The interesting case of role models

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

For young people, role models can be powerful and inspirational figures. They help us to look down the road and see what it takes to reach the high plateaus of success.

Around three years out of high school, when just starting my undergraduate degree, I finally stumbled on the realisation that, to get ahead, I had to actually get better. This may seem obvious but it meant more than I anticipated – I had to improve my writing, listening and presentation skills. This, in turn, meant I had to get better at attention to detail, concentrate harder and be better organised.

This was helped considerably by ‘thinking with the end in mind’ and looking closely at the achievements of successful people. What characteristics did they exhibit? What did they do to get ahead?

But I didn’t set my sights on the Richard Bransons or the Bill Gates of the world – I examined relatively quiet achievers like White House Fellows, the candidates of the most competitive graduate programs and people close to me that had done well. All toiled away without the glare of the public spotlight. Their lessons were clear: apply yourself, achieve fine benchmarks and build skills. Doors open just that little bit further, it seems, when you do these things.

Such minor details are important when looking at role models, who can be great at showing us the big picture but not always useful when we’re trying to imitate their attributes or achievements in our day-to-day lives. It’s tough, for example, to hit golf balls for five hours a day like Tiger Woods. It’s then tough, as South African golfer Gary Player says, to bandage your hand from the bleeding and then go out and keep hitting. It’s tough to stay up reading, tabbing and highlighting when you’re tired and needing sleep. It’s tough to jump into cold water each morning to train for years upon years without awards or fanfare.

In applying the lessons of role models, you shouldn’t distract from your own goals, capabilities and attitudes. If you doggedly follow someone you look up to, it’s easy to get carried away with their success and not your own carefully calibrated standards. Aptitude and slowly finding out what you’re good at are key in this process.

When studying, for example, I certainly wasn’t going to win an academic scholarship. And I wasn’t even sure I liked writing. But additional effort, with some generous marking from tutors, gave me a taste of what it’d be like to score half-decent grades, which felt good and kept me motivated to take further steps toward achievement.

We should also remember that some role models carry plenty of unvarnished traits that don’t always meet the public eye. Nor does their current success mean future success. The most admired role model in 1971 among American school kids, for example, was OJ Simpson. At one stage, around one-fifth of National Football League players were competing with criminal records, while out of wedlock births – disastrous for a good start in life – are supposedly rife among the many stars of the National Basketball Association. One sports agent, for example, claimed he spent more time dealing with paternity claims than negotiating contracts.

At the end of the day, as important as role models are, it’s individuals who must take on the process of improvement. Simply pointing to a hero and saying, ‘Look, do what he’s doing,’ is simply not enough. Asserting your own initiative is critical.

On a wider level, and across all different contexts, we see this ‘disconnect’ taking place all the time. Many thought, for example, that a black American president would reduce black crime when the reverse has actually been true. The economist Walter Williams takes this further – installing black leaders, he says, to key positions like police chiefs and town mayors, has not remedied any of the well-being indicators of blacks in these places. Certainly, it can be comforting to see someone like you that has done well. ‘Everybody needs to see a version of themselves do something,’ says the comedian Chris Rock, ‘it’s just good, it makes you feel like you can do it.’

But the lesson for all young people is – don’t find role models that only look like you. There are literally tens of thousands to choose from. Personally, for example, I’m motivated by the logic of neuroscientists like Sam Harris, the perseverance of political leaders like John Howard, the writing of soldiers like Patrick Leigh Fermour, and the courage of political pioneers like Neville Bonner. Never does a role model have to look like you, or be from your sector, to help inspire your own path to achievement and success.