In a confusing world that forces us to curb our natural behaviors, we often look to exemplars (i.e. role models) to facilitate and accelerate the decision making process. Those exemplars aren’t participants in the process (obviously, we don’t have Warren Buffet, Jack Ma, or Mother Theresa on speed dial) but they influence our decisions in an indirect way. We reflect on our beliefs about these exemplars, asking questions such as What Would ____ Do? and allowing ourselves to be guided by the imagined response to a similar scenario. There are different kinds of exemplars, and here are a few examples:
Role model: A person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others.
Idol: (colloquial usage) an image of a person with an ethereal, god-like, or transcendent status to which worship is addressed.
Prophet: e.g. Jesus, Mohammad, Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Lao Zu, Confucius, etc.
Moral saint: a moral philosophy term coined by Susan Wolf who says, “By moral saint I mean a person whose every action is as morally good as possible, a person, that is, who is as morally worthy as can be.” Someone who is seen to always do the right thing.
What all of these varieties of exemplars have in common is their embodiment of a recognizable human excellence of some kind, be it a wisdom, perfection or qualification. Regardless of the area of excellence (whether it be a virtue, entrepreneurship, altruism, or some skill), the exemplar also embodies auxiliary virtues of humility, trustworthiness, and authenticity. A successful entrepreneur who stole his business idea, for example, isn’t chosen as a role model; rather, we choose the entrepreneur who makes an original product. And the prophet who espouses his own greatness is dismissed as an ego-maniac; instead, we emulate the soft-spoken, humble holy man.
A Functional Definition
As someone who aims to make philosophy practical, I prefer functional definitions that cite relevant features in relation to the reader herself – this is more relatable than an abstract definition. A functional definition of a role model could be:
- A famous person whose wisdom or “vibe” we channel in order to make ourselves become a “better” person
- A person – or an idealized image of someone – to whom we feel emotional attachment based on the emotion of awe
- A person whose image, person, or words we regularly and deliberately encounter, who represents the ideals we find attractive and “good”
- A source of hope; someone to reassure us of possibilities
What’s the Problem?
There are two contradictions in the way we use role models in life. They’re a little nuanced and difficult to wrap your head around:
- Alienation – Although a person uses role models to inspire the aim of being his best, he ends up chasing someone else’s best. Becoming the role model makes him feel less like himself, and therefore, less satisfied in life.
- Perfectionism – The more that a person respects his own imperfections as a vital part of himself, the happier he is and the less he desires to be perfect. The less he chases perfection, the closer he becomes to perfecting his life and happiness.
See, we often look to role models when we’re feeling inadequate, unworthy, and unlovable. We try to escape our mediocrity, how un-special we feel, how incompetent we are, and how un-praiseworthy our lives are. Most of us are totally average (news flash: that’s a lot of average people, since the world population is over 7 billion). In running from mediocrity towards the excellence we see in role models, we aim to find self-love. The thinking is: I admire/love So-and-so. She’s really exceptional in a way appeals to me. I want to be just like her, do what she does, look and sound like her. If I’m like her, I’ll finally be able to love myself, too. Underlying this conscious thought is an unconscious one: we think that somehow, by being just like our role models, we can find the same love for ourselves that we have for the role models.
When we feel unlovable and unworthy, we try really hard to be someone else. But when we’re trying to be someone else, we aren’t giving ourselves the opportunity to find our own path to greatness. And because we never get that opportunity to discover our own greatness, we’ll never know or love our true selves!
If we learn to accept our flawed, average selves, then we won’t want to become like our role models. When we love ourselves, we love TO BE ourselves instead. It’s only when we dislike ourselves that we try so hard to become these exceptional people.
Surely that’s not all that role models are, is it?
Of course, I’m not saying we always use role models in a self-loathing way. For example, I have photos and quotes of Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, and Thich Nhat Hanh on my desk and it’s not because I dislike myself. I admire these people as exemplars of character and intelligence, and I keep their photos and quotes nearby as a reminder of the virtues they exhibited.
But it’s important to look within yourself to see whether you emulate your role models in order to escape feelings of unlovable-ness and unworthiness. Ask yourself:
If I found out that I’m just average and will always be average, if I don’t achieve any fame or do anything great with my life, can I still love myself?
If your answer is, no – I feel a need to do something and be someone, then I recommend trying on the following mantra:
Maybe this time around, my purpose is to just be myself.
Try it on and see how it feels. It may or may not be true (I can’t possibly know my own future, let alone yours!) but the important thing is to repeat it until you can accept it. When you can do that, you can be sure that you’re loving your role models and loving yourself, too.
To be or not to be?
Realize that the people who are true role models for life are people who are happy, exemplars of human excellence, good people and good to other people, passionate and fulfilled, and financially successful (if that’s something that matters to you).
These are the exemplars we want to be like. These role models got to be role models not because they are/were trying to be anyone else; rather, they became their own most excellent selves.
The job of Steve Jobs was already filled – by Steve Jobs.
The job of Gandhi was already filled – by Gandhi.
What this realization means for the rest of us is that even if you want to become a role model, to exude excellence, or to be great or famous, your job is really to find yourself first and accept whoever you are. If you are meant to take an influential place in the world, it’s waiting for YOU as you are, as long as it takes and no matter what your name is. To be or not to be, that’s not a question. To be is an imperative; the only way to live is just to be yourself. Inscribed in the Temple of Delphi was the order: Know Thyself.
The Right Way to use Role Models
If your job is only to be yourself and accept yourself in all your mediocrity and with all your flaws, then should we forget the practice of having role models altogether? Please don’t misunderstand my point – I think role models can still be useful, but not if they’re an escape from the task of self-acceptance.
What positive things can role models do for us:
- Provide easily recognizable examples of excellence, which provide a starting point for the imagination. By seeing how particular goals can manifest in the world, we open our minds to imagine possibilities that suit our specific situation.
- Develop sensitivity to excellence by developing feelings of awe and admiration. To feel reverence is a very powerful, motivating, and transcendent feeling.
- Provide hope. If we’re experiencing difficulties, it can be useful to find someone who overcame their own struggles and let that serve as reassurance that all can be overcome. If you’re passionate about justice, then it can be helpful to recognize the sacrifices made in the name of justice and see that the outcome of the adversity was worth it.
To get the most out of having role models, we must do some analysis to abstract the values and virtues that the role model embodies; thereby, we can make those values and virtues our aim, rather than being distracted by the situational particulars and appearance of our role model. Recognize what things YOU find attractive and “good” and embody that abstract value in your own way; don’t aim to be the role model him/herself. For example, one of my role models is MLK Jr. – I aim to exhibit the values of justice and peace in my personal life, job, and relationships. Obviously, this is much different than how MLK Jr.’s life looked!
You can also still reflect upon how role models would act (e.g. WWJD?), but the key question to ask yourself when using a role model for reflection is – Does doing what s/he would do make me feel more like myself? Does acting like her make me feel more like myself? Does thinking the thoughts that he would think make me feel more like myself?
A role model can help you be your own kind of excellent,
but only if it makes you feel more like yourself.
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