I’m a big advocate of having role models in your career (and for that matter, anything else). Role models provide people you can relate to, so you can understand them on an almost instinctive level, and then emulate what they did right. Role models show that success is possible so you can keep motivated and keep reaching even when you’re at your lowest. Role models show specific paths to success that you can follow.
Best of all, people who know they’re Role Models give actual, useful advice, write books, and so on. A good Role Model may be such an information font they’re a kind of Orbital Bombardment of wisdom.
We geeks are often blessed with role models, and it’s a big part of geek culture. – I think because a lot of geek culture is achievement/activity based. There are people we look up to and admire, who inspire us. We can meet them at conventions, buy their biographies, and surf the internet to learn more about them. Rare indeed is the convention guest who at some point is asked about job options, or the head of a website or Maker Group who doesn’t end up providing career advice.
As much as I’m an advocate of using Role Models, I’d like to note their limits. No matter how good a Role Model someone is – and you can probably find several in your life – they have a limit.
Their limit is they’re a unique individual.
Everyone’s Weird. Or Weirder.
It’s easy to talk bout how different people are; just saying it is a way to get an unconscious nod from someone since it’s practically a universal truth. But it’s important to remember that, indeed, we’re not all the same, even if the differences are in subtle ways. Not that this is something to complain about.
In fact, it’s great the world is so diverse, and would probably be an even happier place if diversity was more accepted. Diversity is the nature of the human condition (even when we try to conform), and expressing it is one of life’s joys. It produces new things, and it enriches life. We’re all weird in one way or another, some of them quite extensive.
But when it comes to Role Models, the fact is that there’s only so much you can learn from them because they are different from you. Your Role Model is one person, you’re another, and you’re probably less alike than you may realize. That means that no matter how great a Role Model someone is, no matter how amazing their ability to teach, there is always a gap.
They’re them, you’re you.
So their advice, their examples, their blog posts are always of limited usefulness. At some point the advice will break down, at some point a lack of shared experience may send you in the wrong direction, because of a previously unseen gap in experience or knowledge or something. At some point you run into a uniqueness gap and you realize there’s only so much you can learn.
We forget how unalike we are.
It’s Easy To Forget The Differences
Why do we forget these differences? I’m sure some of you out there reading this have had points where you suddenly realized how much you weren’t like your Role Models. You may have even wondered why you missed it, or felt a bit foolish because you did so.
First, I think we miss differences between us and our Role Models because we like these people and want to be like them. When you feel a camaraderie for them, you can miss differences. When you want to emulate them, you also miss differences. It’s just part of being human – perhaps it’s that ability to overlook flaws in or differences with someone you feel affection for, or the rush of “relating” distracts us from differences.
Second, we miss differences because our Role Models are often part of our subculture. They’re like us in many ways, they do the things we do, they made the books we read, they wrote the games we like, and so on. Because they’re part of our culture we immediately assume a lot of sameness and shared experiences – and these may be expensive, but the similarities always end at some point. I’m sure you’ve encountered people you assumed were like you due to similar interests – and found you were dreadfully wrong.
Third, they’re trying to be helpful in many cases. They provide advice, information, panels, books, etc. When they reach out to us, it’s too easy for them or us to assume universality in their messages, and only later realize that what they were teaching us wasn’t always applicable. I myself am often guilty of that but I’m getting better (hopefully writing this post has helped, but feel free to prod me in the future).
So we need to remember – Role Models have limits, even in similar subcultures (or ones that are assumed to have a lot of similarities)
Overcoming Role Model Limits
So how do we make sure we enjoy and even revel in our great Role Models without loosing track of differences or worse, have a disillusioning incident that derails us? Here’s what I’d advise.
- Learn when to look for general advice and when to look for specific. When you’re planning your career, life, etc. know when you’re looking for big-picture information and advice, and when you’re looking for nitty-gritty. This will help you know when to follow a Role Model’s advice or example – realizing a programmer you look up to was good at languages you don’t need now is quite helpful for instance, but their studiousness or sense of humor may be valuable for career survival.
- Look for signs of divergence. A gap in ages, geographic location, background, etc. may twig you on to the fact some of what you learn from your Role Model isn’t applicable. This may be especially useful if your Role Model is from a different era or time, or from a vastly different demographic.
- Make a plan. I advise planning your career anyway, but when you make a plan it also lets you see gaps in your ideas. This lets you know when the path you may be following is off – and if that path comes from a Role Model and it doesn’t add up, you know you found a gap.
- Have multiple Role Models. You should always have multiple Role Models. This in turn means that when one just doesn’t have the right advice, experience, or life story, you have another. You can probably cobble together some pretty great examples from having a few good people you look up to.
- Gut check. Are you following the example of a Role Model but it’s not really for you? You may have gone pretty far down a path of emulating someone else for the wrong reasons.
- Talk to them. When you find a difference between you and a Role Model, ask them about it. Not only do you learn, but it may help them get better at helping others.
Role Models In The Right Place
Keeping in mind the differences we have with our Role models lets us use their advice better and frankly be kinder to ourselves and them. Expect those differences and when they come up you can work around them without exhausting yourself, berating yourself, or deceiving yourself. Having a Role Model can be daunting if you take them too seriously, and your Role Model may not be to thrilled if they find out and feel pressured.
I’d even add it’s not kind to Role Models to take them as perfect templates. Good Role Models know how flawed they are (and may often provide great examples of it). It’s too easy to treat good people as more than human, and that really limits them and puts pressure on them that’s simply not fair.
So give your role models – and yourself – room to be different. Everyone will be much happier.
– Steven Savage