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Role Models

by on September 12, 2019

Role Models

by Marco M. Pardi

There is much difference between imitating a good man and counterfeiting him.” Benjamin Franklin. Poor Richard’s Almanac. 1738

We copy when we lack the inclination, the ability, or the time to work out an independent solution.” Eric Hoffer. The True Believer. 1951

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

Social science and developmental psychology text books emphasis the importance of role models in bringing a child to maturity. The emphasis seems to be on characteristics of the person more than on the requirements of the role that person is in. Thus, we are left in the dark about why that person is in that role, what they feel about it, and what they might otherwise have chosen to do. The overall impression is that the role is of a given, unquestionable validity and importance while the person is admirable only to the extent they are able to fit themselves to the role and accept it. We are encouraged to emulate subservience. Fitting in, they call it. “Getting with the program.”

I was quite fortunate. I had no role models while growing up. This was partly aided by having a brother three and a half years older who was diametrically opposite from me, or I from him. Family, family friends, and teachers voiced to me a never ending litany of “Why can’t you be like (him)? When will you settle down and be like (him)?” No one seemed to get it: I was my own person. I had internalized no one else’s measures and standards of success. A helpful fact of genetics was that no one looking at us would take us for brothers.

So, I completely missed that supposedly normal developmental phase of fixating on an older male and deciding I wanted to be “just like him”. An English cleric, Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832) coined the saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. That may be, but carried too far it is the surest way to arrested development. Unchecked, it can even damage the ability to form relationships once someone is moving into what we would normally consider maturity.

For example, while in college in the 1960’s I knew a young man about to graduate. He intended to become a high school history teacher and was quite serious about his mastery of his given subject. Often he spoke of his concern for the high school kids growing up in the era of the worsening Viet-Nam war. He was also quite serious and thoughtful about his relationship to the young woman he intended to marry after graduation and acceptance into a teaching position. She was a very nice, well grounded young woman also graduating with a teaching career in mind.

Then something no one foresaw developed. Bond, James Bond. Sean Connery exploded onto the big screen in a series of “secret agent” films, glamorizing a completely fictitious and silly role, casual sex with an abundance of attractive women, a bar tab exceeding a high school teacher’s yearly income, and a license to kill. Then we suddenly realized our young man was an exact, and I mean exact image of Sean Connery – except that Connery was over one foot taller.

Suddenly what had been his studious afternoons with his fiancee, both of them reading educational materials and writing papers, became marathons of listening to musical soundtracks of Bond films while drinking himself into a solitary stupor on his apartment floor. He and I each lived in off campus housing. On his occasional visits to my rented house he knew I had some handguns, supposedly for sport. He asked me to help him pick one for himself and help him get it. I refused.

I don’t know what became of him. Many would say this was simply “a phase” in his development and would pass. His potential marriage was on very shaky ground. But I wonder how much of his fantasy he carried into the classroom, if he got there. I’m sure every reader can think of someone with a similar profile.

Finding yourself can be surprising; expressing yourself even more so. And herein lies a potentially disabling problem, especially for those in the workforce. That often heard request, said in “jest”, “Tell us what you really think” can be an invitation to career suicide. Some years ago the Christian fundamentalist crowd tried to popularize WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? Leaving aside the utter simple-mindedness of such a question we can still understand its logic: Jesus is, presumably, the role model. You should divine what this imaginary role model would do in a given situation and emulate it as best you can. Of course, the presumption is that others involved in the situation share exactly the same fantasy of Jesus and will therefore admire your adherence to the approved behavior/expressed thought, etc. That is, you won’t get crucified. Or, perhaps Neville Chamberlain is your role model, and you acquiesce to achieve “Peace in our time”.

But is either of these models the real you, and is it possible anyone can be the real you? Ah, but then we parce the traits of our chosen model – and therefore select the likely reactions he or she would likely have to a situation. Years ago I briefly knew two Oscar winning actors (since deceased), an Englishman and a Welshman. I very much enjoyed the personas they cast in their films. But off-screen, with “their hair down”, their skills at character portrayal really became obvious. They were different from the roles for which they were most famous. Perhaps this is why we sometimes have difficulties understanding the “out of character” troubles these people often seem to have. Have any of your actions been described as “out of character”? Perhaps the person who said that really didn’t know you after all.

How about us then? Are we in a malleable “character” from one role – situation – to another? Of course we are. We perceive a situation, form an assessment, and select the persona we think most appropriate to it. I don’t act as a father the same way I did as a son. I’ve written previously of this.

What gets us into trouble, or at least causes trouble for us, is when people take the persona we employed in one situation and expect it to manifest in a completely different situation. And, to be fair, we sometimes do this ourselves. A professor who treats his family as if they were students in his classroom finds, sooner or later, he is not in fact communicating with his family. My advice to anyone who is tempted to see someone as a role model is: Get to know them as a person, in various situations. Then decide if they are worthy of your attention. Of course, that’s a bit deep for a child to understand. But given the way people vote for politicians, it’s a lesson that must be learned. Who would you favor as a role model for your children, Obama or Trump?

About 3,400 years ago Thucydides raised an interesting question: Do the events of history make a great leader, or do great leaders make the events of history? We could add, can a great leader be replicated? Many of us have found that, sooner or later, imitation goes against the grain, either our own or someone else’s. It “rings hollow”.

Often this is learned the hard way. Many of us remember the 1988 Vice-presidential debate in which Dan Quayle, a Republican senator, compared himself to John Kennedy. Lloyd Bentsen, a Democratic senator, replied, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. You’re, no Jack Kennedy.”

That should be a simple but effective reminder, if not warning, that role models serve limited purposes but if emulation is unchecked it can lead to disaster. Not just social embarrassment, but loss of the true self and what it is truly capable of.

In his book, Twilight of American Sanity, Allen Frances MD, professor emeritus and former Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University, cites statements made by Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations. Speaking of lessons learned from his wife, a psychoanalyst, Guterres says, “When two people are together they are not two but six. What each one is, what each one thinks he or she is, and what each one thinks the other is…………….One of the roles of the secretary-general when dealing with the different key actors in each scenario is to bring the six into two.”

We can greatly simplify this process, in fact prevent the need for it right from the start. Forget the role models. Ask, WWID: What Would I Do? I. Know it, Be it, Live it.

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16 Comments
  1. Too many people emulate what they see in movies and on television.

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  2. Thank you, AR. I agree. For years the problem did not seem that serious. But as our media technology has blossomed into so many forms it is hard to keep up with the various “role models” being presented in ever more vivid forms.

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  3. Role models of the weirdest sorts spring up in their thousands. Social media influencers do my head in, for example. Then again, we are all probably role models whether we know it or not.

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  4. Thank you, Rachel. Indeed, wittingly or not we are role models. When I was granted permission to view and analyze the internal workings of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I heard a man say, “God made me an alcoholic to be an example to my kids of what not to do.”

    No one could argue with that, but many seemed a bit nervous.

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  5. Mike Stamm permalink

    I don’t remember ever having one single role model I was determined to emulate. As it turns out, I’m a lot like my father in many ways, some good, some not so good…and not like him at all in other ways, which is sometimes good and sometimes not. (I told him several years before he died that I’d realized that I was a lot like him, which was *mostly* a good thing, and I think he was flattered.) But in any case, that result was entirely unintentional. The others that I’ve modeled my behavior on–usually for very short periods of time–have been, as far as I can remember, fictional characters…and by and large such do not make good role models. (It was years before I realized that James Bond was far from a good man, but I’d never had the temerity to try to emulate him anyway, in the guise of Sean Connery or anyone else. Well, except maybe Woody Allen.) Being yourself is, in the long run, the only way to go, difficult though that sometimes is…and it’s not as if you have any real choice, anyway.

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    • Thanks, Mike. That’s a practical and realistic outlook. I’m sure we can’t help a certain amount of mimicry, even if it is sometimes done in a mocking sort of way. But yes, we do need to encourage self discovery and discourage attempting to graft on some traits that don’t belong.

      Now I’m sitting here imagining you as Woody Allen – the humorous Allen.

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  6. Dana permalink

    Marco, “Know thyself” comes to mind. This has especially been true for me this year. Along with knowing myself are expressing and asserting myself. Reflecting on my life (what I can somewhat recall), I’ve rarely done either.

    Instead, I spent decades imitating others – mostly women – to fit in socially. Early childhood photos are telling.

    This Spring the “light bulb” went on at a company where I’m no longer employed. One of the core values is “Be yourself.” I began thinking about what that means as it applies to me both in and outside of the workplace. Being myself seemed to get me into trouble as a child. I was beaten up and bullied through sixth grade with nary a reason given. I was considered pretty, intellectually gifted, not overweight – but something was amiss that made me an easy target. It was probably around that time I stopped trying be the most authentic version of myself. Not sure who that is anymore, but I know she’s quirky and goofy, and I’ve always liked that side of me.

    It’s been exhausting imitating others. Even with romantic partners I was never myself. Boyfriend wears a white T and fatigues? Well then so must I. Fashion is imitation; style is personal. Just deciding what to purchase and wear for clothing now at 48 presents a style conundrum, but I’m hoping it will be fun.

    No one should be placed in the uncomfortable position of “role model.” As you know I’m supporting a candidate I feel has a great deal of integrity. But they’re only human, and only serve as a reminder to better myself. Traits we find admirable in others can also be found in countless other people. The same applies to you. While I’ve greatly admired you over the years, I work to keep you off the proverbial pedestal.

    I do find myself copying some of your writing style, such as “Greetings.” I love that! It’s so much more sincere and contemporary than “Dear.” It doesn’t feel like plagiarism when it’s just a term or two.

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    • Thank you, Dana. Yes, Know Thyself should be atop the board in every elementary classroom. Can’t see that happening, but maybe.

      You have been through a lot in life, probably more than most. I think you are among the least vulnerable to the siren calls of conformity and most likely to reject potential followers. The trap, of course, is loneliness but you have excelled even at handling that.

      I’m glad I’m not on a pedestal; my balance isn’t what it used to be. But, yes, offer greetings as you will. There are few things worse than calling someone Dear when they really are not.

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      • Dana permalink

        Marco, I can’t say that I’ve often conformed. One decision I made as a very young parent (barely 22, to be precise) stands out. All is not lost with that decision, and it’s been out of my hands for years now.

        However, imitating and conforming are different. I can wholeheartedly defend my opinions while still imitating social nuances.

        Sadly, imitating has led to behaviors such as “laughing” even when I’m uncomfortable. Increased self-awareness, especially when socially uncomfortable and awkward will help.

        Which brings me back to being myself at all times. Shedding decades of habits is no easy task.

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        • Thank you, Dana. As always, quite perceptive. Conformity is a heavy garment and imitation is a hollow bell.

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  7. I was fortunate enough to have two wonderful (although far from perfect) parents for role models as a child. Unfortunately, that left me feeling inadequate in that I was unable to imitate them. I spent a lot of time in my early years just trying to fit in with my peers, doing my best to be like them instead of getting to know who I really am, a unique and wonderful person (laughs!) But really, we should always be ourselves; everyone else is already taken.

    I also picked up a short list of superb teachers along the way; most of whom seemed to like who I was, and encouraged me to become who I could be. The problem with chosen “public figures” for role models is that all we really get to know of them is the mask they wear. So often, they have feet of clay; how many of our heroes have we seen fall off their pedestals and crumble to dust.

    My father was my mother’s shining light; when he died, her life was cast into darkness. I watched as she struggled through that darkness to find once again the strong and vibrant woman she used to be. As sad as it was to lose my father, it is even more sad now to watch as Parkinson’s dims her light, leaving us with only a shell of who she used to be. How sad is it to lost oneself before then end of our time? I truly hope this never happens to me. I’m nobody’s role model, but I’d like to be myself until my life is over.

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    • Thank you, Rose. Your initial statement had me thinking of the “overabundance of riches”. But I really like your reminder that everyone else is taken.

      As you know, I can somewhat understand your feelings about loss of self, watching it happen with my mother. I’ve always felt we cannot truly understand our life until it is clear it is coming to an end. Being deprived of that last insight is a tragedy.

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  8. Gary permalink

    Dan Quayle. Now there is a name from the past. My favourite “Qualyism” was the one where he lamented that he had not studied Latin in high school so that he could better communicate with people from Latin America.

    These days I find myself less concerned by WWJD than I am by WWMD.

    I have always been somewhat a contrarian and I applied that prism to two CEOs who one day I expected to succeed (I did). They served as my role models for how NOT to manage a corporate enterprise. It worked for me.

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  9. Thanks, Gary. Yes, that Quaylism is a classic, though not in the Latin sense.

    You raise an interesting perspective on the reverse function of role models. It must be hard to bide one’s time under poor management until it becomes possible to replace them. I once had that experience only once and it was very brief.

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  10. Interesting subject Marco, my parents were probably my first role models and they were an incredibly adventurous couple, quite the pioneers for their era, they travelled around Europe for several months with a 12 year old, 10 year old, 6 year old and 4 year old in a little campervan in the early 70s. I was very close to my dad and he always had a “can do” attitude to life with lots of enthusiasm. I guess I never really appreciated this aspect of his personality until I was much older, that’s the thing about role models you can take on the good and the bad aspects, however the better you understand yourself gives you better perspective. I think this is why I’m enjoying my age at 53, getting older does have benefits.

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    • Thank you, Julie. All the adventures you’ve had throughout your life, including the many trips you’ve taken lately would make a riveting memoir. It’s interesting when people say, You get more and more like your _________ every day. Does that mean certain genes are manifesting, or does that mean early internalization of certain behaviors and attitudes are manifesting, or some combination of the two? I always like Popeye’s mantra…. I yam what I yam. Understanding brings freedom, and freedom feels good.

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