Role Model: A person to be looked up to or imitated.

What is a role model? Who is a role model?

The notion of role models has pervaded into our society to a very deep level. Every child, no matter how young they are, are at some point of time asked about who their role models are. But what is a role model? Who is this role model and why is this person so important to be found?

From my understanding, a role model is a person that you try to be, a person that you spend a large part of your life trying to emulate. But why?

Lets take a deeper look into the word.

‘Role Model’, the term, was coined by a sociologist who believed that people identify with people who occupy a role that they, one day, aspire to have. It is quite literally, the ‘model’ for a ‘role’ that you want to play at some point in your life but is that what we still mean it to be? How would a child who has no idea what the multiplication table of 7 is be able to figure out the role he/she wants to have in some distant future?

In reality, the meaning of the word role model has changed. Role model no longer means talking about the role you want to play in the future but the people you want to be like.

Let me give you an example. When I was young, I used to tell everyone that Rahul Dravid, the cricketer and Dennis Bergkamp, the footballer, were my role models. But what did that mean? Did it mean that I wanted to be an athlete? Did it mean that I wanted to play for my country at the highest level possible? Did it mean that I wanted to have a fit physique?

In reality, what attracted me to these two personalities was the class and the elegance they displayed in their conduct. They were men of principles and believed in giving their best. Their lives are stories of patience and perseverance and I was really attracted by that. I wanted to have that. I wanted to practice that patience and perseverance in my life. I also wanted to work hard and always give my best no matter what the situation.

In this situation, is it more appropriate to say that they were my ‘role models’ or that they were my ‘value ideals’? Value ideals are values that you aspire to practice in your daily life. These values, while not absent in you presently, need to be honed and developed and you are willing to put in the work to achieve that ideal value. While ‘value ideals’ is not a legit term yet, in that it hasn’t appeared yet in the academic literature, it is a more accurate representation of what we have been mistakenly calling ‘role models’.

We don’t really have role models today. We have values that we want to inculcate in our life. We have ideals that we wish to strive towards and these values and ideals will continue to exist even if they are not manifested in an individual.

But how do we choose these values?

As you read above, my value ideals include having a life of principles, elegance, patience and perseverance but why only these? What makes me choose these values over the courage of a soldier or the dedication and affinity for public service that doctors, judges and lawyers have?

Does this mean that I don’t want to be courageous? Does it mean that I don’t want to have dedication in my life? Of course not. It simply means that while these values are important for me, I am not constantly striving to improve on these aspects of my life. Whenever I am faced with a dilemma, I don’t ask myself, “What is the brave thing to do here?” instead I ask, “What is the right thing to do here?” and these values may be very different for very different people and that is okay. This is what makes people different. The values that people hold close to themselves is what separates them from others. For some it is about being financially independent, for others it is about serving the people and for others it is about living a life of principles. All of these are interrelated and all of these are equally valid values to live by.

I again stress on the fact that role models don’t and should not exist today. Another argument against role models is that they are human. Human beings are, by nature, imperfect. Many people today don’t take that into account. When we inculcate the idea of role models in our youngsters, we also open the doors for hero-worship. People who see other humans as their role models invariably end up worshipping them. Unable to see the flaws in their role models, they end up being blind followers of a flawed individual. Others, who manage to see the flaws, always have a sense of emptiness and despair within them when they see the flaws in their heroes.

“Don’t meet your heroes.” The quote is relevant only because heroes are seen as perfect individuals which is an unrealistic expectation to have off any human being. Imagine, if Rahul Dravid ended up killing someone tomorrow, there are only two things that could happen.

One, I could be in complete denial about the possibility of my ‘hero’ doing something wrong. I would support him with blind eyes and refuse to believe any contrary evidence.

Or, I could be left in a lurch seeing my hero fall. But has my hero really fallen? Does the hypothetical fact that Rahul Dravid, my hero, has killed someone, mean that I cannot live by the values that I have acquired from him? Of course, I am not going to kill someone just because he did it too but I am not going to give up on my values because the person I got them from was not perfect.

Role models are not real. Value ideals are. It is time that we stop asking people who their role model is and start asking them what values they want to live by, what values are important to them and what value ideals they want to work towards.

Models are corruptible, values are not.