Is It Necessary To Idolize Your Role Models To Learn From Them?

Getting inspired by people doesn’t mean you have to put them on a pedestal, according to science.

Is It Necessary To Idolize Your Role Models To Learn From Them?
Photo by OSPAN ALI on Unsplash

Getting inspired by people doesn’t mean you have to put them on a pedestal, according to science.

My younger brother follows a gamer religiously on social media. He attends all their live streams, reads all their interviews, and keeps up-to-date with whatever content they post online. Being an avid gaming enthusiast himself, my brother aspires to reach this particular gamer's level of success.

There are times when he gets defensive on hearing other people talk trash about his role model. From the way he goes on and on about this gamer, one would assume that they are incapable of ever committing any mistake. At other times, he gets frustrated looking at how much his role model has achieved in life, wondering if he will ever be able to reach such levels.

This got me thinking: is it possible to have a role model without idolizing them?

According to social learning theory, role models facilitate the acquisition of moral and other types of behavior. But to what extent should one follow their role models? What are the pitfalls of putting someone on a pedestal and idolizing them? This article looks at the science behind these questions and lays out a practical, actionable list of steps you can follow to emulate someone without idolizing them.

Copy on a Macro-Level. Ignore the Bits and Pieces.

As research published in Frontiers of Psychology suggests, learning by observing others considerably reduces the costs of individual learning. Instead of engaging in a laborious search for a solution, a person can just observe others successfully mastering this task and reproduce their behavior. That’s where role models come in.

But to what extent should you emulate what you’ve seen works for others?

Upscale or downscale according to your schedule

I’ve mentioned several times before that Nicolas Cole is my role model for writing online. He is vocal about writing every day, not editing your work for the first few months, posting as much content as possible, and analyzing your stats to understand what kind of content works best.

I admire his experience and love his tips. I’ve read his book and highlighted so many passages; you’d think the book was printed in yellow! But with time, I’ve come to understand that what worked for him won’t work for me. I can write new content daily, but I won’t ever be satisfied if I don’t edit my work enough. The “write-publish-repeat” mode is not for me.

And so, I chose to downscale his advice into actionable chunks that are more suited to my style. I write new content daily, and I spend time editing my and other writers’ work. This improves the quality of my articles and helps me notice what common mistakes writers often make. This way, I can be mindful of them the next time I write something new. This method will take me longer to be at the stage when I have enough content to analyze my stats and learn from them, but at least I’ll be proud of every article I’ve produced.

I’m not at the level of success of my role model yet, but this method works for me. I’m sure it will continue to help me become a better writer.

This is what I mean by upscaling or downscaling according to how the habit you’re trying to emulate fits into your schedule. You don’t have to copy what your role model does exactly, as long as you know the core idea and are dedicated enough to see it through.

Keep the Time Factor in Mind

Sometimes, it can get extremely discouraging if you keep seeing someone’s achievements while having nothing to claim as your own. In such situations, understand that what you see from afar is only the result of all the struggles your role model has gone through.

Keep the time factor in mind. They have probably been practicing their craft for months or years while you’ve only gotten started.

“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle, or your middle to someone else’s end.”
— Tim Hiller, Strive: Life is Short, Pursue What Matters

As Dr. Saul Levine, University of California’s Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry, puts it, “To read biographies, to know anyone well, or just to live, is to learn that people are complicated, just like life itself. At times it feels like a smooth path of pleasure and accomplishment; at others, it’s more like a rough trail of sadness and conflict.”

A 2020 study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology found that people actually tend to get more inspired when they assume someone’s success is linked to effort, as compared to hearing about a genius’s predestined success story.

“Knowing that something great can be achieved through hard work and effort, that message is much more inspiring.”
Danfei Hu

Final Thoughts

Admiring someone and considering them as your role model is a healthy way to grow and move forward in life. Learning from their journey can be enlightening and comforting at the same time. However, putting them on a pedestal and blindly following whatever they do might not be a good strategy.

“We can admire and even emulate aspects of accomplished or outstanding people, but hero-worship and attributing to them unrealistic personal traits or powers is a fool’s errand, destined to disappoint.”
— Saul Levine M.D.

It’s always important to keep the following in mind:

  • Upscale or downscale the habit you’re trying to emulate so it fits into your schedule better. As long as you understand the core idea of what drives them, you can let it drive you too, without allowing the need to copy them to consume you.
  • Don’t compare their success of today to where you stand as you start. What they achieved is a result of their consistent efforts. You can get there, too, as long as you keep pushing ahead and learning from your mistakes.

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