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How to Choose a Role Model

We are a species that depends on one another for learning, self-worth, emulation, connection, safety, transferring ideas and stories, and collaboration.

As the iconic designer Paula Scher said,

We can pick our teachers and we can pick our friends and we can pick the books we read and the music we listen to and the movies we see, et cetera. You are the mashup of what you let into your life.

Within this mashup is something profoundly important yet easily ignored: the conscious adoption of a hero/heroine in our lives. This figure represents our utmost ideals, a standard to which we’re pushed to be better, and that can be leveraged both a compass and catalyst throughout our lives.

In a culture that prides itself on individuality, this can be easily ignored. The notion of behaving like someone else is already something we do, whether we’re conscious of it or not. As Matthew Lieberman said in Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, “The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.”

It makes me wonder — who dealt with more social anxiety: our current era or the ones in the past?

I think it’s the former. We have far more channels like social media that allow us to look into the lives of others, which give us more examples to use for comparison. Fifty years ago, social anxiety was created by media like television, newspapers, and radio advertisements. Good, hearty families purchase cleaning products like this. Two hundred years before that, all people had was their family and community. If no one around you was rich and you weren’t told stories of lavish living, then there was nothing to envy.

We live in a time where, without proper guidance and counseling, we can end up worshipping false heroes. You may be looking up to them because they’re popular, rich, and have a million followers on Instagram. Because we’re social animals, our culture has labeled that as success, when it’s nothing but vain, ephemeral metrics that will change. Most people will treat you differently knowing that you have 100,000 followers versus 100; it’s an irrational sense of public validation that unfortunately carries weight. But then again, we’re all weird.

The Roman philosopher Epictetus had a wonderful framework for how to choose a role model and why it’s important to have one. He said in The Art of Living

One of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate. If you have the opportunity to meet with an important person, don’t be nervous. Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout. At the same time, just because you are meeting a person of great merit doesn’t mean you should be overly awed. People are just people, regardless of their talent or influence.

Seneca had a similar thought:

Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. This is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.

Young, aspiring athletes look up to professionals to study their movements, habits, and their day-to-day rituals. Artists examine the living and the dead for inspiration and ideas. What we’re ultimately great at is mirroring what we see and translating that through our own actions.

Paula Scher was right — we are each a mashup of what we let into our lives. More than ever, we own the responsibility to be conscious of what we let in because it shapes who we become. Without being conscious of our role models and aspirations, we will latch onto anything shiny and popular, failing to question the ethics or virtues that lie behind what only appears to be good or successful.

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