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  • Writer's pictureReflective Resources

R is for Role Models

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Excellence is a better teacher than mediocrity. The lessons of the ordinary are everywhere. Truly profound and original insights are to be found only in studying the exemplary”.

Warren Bennis

Sociologist Robert K. Merton created the phrase, ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘unintended consequences’ as he did the term ‘role model’ which he first used whilst researching medical students. He hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with ‘reference groups’ of people who exemplify the social role to which an individual aspires. The term is now more widely used to mean any person whose behaviour is emulated by others.

“...But a role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, 'Yes, someone like me can do this.” Sonia Sotomayor

Role models tend to be temporary, changing from one person to another and also changing as a person grows and matures. It is possible to have a different role model for different aspects of your life, both time-wise as well as in different areas.

Parents can be positive role models helping their children to learn how to adapt and change towards fully functioning, responsible adults or in dysfunctional families they can also become negative role models

Any psychology textbook, will tell you about the formative influence of role models, in the development of a child, especially parents. ‘Identification theory’ describes a process by which a child internalizes what his parents represent to him, then emulates what he has learnt through his behaviour.

Developmental psychologists consider that it is parents who play the most important role models in a child’s personality development, therefore if a child has a negative role model from a parent, they are likely to identify with those behaviour traits and imitate them. There are also lots of cases, however, where children, step back and see what is going on around them and break away from their parent’s influence and either latch on to more positive (or unfortunately sometimes negative) influences via other significant adults – teachers, youth leaders etc. or peers and their families. Role models are important, but they do not necessarily determine how we turn out.

But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.” Stephen Chbosky

I have mixed thoughts on the idea of role models. Although it has been proved that a positive, often celebrity, role model in e.g. sport or music can encourage others to strive for similar goals etc I have always thought that it is more important to have your own goals and seek to better yourself rather than be a copy of someone else and so perhaps it is better to use traditional role models as mere ‘stepping stones’ or glimpses of inspiration or clarity re what we don’t want to be like on our own personal journey.

I also think that the term role model is perhaps a bit too all encompassing because everyone has weaknesses and strengths and although you may admire one quality or aspect of someone’s life there may be other sides that you would prefer not to emulate. Each and every one of us knowingly or unknowingly affects those we come in contact with or inspire others to imitate our positive and/or negative behaviour/s.

Generally speaking, I think that if you are going to look for inspiration from someone, then I think it is more effective and practical to do so by looking at the people that surround you as you have more of a chance to observe them carefully and also more opportunity to question them and discuss how they are as they are or why they think like they do.

Some people will be lucky enough to find positive qualities in family members, for others, positive attributes would hopefully be found in the friends that they choose to surround themselves with. It is important to consider who we spend time with and develop friendships and relationships that enhance our lives. We should look to find people that motivate, inspire, have a sense of purpose, help us and share the same values whilst reducing the time we spend with those that drain our energy. (Having said this, I think that we can learn lessons from everyone that we come in to contact with) By choosing readily accessible friends or relatives they can give guidance and advice and offer examples from their own, hopefully relatable, experience of how they came through or managed different situations.

When building friendships it is important to do so authentically, slowly and carefully but honestly. It is useful to take time to reflect on the sort of friendships that you think are important and want to build and the qualities that you want to develop. Take time to look at a person and think about the qualities that they have to share with you and what you might be able to offer them in return.” (F is for Friendships)

As far as the wider term ‘role models’ are concerned, I think that your role model should be the future, potential ‘better’ or ‘best’ version of yourself. In order to create our own positive role model, we should do all we can to realise our latent potential and should always make choices based on how this would benefit our ideal ‘future self’; the ‘Do something your future self will thank you for’ idea

As we build our lives, all of the things that we experience and the related decisions are opportunities to make choices to become closer to the person we want to be or could be by systematically removing everything that stands in the way of us growing into the person that we want to become. If our choices, or what we’re doing now, aren’t helping us become who we ultimately want to be, we need to reflect on these choices and see what has to change.

Role models are only of limited use. For no-one is as important, potentially powerful and as key in your life and world as you.” Rasheed Ogunlaru

Going back to the idea of being your own role model, we can’t become our unique ‘better’ or ‘best’ self if we simply focus on copying other people’s lives and choices. We need to take time to invest in ourselves and assess our own lives, our values and our ultimate goals, it is only once we can envision the person we want to be, that we can make sure that our choices and decisions align with the direction we want to head towards i.e. that of our unique, evolving goal. By becoming our own role model, we have more control over our life therefore we can set about making and following through, conscious choices and develop habits that take us closer to building the future we want.

Sometimes the notion of becoming the ‘best-version’ of yourself can feel too far ahead or daunting and needs to be broken down into smaller more achievable steps (according to the principle of Kaizen) i.e. aiming to become a 1% better-version of yourself instead each day.

Every day we have to celebrate our best self. In every moment we choose between the-best-version-of-ourselves and a myriad second-rate-versions-of- ourselves. In some moments, we actively celebrate our best-self and know that we are indeed the-best-version- of- ourselves. But in the next moment we can lose our best self once again to laziness, impatience, anger, envy, gossip, greed, thoughtlessness, selfishness...

The best-version-of-ourselves isn’t something we strive for and never achieve. It is something we achieve in some moments and not in others.”

p11*Matthew Kelly

When reinforcing relationships or friendships it is easy to gravitate towards similar people to yourself because we see something of ourselves in them but it is also important to have friends that can show us different perspectives otherwise we are not really allowing ourselves to be open to change and are just looking to perfect or reinforce characteristics that are already there. By choosing to nurture a relationship because you see something in someone that you are not, but definitely want to be, it will stretch you and motivate you more, enhancing the plasticity of your brain, helping you to stretch your mental boundaries and creating a growth mindset.

“People never improve unless they look to some standard or example higher and better than themselves. Tryon Edwards

Retaining one’s authenticity and individuality is important as you emulate others. It is important to be retain your own unique identity whilst you work to improve on the characteristics that you consider important. You develop confidence in yourself through self-awareness.

When you surround yourself with accessible people it is easier to learn from both their successes and failures. Sometimes learning from the failures of someone whose characteristics you admire can encourage and motivate you more than learning about their successes because you can identify with the initial ‘weakness’ but know that every mistake gives us the opportunity to reflect, learn new things and change; thereby helping us become more adaptable and resilient.

The most important thing, wherever you draw your inspiration from, is to consistently seek to maintain a growth mindset so that you are continually learning and refining yourself.

Some questions to think about/or discuss below:

Do you have any ‘role models’?

How do the friends and family around you help shape your thoughts and ideas?

What characteristics do these people exhibit that make these people role models for you?

Do your role models positively affect your choices or behaviour?

Do you think that anyone sees you as a role model?

If yes, do you think that they are right or wrong to do so?

Reflecting on the above, does it affect your own behaviour in any way when you are conscious that others are looking to you for an example?

If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started:

Perfectly Yourself: 9 Lessons for Enduring Happiness - By Matthew Kelly*

“We are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them.” Stephen Chbosky (‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’)

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