Roll without Models

If information about someone you’ve never met would devastate you, you might be idolizing them.  Role models are not helpful.  They usually start off in a positive, inspiring way, but result in disappointment, confusion, or naivety.  The reason is that, while ideas, traits and tendencies can be a North Star, no human can.  We’re too fallible.

There’s nothing wrong with being fallible, and a person can still be great despite shortcomings.  But when you make another person, rather than their better qualities, your object of emulation, it becomes hard to deal with reality.  The tendency, upon discovering unsavory behaviors, is to excuse or justify them away until you become a silly cult member, or embittered, and dismiss all the good with the bad.  Neither help you make progress in your own journey.

We need ideal types to really inspire, not just decent people.  This is why myths and legends and fables have such cultural staying power.  They isolate the best traits and turn them into superheros and gods.  Even these heroic characters have flaws, but because we know they aren’t real, we aren’t offended by them.  We knowingly enter a world of idealism, and as such we can be inspired without feeling the need to explain shortcomings away.

If you have role models, consider how you would feel if it turned out they had some horrible skeletons in the closet.  If the thought worries you, you need to step back and think about what it is you value in those people.  Focus on the traits and ideas, make those your role models, and disembody them from the person.  The people are probably fine individuals – maybe you’d enjoy being friends with them, maybe you wouldn’t – but it’s dangerous to turn them into gods or look to them for inspiration.

This approach might seem a little disappointing.  It feels less exciting, perhaps, to remove great individuals from pedestals just because they have some flaws.  I find the opposite to be true.  When you separate ideals from people, you can put the actions of flawed people on a pedestal just because they have some greatness.

Mentors Don’t Have the Answers

The word mentoring sounds really nice. It gives everyone a good feeling. It’s like “charity”, “generosity”, “helping”, or “teaching”; they all evoke positive emotions and make you feel like it’s something you should do. I think all of these words are overused, over-appreciated and under-scrutinized. There’s a valuable way to engage in all of these things, but the common forms they take are pretty flimsy.

Take mentoring. Those seeking to mentor often see potential mentees as projects or people upon whom they must bestow wisdom and guidance. Those seeking to be mentored are often looking for answers to tough questions in life like what education or career path to pursue and what steps get them closer to their goals. Neither of these approaches yield much fruit. Why not? Because no one has better answers for the questions you face than you. No one knows more about your own life and the direction it should take than you.

I’ve had older guys that I really respected (and some that I didn’t) attempt to take me under their wing and help guide my life. Sometimes I’d see something interesting in a person and seek them out to learn from them or ask them about it. So far so good. But at some point it would evolve into them feeling like they needed to provide not just conversation about whatever I was seeking, but guidance for my life as a whole. I balked at this. At the time I always felt a little guilty, like I shouldn’t be so arrogant to ignore or turn away from their attempted mentoring. I didn’t have a father figure in the traditional sense, and a lot of these guys recognized that and were trying to help fill that void. All good intentions. Looking back, I am thankful for that anti-mentee instinct I had. I never wanted or needed guidance on life in general and no one could have given it anyway. I wanted to learn from them and discuss with them specific areas in their thinking and action that I admired or found intriguing.

On the flip side, I’ve been guilty of the same. I’ve spotted talented young people and tried to help guide their lives. It doesn’t work.

I recall a revelation I had that freed me from the guilt I felt for ignoring mentors. I realized that I knew more than they did. Not about everything, of course, but about my own life. I realized that they couldn’t answer questions for me, but they could live their own life in a way that captured my attention and led me to seek specific bits of wisdom. I had to be the seeker to gain value. If they were seeking me to offer advice, chances are it wasn’t all that valuable. There are exceptions, but as a general rule I found the most helpful wisdom was that which I sought myself and not that freely bestowed by well-intentioned mentors.

This realization did not cause me to respect my elders less, but more. I released them from the burden I had imposed on them to provide solutions and answers they couldn’t and allowed them to just be who they where. It was then that I began to realize the things I did respect in them and the things I could learn.

I have endeavored to be a mentor only when sought, and even then not to attempt to offer answers for questions never asked or big-picture life questions I couldn’t provide the answers to. If someone seeks me out to ask my thoughts on a piece of writing, a career move, or an educational choice, I gladly share them. I’ve tried to resist the temptation to go on to tell them much more. If I have anything valuable to offer, it is more likely to come from their observation of me than from my words. If they want more, they can seek more.

Mentoring is great, but you should always remember that no mentor has the answers to your questions. They have answers to their own questions, and those can provide helpful insight. Seek such insight from those you respect, integrate it into your worldview, but remember that at the end of the day, you are your best mentor. After all, it’s you who lives with the choices you make, not others. Incentives are powerful.

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