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The Most Under-rated Secret to Success: Choose Your Role Models Carefully

Posted Feb 19 2009 5:09pm

This goes out to all those who find they don't play well with others. You aren't a homogenous group, but I know you know who you are. You may balk at affiliating (within your profession, within a spiritual community, in a "mastermind group", in networking groups, with others who share an avocational interest, etc.) for a million reasons. In fact, you may balk not just at affiliating but at commitment in general to that thing you say would truly love to do for reasons including but certainly not limited to:

  • Being surrounded by too many people heavily focused on their own "schtick" and it makes you feel icky being associated with that vibe. (Your "peers" are kind of creeping you out.)
  • You have worked hard for what you have achieved and are having one heck of a time finding others who have new and fresh things to offer you. You know pretty much what they know and maybe a fair amount more. You like your area of study but this growing boredom disturbs you.
  • You fear you know less than your peers and you feel a bit intimidated. Everyone else left the starting gate long ago and you feel naive at best and like an imposter at worst trying to count yourself among them now.
  • You suffer the sin of pride. You don't need no stinkin' help.
  • You hate people. (You say, half-jokingly.)
  • You get jealous and down on yourself when you see others who are succeeding and you don't want to feed the "How come THEY find all the cool opportunities? Why can't I be more like them?" hamster in the wheel of your mind.
  • Once bitten, twice shy. You've had enough KoolAid thank you.
  • You zigged when you should have zagged a time or two along the way and maybe being stuck where you are is simply the price you have to pay for the folly of youth.
  • Wait, I have to be somewhere reliably every week (month, year)? Don't fence me in like that. I'm CREATIVE!
  • You don't want to commit to anything too soon. You need a little more time to think about this. Yeah you've been thinking about this for 5 or 20 years but I mean, what if you don't like it once you get there?
  • You are a highly sensitive person.
  • You're just not a joiner. Maybe you are little on the shy side. A little introverted.
  • You are addicted to thinking. Doing, not so much. Sometimes you forget there is a difference.
  • Doesn't PLANNING count? Do you know how many HOURS I spent on that dreamboard?! Shopping for just the right markers takes a little time, Mister, and don't even get me started on how to select just the right journal! Once I get it all worked out, then MAYBE I'll seek out others. It's just not time yet.
  • You become incensed at the mere suggestion that anyone might be just like you. A group? Really?! Um, hellooo, what group could I possibly get anything out of? What part of "I get off on being an enigma" do you not get?
  • You outgrew the need for role models when you were 14.

Feel free to laugh at any reflection that makes you squirm. God knows I have!  The truth is, you may have some very valid points for shying away from potentially (theoretically) supportive people and groups. This isn't about judging which reasons are good reasons for going it alone in life or whether going it alone (that fabulously American desire to be "self-made") is wise or not. It's about recognizing that consciously or not, appropriately or not, we can and do need role models, no matter how old, wise, masterful or capable we are. It's a matter of recognizing what it is we need modelled, and what kind of support one most needs.

The vast majority of the folks I see who get trapped in the "I'll do it myself,  I just have to get ready first" mode seem to shun people ("I know no one can answer this for me") while simulataneously going crazy buying self-help books and reading blogs and articles in the effort to figure things out ("There must be an instruction manual here somewhere...").

Before you buy one more book or read one more article take some time to get very clear on what you are looking for.   It probably isn't another self-help book with another set of exercises you will skim over (having read it all before) that you will never actually DO.  In fact, the more you find yourself skimming, searching for that needle in the haystack that will suddenly change the picture for you, the further you are from actually solving anything.

If you are speed reading, that is a sign you are trying to answer the wrong question. Your brain knows "It's not here, it's not here...skim skim skim...maybe the next article...keep going."

Quite possibly you have been looking for instruction when what you really need is a role model.

Yes, I did say need.

You may not need instruction. The older you are and the more you have studied your profession or your craft you eventually realize that everyone is reading the same stuff.  You may, out of habit, look for instruction but course after course or book after book you realize how much you know, even if you aren't implementing it yet.

Now, keep in mind, instructors (of various types) teach for a living, and for very practical reasons like paying the rent, they study how to market to you so that even if you do know what they know (or can get it yourself without the middle man at this point) you start to think that maybe, just maybe, there is one new hot secret that they have that you don't.  They may have that one piece of the puzzle that you have been desperate to find and so you sign up for their program (by Friday before the price goes up). Ironically, you are so used to not getting that much new information that the disappointment you feel when you don't this time either isn't even that great anymore.  You lower the bar and vow to spend less money on programs in the future but you don't cut them out completely...just in case.

You won't break this frustrating (and debilitating) pattern until you realize you are asking the wrong question. You may be largely independent in skill acquisition (with focused instruction obtained as needed) but you may be stuck as a bug in molasses when it comes to implementation.

What you need is courage. Discipline. Dedication. Focus. Commitment. Devotion to your chosen path.

That is a heart thing. Instruction is a head thing.

No one can teach you courage but they sure as heck can model it.

David Allen can teach you how to be organized, fabulously so!, but he can't inspire devotion and dedication. It's important that you understand that distinction.

Relationship coaches can instruct you in dating strategies but I'll bet the folks who have been happily married or 20 or 50 years know considerably more about what it takes to keep love strong once your partner's "hotness" has faded than the average 30 something.

What you need is a role model for those qualities of character which you want to cultivate in yourself and quite possibly that role model will have very, very little interest in instructing you.   They probably aren't focused on you at all. They have moved beyond the question of whether or not they are an expert and have not the slightest interest in "leveraging" what they know. It doesn't even make their radar screen. They have learned how to give themselves over to what they must do and they don't care very much what you think of them. They have instead surrendered themselves to themselves, even if they don't fully understand why they must do this thing that compels them so. They are immersed in their own questions, deeply engaged in their own dialogue. 

They have stopped being self-conscious.

Instructors and coaches can often be self-conscious. I might even argue that this goes with the territory. Anyone who is focused on leveraging every bit of what they do, by definition, is focusing more on what the market is asking for and how well they are being received as they try to tap into the latest trends than on their own development . Development of expertise for public consumption is an entirely different process than developing mastery because you are compelled by an inner quest.

Let me state for the record, I am not judging one over the other. In fact, some of you may well have had instructors, including coaches, in your life that have also served as role models (and they were probably notable for that very reason). I'm simply suggesting that if you can see yourself in the challenges I have outlined, you may have been hanging out with the apples when you are, in fact, an orange. If one of your biggest hang-ups is fear of what others will think, if you are wrestling with self-consciousness and worried about your self-esteem, hanging out with people who make a living cautioning you about the dangers of missing out on the latest (fickle and fleeting) public trends may not be the best thing for you. If, however, you love following trends and catching the next wave, have at it!  Be who you are.

If you are not one of those people who enjoys staying abreast of the latest trends (of any type), and who may actually find that attempting to do so is damaging to you in some way, you are going to need support because the world wants to keep you hungry. If fear is what keeps you from taking action in changing your life also remember that this very same fear feeds the (massive) personal development economy. The very people who say they want you to overcome fear and sign up for their program to 'take your life to the next level by imagining the possibilities' also want you to retain just enough discomfort after the program is over so you'll buy their new book. Trust me, it's part of their rollout strategy.  This chaos and craziness that makes you feel so battered and filled with self-doubt is the norm out there, not just in the self-help industry. All you have to do is look at sport stadium names to see that. Everything represents something else, and that something else wants you to buy things and to be anxious about what you might miss if you don't.  If you want to live a different way you will have to consider that you can't stand up to that day after day without some moral support around you. No one can.

How do you find good role models and what do you do with them once you have them?

First, be sincere in your efforts to find them. You would be amazed how many adults I have spoken to who have aspirations for themselves in what they want to achieve and who they want to be who, when asked, admit that they can think of NO ONE THEY KNOW who has accomplished what they seek to. How do you keep the faith and keep striving when your lived experience is completely devoid of evidence that what you want is possible or even appropriate for YOU? ("Yeah, sure there is Lance Armstrong, but in MY life, everyone is pretty miserable and tells me I just need to face that this is how it is in the real world. I need to be grateful that I even have a job right now and quit complaining that I don't feel fulfilled.  How self absorbed is that? I'm as sick of listening to myself as they are listening to me. I just wish I didn't feel like my soul is dying every Monday morning.")

So, seeking out role models, in and of itself, takes a bit of chutzpah. Once you have set your mind to finding those who HAVE succeeded, recognize that your role models don't even have to be alive.  They don't have to come from your industry or have practiced your art. They are all around you, in bookstores, in museums, in documentaries, and many ARE here, even now, living, breathing and doing their thing. Sometimes they give lectures. Sometimes they offer workshops. Sometimes they perform. You don't have to meet them. They just have to pay attention to them and study those who embody the qualities you wish to cultivate.  Even if they stumble, watch what they do. How do they get back on the horse? You may get no closer to them than a book and the book may even be subject to a bit of revisionist history as many biographies are. The key is whether the values and quality of character and mastery you see  call you to something higher in yourself. Do this person's words or actions call you out in a way that inspires and ignites something within you? Do their words and deeds embolden you?

Do you find yourself incapable of speed reading what they have to say?

If yes, then count them among your role models. One day you will come to consider them among your peers. One day you will come to see them as men and women just as human as you have ever been but with one difference. They devoted themselves, sincerely, to what they simply had to do.  They got clear and they stopped compromising. They learned how to cut out the distractions. They stopped making excuses. They stopped worrying about their self-esteem and turned instead to the work at hand. Whether you will feel comfortable calling yourself a peer of someone who has attained high levels of skill mastery is one thing. Standing up with those who exemplify who you would like to be is quite another. They may be more your peers than your co-workers, your relatives or the parents at your kid's soccer game. Unlike your family constellation, YOU get to choose your peers.

Lastly, deliberately, consciously, keep them close. Assemble a Council of Muses and check in with them before you start your day.  You may just put some photos or images of them up in a place you will see. You may listen to a lecture on CD in the car on the way to work. You may read a bit of what someone had to say on their pursuit of mastery during your morning reflection time. Expose yourself to their work directly, in person, whenever feasible so that you can get the full benefit of the energy they bring to what they do. And, if you actually can study with them directly, either in a class, by attending a lecture or working with them directly in a mentorship of sorts, then by all means consider it.

No matter the mode, be deliberate in your study by making time for it as an integral part of your life.  

As one small step, you can start removing from your bookshelf those books that haven't proven useful to you in favor of those who inspire you and even if you can only read a page or two in the morning, start your day with them.  Pay attention to those who captivate you and prepare to spend a little time sitting at their feet. They may not seek to instruct you directly but they, by their very nature, will illuminate.

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