As kids, much of what we do is shaped by what we see others do around us. We’re social beings and, as such, we look for role models to guide our behavior.
Our initial role models as kids are often our parents. Once we start going to school our friends might also become role models. And as we grow older, we acquire domain-specific role models (a businessperson if we’re looking to do business, a politician if we’re looking to go into politics, an athlete if we’re looking to be an athlete, …).
Role models push us forward by setting the standard for what we need to do in order to achieve similar things as our role models.
However, role models also constrain us, and they do so in two ways.
First, with strengths come weaknesses. It can be challenging to see the weaknesses of someone you see as a role model, so it’s tempting to simply mimic all that they do. If we don’t differentiate between their good and bad habits, although we may end up like them, we might not actually like where we end up.
Second, if we do the same things as our role models, at best we will get the same results. There will be a cap on what we can do set by what our role model was able to do by taking the same actions. In order to do better than them, we need to do something different.
This isn’t to say that role models aren’t useful. They are. But there is a better approach.
In addition to having role models to inspire us, we should look to mold our own characters and define our own actions so as to surpass our role models. This is also what’s expected to happen given the arc of human progress, with each successive generation surpassing their prior.
And to do so, we need to ask ourselves what we would do if we were the role model. The answer will likely reflect a lot of what our current role models do. However, it will also add some new characteristics and perhaps subtract some harmful ones which exist in our current role models.
The result will hopefully be a role model that improves on existing ones. So if you eventually do become the role model that you’ve outlined and new generations inevitably start to mimic you, they have something even better to build on.
Also published on Medium.