Everybody and their grandma knows the origin story of Batman: rich kid, parents shot, becomes Batman. Roll credits. In fact, Batman’s origin is so well-known that people actually get angry when a Batman origin story is included in a Batman movie.
However, I want to talk about a different origin story. One which is, in my opinion, much more interesting and applicable to the rest of us. Instead of focusing on what triggered Bruce Wayne to become Batman, I want to talk about the path he took to actually become Batman.
This part is often glossed over: How did Bruce go from a little kid crying in the alley to being a hulking badass ninja who can take down Superman (multiple times)? How did that path look like? What can we learn from it?
Not only is this origin much more interesting to explore, it can teach you a lot about improving your own life.
Defining Batman: The Man Beneath the Mask
Despite what most people think, Bruce Wayne didn’t just snap, decide to dress up in a bat costume and fight criminals. When you put it like that, he sounds ridiculous.
The journey to becoming Batman is often the least explored part of Batman’s origin. There isn’t a single, definitive story arc but the main idea is that Bruce decided to push himself to the peak of human strength.
Not only physical strength but psychological as well.
He sought out the world’s best performers, scientists, and criminals so he can perfect himself in every possible way. That is, in every way he believed to be useful.
Here is a short overview of Batman’s journey:
- Learned and studied everything on his own that he could; leaves Gotham.
- Attended the world’s most popular Universities (few semesters each).
- Trained with world-class martial artists, illusionists, escape artists, chemists, detectives, forensic experts, and engineers.
- Joined FBI; quit after realizing he only learned how to “shuffle papers”.
- Trained with assassins, thieves, mystics, and even more martial artists.
- Came back to Gotham.
All this training happened within a span of about a decade. Notice something?
No Batman. No costume, no gadgets, no Batcave. No bats, no vigilantism, no beating up criminals. He is still just Bruce Wayne.
Bruce Wayne became Batman by learning, practicing, and improving himself, consistently, for over ten years.
And after those ten years, he had jsut gotten to the point of even thinking he is good enough to maybe become Batman. This wasn’t a change that happened overnight. In fact, there are several things I’d like to highlight here:
- He knew he wanted to fight crime but didn’t know how.
- He had a strategy but he constantly changed and adapted.
- He worked with people he hates (criminals) so he can fight crime better.
In other words: His methods changed, his paths changed, and he was forced to do things he doesn’t like so he can get the necessary experience and knowledge.
Now think about yourself. You probably feel like you’re not sure what the future holds. You’re not sure of your life purpose or how to set “correct” goals. You probably work a job you don’t enjoy or work for a boss you don’t like.
Batman was the same. Only there is one big difference that made him who he is in the end.
Batman and trauma: how superheroes are born
The core of any superhero origin story is trauma. However, trauma is only used as a starting point. All great villains are also born from trauma. In fact, great heroes and great villains are surprisingly similar, with only one clear difference:
SIMILARITY: Determination (caring deeply about something)
DIFFERENCE: Values (what they care so deeply about)
Heroes and villains are often driven the same way, but their values decide how they will use their powers and motivation.
Heroes are more selfless and care about others, while villains are more selfish and care about themselves (revenge or personal gain). However, it is not uncommon for characters to switch their values and, as such, switch between hero and villain. Think Deadpool, Harvey Dent, or Magneto.
This is the reason villains and heroes can often turn into anti-heroes. In their core, the two are very similar. This doesn’t apply to every character but the more a character is determined, the more they are interesting.
Tell me, who is more interesting?
- Batman and Spiderman or Superman and Hulk?
- Joker and Thanos or General Zod and Red Skull?
The more interesting the backstory, the greater the determination, the greater the character — be it a hero or a villain. The less we can relate to or understand the character’s motivations, the less we will be interested in them.
Back to Batman. What are the core ideas that make the character so interesting?
- Haunted by his parents’ deaths; doesn’t want others to experience the same pain.
- Wants to become better; never wants to feel powerless in the face of danger again.
- Helping innocents; save them, support them, make them feel safe.
- Helping criminals (including Joker). He wants to rehabilitate them rather than kill them.
Even though his values were growing over time, he was determined from the start. He didn’t know exactly how his life would look like; he didn’t think about a certain lifestyle or a specific path he would follow. Nobody can know this for sure.
As author Mark Manson put it: “90% of your plans are going to fail no matter what you do. Get used to it. It’s not because we’re poor planners, it’s because there are simply too many unknowns.”
The same way, Bruce didn’t cry about the world not being fair or how it doesn’t make sense. At first, maybe. But in the end, he was forced to accept the harsh reality of life: “My parents were killed for no reason. Coincidence. No deep reason or meaning.”
Life is oftentimes unfair. Sometimes, things happen to us for no reason and without justification. You cannot influence or control everything in life — and you need to accept this.
Once you do that, you can focus on the things you actually can control. This is exactly what Batman did.
- Batman can’t influence chance and random events… but he can understand the criminal mind and use that knowledge to fight crime. This helps him solve crimes and predict behavior.
- Batman can’t pick his struggles… but he can prepare himself in all possible ways so he is able to tackle anybody or anything that comes his way.
- Batman can’t help everybody… but the more capable he is, the more people he can help. The more effort he puts in, the greater the result he will achieve.
All of these lessons can be applied to you as well.
Becoming Batman: How you can train and improve like the dark knight
You’ve probably heard of Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy that focused on separating what you can control from what you can’t control.
Just like progressive overload is the foundation for exercise training, this ancient principle is the foundation for mindset training and self-improvement.
PRINCIPLE A: Accept what you cannot change. This goes beyond the limitation of the physical world; in fact, it mostly focuses on the immaterial. Accept cognitive biases that all humans have. Accept the psychological limitations and what happens when we go over them. Accept the good and the bad in the world so you can determine the best course of action.
PRINCIPLE B: Change yourself. Even if you want to change the world, you have to change yourself first. Dr. Jordan Peterson called this idea “cleaning your room“, in a sense that you need to get your room in order (literally and figuratively) before you can criticize anybody else.
Based on this approach, here are the lesson you can learn from the way Batman has tackled self-improvement.
1. Choose Your Values
Determine your own values and make sure you use quality traits and notions to guide you through life. When you have to make a decision — a big one or just a small one — it will be much easier to choose the correct path. Just follow your values.
Don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t be a dick. Be the goddamn Batman.
2. Develop Your Skills
The reason Batman is so widely-adored is that… he’s a total badass.
He has no superpowers, yet he is one the most fearsome, omnipresent, and intimidating characters of the entire DC Universe (hell, Marvel too). He is familiar with almost any language, can sneak up on Superman, kill a living god, and is rightfully named The World’s Greatest Detective.
Batman focused on developing skills that would come in handy to fight crime. You, on the other hand, probably don’t want to be a detective, so your skillset is going to be entirely different.
No matter which field you choose, aim to be the best there ever was.
Not the best in your hometown, not the best in the world, but the best there ever was. Learn everything you can use, improve your skills, and be ready to face anything. In other words, be the goddamn Batman.
3. Be Patient
Even in the highly fictional world of comic books, becoming the best doesn’t happen overnight. It took Batman over ten years to get the necessary skills… and that was before he gained any field experience as Batman.
In fact, when Bruce came home after this decade-long journey, this is what he said:
I am not ready. I have the means, the skill, but something’s missing. I have to wait.— Batman, Batman: Year One
But the one difference that Batman has — that allows him to always have an edge and always end up on top — is that he never gives up. In fact, this is often noted as his superpower. He is willing to fight for 28 hours in a row just because he refuses to go against his values. He is willing to try and try again, never straying from his path.
The lesson? Stand for your values. Always keep improving and never give up. This type of advice sounds generic and useless, I know. You’ve heard it a million times already. So let me finish on another note, one I hope will stick with you:
Don’t be like everybody else. Be like Batman.
Want to become real-life Batman? You should check out the book Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience E. Paul Zehr. He breaks down a realistic way you could become Batman.
This article is part of a series on Batman. Check out other Batman Lessons on dealing with pain and loss and being human.