“Flight versus invisibility? This question is only for you. Whichever you pick, you’ll be the only person in the world to have that particular superpower. You can’t have both. Which do you choose?”
The question’s from John Hodgman. He’s an American author and performer, and a little while back he decided that he needed a more interesting opening gambit at parties and weddings than the standard questions about where you live and work. Sure enough, he found that for most people having to choose between two superpowers opened up a passionate and divisive topic of debate.
Let’s be honest, who hasn’t thought about a new world reality in which we get to pick and choose our superhero qualities? Yet what was most interesting about this thought experiment was not so much which superpower people chose, but what they planned to do with it.
No heroics here – the majority of people’s ambitions were mundane, even bordering on criminal. People said they’d use their invisibility to steal cashmere sweaters from Barneys, or fly to stop paying hand over fist for plane tickets. One guy said he would use his superpower wings to go to Paris – he’d be ‘Going to Paris Man’.
As John says: “’Going to Paris Man’ is not a superhero. And I have to say this drove me a little crazy. We are, after all, talking about superpowers. Why not take down organised crime, bring hope to the hopeless, swear vengeance on the underworld, if only a little bit?”
Let me confess. I chose flight – but my reason? To have total and uninhibited control over my travel – no more commuting in people’s armpits for me. Which means my superpower makes me just as anodyne as the man flying to Paris. I’m ‘Beat the Commute Woman’. I had to sit and think awhile on that revelation about myself.
So when John posed some heroic scenarios for people to consider, like fighting terrorists, I was struck by how mortal they suddenly found themselves.
We may have been brought up on a diet of comic strip action heroes and blockbuster moments that showcase how great power comes with great responsibility, but when push comes to shove it seems that the very idea of having superpowers to do super things is a burden most of us can’t even contemplate carrying.
And then I got it – we don’t need superpowers to save the world. We don’t need to be Superman, or Cat Woman, or the Avengers. It is within the mundane, grinding churn of our lives that we can – and will – make the difference. It is the very act of shifting good behaviour from an impossible fantasy to a daily reality that will save our world. Superman and Cat Woman can inspire us, but Malala Yousafzai or Craig Kielburger of Free the Children and many others like them don’t possess any special skills that the rest of us don’t.
“It is the very act of shifting good behaviour from an impossible fantasy to a daily reality that will save our world.”
And when I think about it like that, I realise that it’s ok if I want to use my superpower of flight to beat the commute, because I’ll continue to use the rest of my day – with my two feet on the ground – making the changes I wish to see in the world.
John reached his own conclusions too, but I take comfort in knowing that the agonising choice between flight and invisibility is not, after all, a question about what kind of person you would be with those superpowers, but who you are without them.
Listen to John talk about the experiment on This American Life.
My article first ran on virgin.com