In second grade when the teacher asked us to choose a role-model, my 8 year old brain decided that my best friend Neil would be the ideal person to emulate. My parents and teacher encouraged me to, “Pick someone you look up to and want to be like someday.” After careful deliberation I initially picked Tiger Woods but later decided on my local golf pro. I figured they couldn’t argue with the small town connection.
Turns out my thought process for choosing a role model was pretty astute for my age. The New York Times recently published a story arguing that second best is more practical when choosing a role model. Meaning, the person at the top may not inspire drive and determination as much as feelings of inadequacy.
"...we may do better to look to solid workers who aren’t as flashy as those at the top, but consistently perform well." - Alina Tugend, New York Times
What role does a role model play and what purpose do they serve?
A role model is a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated. LeBron James is probably the hero to many aspiring basketball players just as Bill Gates is the pinnacle of perfection when it comes to computers and technology. We as humans subconsciously emulate people that we aspire to be like. Remember middle school and what you thought when you saw the high schoolers walk past? It is a healthy and natural thing to have people in our lives we look to for advice and motivation.
"People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy." -Oliver Goldsmith
A role model serves in the same way masters served apprentices in the day of Benjamin Franklin. Although through a more formal relationship, the apprentice would look to the master for instruction and teaching.
Looking towards the example of an apprentice/ master relationship, it is much more practical to pick a role model that you can have direct contact with. I looked to Tiger Woods as a dream but my local golf pro was a tangible person that was able to give me direct instruction. The person at the top may have climbed the ladder easily and therefore isn’t apt at giving instruction or advice. Their experience may be very different from yours as a person who will need to work very hard to accomplish their goals. Look to someone who's circumstance is similar to yours. The person lower down the rung may not be the best of the best, but they’re consistent and hard working. Ultimately, that is someone worth emulating.
Realistically, I will never become a Tiger Woods, Lebron James or Bill Gates. I am happy working hard and looking to people in my field that are in positions I can strive toward. With this mentality a role model can change with circumstance. When a goal is achieved it should replaced by a new one. The problem with selecting a role model at the very top is it’s not easy to see progress and therefore is perceived to be a lack of accomplishment.
In one study of women’s role models, it was found that more often than not, pictures of highly influential women were found to give women a sense of inadequacy rather than inspiration.
The New York Times followed up with this regarding the study,
“There is an interesting twist: in another experiment, some participants were shown women who were somewhat, but not highly, successful, like a local news reporter. These women leaders elicited more positive responses, the paper stated, because they were not seen as exceptions.”
It’s not to say that this is a hard a fast rule for all women or to say that the same effect doesn’t exist in men. Regardless of gender, it is a good rule to ‘shop local’ when looking for role models.
Be a good role model. If someone reaches out to you for support, be sure to pay it forward.
Tugend, Alina. "Sometimes Second-Best Makes a Better Role Model." The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
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