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.