supposed to have a plan. In our twenties we are supposed to be on a trajectory. And for some reason we are led to believe we should attain that success in our thirties at the latest. We are on a tight schedule. But what if we fail? Nobody ever tells young men to deal with failure. And you won’t find help in the latest issue of Superman either because even though superheroes you used to look up to have weaknesses, they overcome their limitations using what essentially is magic. And magic ain’t real. Failure, on the other hand, is.

So, who should a man in his late twenties, thirties or forties look up to? Many of us already face pressures from all directions. We might have families, jobs, responsibilities and little to no time for dreams, none of which our childhood heroes ever had to seriously face, because they were all essentially infallible. That might be why so many men suffer in silence all throughout their adult lives. Our little frustrations grow larger and eventually snowball out of control. We tend to laugh off the idea of going through a mid-life crisis but it’s an inherent tragedy of a male existence to become overwhelmed by our own failure and the realization we were never good enough to achieve what we thought was in our reach when we were younger. That’s why men need idols who would teach them how to navigate adulthood and pursue happiness in an attainable way. Men need heroes who are fallible and human. Men need heroes like Rocky Balboa.

Go the distance

What an odd choice for a role model, you might ask. Isn’t Rocky Balboa a superhuman boxing champion who singlehandedly defeated communism, whooped Mr T’s behind and became so obscenely rich he could afford technology that didn’t even exist? Yes. That is true. What is also true, however, that all throughout his decades-spanning adventures Rocky was always a fallible human being fighting first and foremost against his own crushing limitations. Even at the height of his superhero-ness – when he was facing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV – he wasn’t an invincible titan but an underdog avenging the death of his friend.

To understand the notion of Rocky Balboa being a viable role model for men of all ages we must first look all the way to the beginning. We meet Rocky at a low point in his life. He’s in his thirties, everyone around him tells him he missed the boat already, he’s a pushover and a bundle of frustration. He knows he could have been a contender, but he is not one. His youthful dreams of becoming a prize fighter have been crushed. Now, he just coasts. Days blur into one another. Does this predicament sound familiar?

Rocky’s circumstances mirror closely what many of us experience in adulthood. Because from the youngest age we are expected to achieve, we are rarely exposed to real failure. Therefore, we don’t get the chance to develop mechanisms and tools to cope with it and overcome it. Such was Rocky’s case. He was told he’d be great. He was a natural talent. Great expectations were placed upon him. But nobody ever told him that failure is the only road to success. He had never had his nose busted, which means he had never attempted something that carried a serious risk of failure. He had played it safe and as a result he got stuck in a life of quiet desperation. That’s why he didn’t know how to parse the golden opportunity that was flown in front of his nose. He was offered a chance of a lifetime to face against a champion and he still didn’t know what it meant. He had statistically no chance of winning, so why even bother?

Because if you don’t try, you will never know. The real failure is to deny the opportunity. Go. Get your nose busted. Get knocked out. Who cares? At least you’ll know you tried. But give it your best. That’s what I take from Rocky’s experience facing against Apollo Creed. You’re not a little boy any more, so you might be smart enough to know that you’re unlikely to win. But knowing your limitations doesn’t equate having a loser’s attitude. In fact, this is a lesson Rocky learns himself. The only way to find out where the line is, is to cross it. You realize your limits by running into them. And it’s fine. The real victory is getting up and going the distance. That’s all Rocky eventually realizes: in life we shouldn’t compete against an imaginary opponent or a bar set ridiculously high, but instead we should compete against ourselves. You win by developing the discipline to get up every morning and be better and stronger than you were the day before. You put your best foot forward and eventually you will climb those steps and raise your arms in a victorious gesture. All you need to do is go the distance. Don’t be afraid to get your nose busted and go the distance.

Get hit and keep moving forward

“But hold on”, you’ll say. “Am I supposed to look up to a man who ended up a shitty father? Who never listened to Adrian? Who could be manipulated into trouble? Who got swindled out of all of his cash? Twice?”

Yes. You should. Because – fictitious as he is – Rocky Balboa is just a man. He makes mistakes. We’re so brainwashed to think we should always aspire to greatness that we might not even account for a possibility we would do something wrong. And let’s be honest: it’s more likely than not that at some point in our lives we’ll do something we regret. After all, part of growing up is also realizing that nobody – your parents, teachers, anyone – has life figured out. We are all winging it and it is important to develop the tools to deal with failure and regret. You will make bad decisions in life. You will hurt your partner one way or another. You will hurt your kids too. On top of mitigating the severity of our mistakes, which we should always do, we could learn a thing or two from Rocky in this regard as well, because he was fully aware of his fallibility. He would always crawl back to Adrian on his hands and knees and beg for forgiveness. And he eventually did reconcile with his son, whom he had neglected in the past.

This isn’t an excuse or a get-out-of-jail-free card, though. Rocky paid for his missteps and so will you. Therefore, learn from Rocky’s mistakes so you don’t have to make them. Pay attention to your kids and be a part of their lives. Sure, be passionate about what you do, but make sure to communicate to your partner how important it is for you to pursue what you love. Make sure they are your rock in all this. They’ll understand. If it’s thirty minutes before bed time spent practicing scales on your ukulele, or a Sunday out cycling. They’ll get it. Chances are they’ll want to be a part of your journey, too. But it’s important to tell them. Tell your Adrian you need to fight. Tell her when you’re unsure, too. She’ll probably tell you off when you need to be told off. What is important is that you listen. Listen and react. If you mess up, extend an olive branch. Reconcile. Be a force for good in your own immediate environment. It’s never too late. Fallible as he was, Rocky’s heart was always in the right place. He would always look out for Paulie and Adrian, and later for Marie and Adonis. This fundamental attitude bolstered his core strength to deal with failure. That’s partly why he was able to get hit and kept moving forward, because he was doing what he was doing for the right reasons.

Time’s undefeated

So, Rocky teaches us to go the distance and to not be afraid to get our noses busted because failing is part of the journey. But what’s the endgame? What’s success? When do we stop? Well… we don’t. Life is not a game with a clearly defined winning conditions, even if looking at folks like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk might suggest otherwise. The truth is, most of us are not like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk who are both exceptionally talented and had great luck at key moments of their lives. Instead, many of us might find some aspects of our life journey in Rocky’s arc. Therefore, assuming a more holistic perspective over the series we will immediately understand that reaching a career pinnacle is not a goal but a pit stop in the odyssey that is life. I think we can all safely agree that winning a championship belt wasn’t an endpoint for Rocky’s journey. Beating Mr T wasn’t either. Avenging Apollo’s death and defeating Ivan Drago? Same deal. That’s because even if you reach the summit, you still have to wake up the next day and continue with your life. Credit’s don’t roll if and when you finally get to where you want to be. Little Billy, now grown-ass William, eventually finds out that becoming an astronaut is only the beginning. And flying to the moon ain’t the end either.

Therefore, it is imperative to remember that our journey is equally if not more about the people we take along with us, as it is about the milestones we set for ourselves. In fact, the milestones themselves don’t matter anyway and there’s only a finite number of them we can realistically set before we shuffle off this mortal coil or become too tired to pursue them. After all, time’s undefeated. It takes everybody out and it is crucial we understand that our own mortality plays an important part in our life experience. On one hand it is a powerful motivational tool and on the other it is a suppressor of dreams. (Why should I care about going the distance and doing all that if I die at the end of it anyway?)

Well, it’s never been about the destination but about getting you to move the right direction. At the end of the day, all your achievements will become memories and building blocks of who you are, nothing more. It’s not even about leaving a legacy or a body of work posterity can admire. Our journey as men is an odyssey of discipline whose only tangible impact will be people we raise, inspire, or teach. Just as Rocky’s legacy will live in Adonis Creed, our own will live in our children, surviving partners and others who we brushed shoulders against.

Take no cheap shots

As you may imagine, there’s a lot you can take from Rocky’s experience and quite a few ‘rocky-isms’ could serve as tentpoles of a motivational speech. And indeed they should because I believe that men need idols like Rocky. As we outgrow our lofty childhood dreams and realize that life ain’t that easy, it’s important not to shock ourselves into immobility, which is something we do too often. And it turns out that Rocky Balboa might have some answers for you if you find yourself stuck in a rut, overwhelmed with life’s frustrations or facing a colossal mid-life crisis. That’s how I found Rocky. Even though I had seen Rocky and Rocky II as a youngster, I watched all those movies as a man in his thirties; and a man who saw a reflection of himself in some aspects of Rocky’s experience. Re-orienting my life around these simple tenets of discipline and embrace of failure as a learning tool was what helped me out of my own predicament.

Therefore, I honestly believe that every man should be gifted a Rocky box set for his thirtieth birthday. Forget Superman and The Flash. Be like Rocky. Put your best foot forward. Go the distance. Get your nose busted and your noggin bruised. It’s OK to fail as long as you do your best. But don’t take no cheap shots. Make tomorrow-you better than today-you. Accolades don’t matter. People matter. Frankly, if you watch these movies closely, you’ll find treasure troves of fundamental advice in there. I sure do every time I re-watch them.

And as an added bonus, it doesn’t hurt that all these movies are great. Even Rocky V, warts and all, has its merits. So, go forth, get up at the crack of dawn, down six raw eggs and run like the wind. You will hear the music in your ears, I promise.

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