How Superheroes Lie to You About Building Self-Confidence

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Red underoos on the outside of blue tights are so 1938.
Red underoos on the outside of blue tights are so 1938

Looking back, Superman kind of fucked me up.

It’s a little embarrassing to say, but few influences affected my conception of personal development and self-confidence as profoundly as a fictional alien who wears his underwear on the outside of his spandex.

I should probably explain.

As a kid (and teenager… and adult…) I loved superheroes. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Avengers, the Justice League—I immersed myself in all of them and spent countless hours reading, watching, playing and fantasizing about their stories.

And while I still wait with bated breath for each and every new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the DC Extended Universe, not so much), it was only recently that I started to realize that this obsession with the superhero archetype almost certainly slowed down my progress in building self-confidence.

Fuck You, Phone Booth!

Clark Kent enters, and emerges Superman; I enter and emerge embarrassed that I lost my iPhone
Clark Kent enters, and emerges Superman; I enter and emerge embarrassed that I lost my iPhone

The problem, I’ve come to realize, is this: super heroes may have all manner of special powers and amazing abilities, but the greatest fiction in comic books and their ensuing adaptations is that, in all but a few cases, our heroes never have to work for the thing that makes them super.

Think about it. All heroes have an origin story, and for so many of the most popular icons of all time, that story involves them being suddenly imbued with amazing powers.

A young Kansas farm boy realizes one day that he has super strength, among a host of other abilities, and spends the rest of his life transitioning – in an instant! (and for some reason, in a phone booth) – between beta male Clark Kent and the ultimate alpha male, Superman.

Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider and suddenly gains superpowers, a razor sharp wit, increased confidence and, eventually, a smoking hot girlfriend. (Come to think of it, the smoking hot girlfriend was also a recurring and probably unhelpful comic book trope.)

Barry Allen gets struck by lightning while in his lab and becomes the Flash. Hal Jordan finds an alien ring (or it finds him) and becomes the Green Lantern. The Fantastic Four get zapped by some cosmic rays and become doomed cinematically fantastic. And scrawny Steve Rogers gets injected with a super soldier serum and becomes this guy overnight.

I could go on, but you get the point.


For a young and impressionable kid seeking to live up to the lofty ideals of such iconic figures that they literally have superlatives in their names, the message was clear: going from zero to hero is not only possible, but easy, at least for the right people.

A lifetime of superhero fanship convinced me of the myth that super-status can be easily achieved – if only I could stumble upon that perfect, magic formula.

(Before I go on, a quick aside: Bruce Wayne was of course one obvious exception to this rule; he had to work his ass off to become Batman. But since he was frequently portrayed as someone with severe issues surrounding relationships, violence and mental health in general, I think it’s fair to say that the comics didn’t exactly portray doing it the hard way as preferable.)

Slowly but Surely

(Don’t call me Shirley)

No one was sadder than Tobey to find out that super powers aren't real.
No one was sadder than Tobey to find out that super powers aren’t real

Unfortunately for me, you and everyone else living here in the non-Marvel, non-DC and non-cinematic universe, that’s just not how it works.

After countless hours spent experimenting with radiation and arachnid bites to try and emulate my heroes, I can definitively confirm two things:

1. There is no quick fix or magic formula that’s going to turn you into a superhero – or super athlete, super socializer, super achiever or super anything – overnight.

2. My mom really does not like it when people put spiders in the microwave.

Learning to get over this misimpression took time, patience, maturity and, in the case of my mom’s microwave, a good all-purpose cleaner and a coarse sponge. On the one hand, it was a tough pill to swallow – letting go of a long-held shibboleth is never easy, no matter how much fun that word is to say.

But on the other hand, one of the greatest and most liberating realizations in my life came when I recognized that the way to improve in any endeavor – whether you’re trying to change your mindset, your body shape, your wardrobe or achieve literally any other task – is to do so gradually, step-by-step. Slowly, but surely.

The way to improve in any endeavor is to do so gradually, step-by-step. Slowly, but surely.

Let me give you an example.

Artist's interpretation
Artist’s interpretation

When I was 18 years old, I could have generously been described as “skinny,” though in my own mind I was more likely to use the word “scrawny.” At 5’9”, I weighed about 140 lb, soaking wet.

I wasn’t exactly thrilled with this state of affairs, especially since my super-heroic idols all had bodies of bulging muscle that somehow allowed them to make skin-tight spandex look cool. (Yet another unrealistic standard set for me at a young age – someone should really write a letter to Marvel and DC…)

So when I got to university and had access to the weight room on campus, I bought a bodybuilding magazine and decided I would start myself on a workout plan.

I was a pretty disciplined kid, so I figured that if I started at the beginning of the semester in September and kept at it for a couple of months, I’d be jacked by the time I went home for Christmas.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Imagine my dismay when after four months of steady workouts, I became somewhat more toned, but not at all bigger or stronger. In fact, because I was exercising regularly for the first time in my life, I may have actually lost weight!

Because I was in university at the time, the message didn’t immediately sink into my brain, which at the time was concerned primarily with greasy food, booze and girls, though not necessarily in that order.

But what began as a four-month plan turned into a year-long one, and then a years-long one, and now one that I’ve been working at for more than a decade. (Sweet Christmas, I’m old.)

It may have taken awhile to sink in but, eventually I learned that in fitness, as in any endeavor that’s worth a damn, there’s simply no such thing as a quick fix.

Incrementally but Undeniably

Much to the chagrin of every skinny guy ever, it turns out building muscle has a lot more to do with diet than with weights

A few years after graduating I landed a job editing a fitness magazine, where I was introduced to concepts like proper form, recovery time and most crucially, the all-important role that nutrition plays in shaping your body.

I came to realize that, yes, it really was possible for me to build muscle and change my body by going to the gym, but it wasn’t going to happen over night, over a semester or even over a year.

Real change – especially lasting change – only comes from frequent and repeated effort.

After topping out at 180 lb a few years ago, today I weigh about 170 lb, a weight I still have to work hard to maintain with a hearty diet and frequent workouts.

It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been damn rewarding, and it’s taught me that anything in life worth doing is worth doing right: slowly but surely, incrementally but undeniably.

If you can't fly or stick to walls you can still reach great heights—one rung at a time. (Boom. Analogy.)
If you can’t fly or stick to walls you can still reach great heights—one rung at a time (Boom. Analogy.)

Nowadays any time I take up a new hobby or try to adopt a new habit, I keep my expectations in check – and this increased perspective has had profound results on my confidence.

I’m not going to be good at something the first time I try it, and probably not even the first 10 times I try it, and that’s totally OK.

As long as I keep trying it, keep improving bit by bit, then I know I’ll be better on my 10th attempt than I was on my first. And if I really keep at it, I might even master it eventually.

And the best part is that this principle holds true for pretty much everything.

Except microwaving spiders—I really cannot stress enough how much you should just not do that.

(Sorry again, mom!)

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About Dave Bowden

Dave Bowden

Irreverent Gent founder Dave Bowden is a style blogger whose advice on how to look good and live well has been featured in some of the world’s most trusted publications, including New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider and more.

When not obsessing over style and self-improvement, he can usually be found spending time with his wonderful wife and son, indulging in a hoppy craft beer, or sobbing over the woeful state of Toronto's sports teams.

Check out Dave's Style Story to find out how a chance encounter with his friend's step-dad taught him the value of looking good and living well. (Don't worry—it's less creepy than it sounds!)

2 thoughts on “How Superheroes Lie to You About Building Self-Confidence”

    • Thanks Sam! Being publicly introspective like this can be uncomfortable, but I find that talking about this stuff openly is the best way to work through it and connect with other guys who feel the same way.

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