Why I don’t believe in role models

Ernest Hemingway

Of all the insane ideas that people have come up with, anointing another person as a role model has to be near the top of the list.

It’s true that no man is an island, and that no one person can come up with a sufficiently strong flow of great survival ideas that he or she can exist in solitude. As a natural response to that, it’s common human behaviour to look to those around us who have more good ideas than the average and place upon their heads a crown of superiority. You know the thinking, because you’ve probably done it: I want to be like John F. Kennedy, staring down the Russians, or I want to be like Ernest Hemingway, living life on the edge while shaking up the literary world. I want to be audacious like Richard Branson, cool and innovative like Beyonce or irreverent and non-conformist like Kanye West. 

That thinking is riddled with catastrophic flaws however.

Role modelling only works when it is applied narrowly and very, very selectively. Kennedy was undoubtedly a charismatic and often brave leader, but he was also a terrible husband and an irresponsible playboy whose family had to repeatedly save him from his own lousy instincts. Hemingway was certainly an outstanding writer (if you don’t agree, get the hell off my blog, you hater), and an adventurer with a zest for life, but he was also an unreliable alcoholic whose deep insecurities made him a constant danger to himself.

Since each part of any personality informs every other part of that personality, role modelling only the good parts is really kind of stupid. There’s a reason Hemingway doesn’t have a hundred copycats; you can’t be part of a whole. To revere him therefore is to revere the best and the worst traits which means you’re wishing for a substantial number of flaws among your improvements.

If on the other hand, one assumes it’s rational to cherry pick aspects of a person’s character to model, one needn’t look to famous or historical figures because fatally-flawed, but sometimes brilliant people exist all around us. Every one you meet has something to teach that can be of use to you.

Simply, if you’re going to role model only parts of Richard Branson’s character, you may as well focus instead on your nearest office colleague and try to copy the two things you like best about them.