Heroes, Role Models, and Mentors

Finding People to Believe In

One of the biggest challenges I faced in my early adult life was the lack of a mentor or a role model for many aspects of my life, particularly the financial aspects. My life was completely different than what I had experienced growing up, thus I couldn’t draw on childhood examples. Most of my friends were mostly young, single professionals bent on a materialistic lifestyle, thus providing some pretty terrible role models for good financial habits. The people I viewed as mentors or as heroes were also not particularly known for the financial acumen. Luckily, over time, I was able to find the right people to listen to and, in some ways, emulate.

Almost all of us, consciously or not, have heroes, role models, and mentors in our lives. We identify people who share some values with us, then use their behavior and ideas as an input for what we should be doing. The challenge is to find people whose values and actions match our deeply held beliefs. This seems obvious at first, but it’s something that I’ve personally had a very challenging time with and I know many others have had a challenge with, too.

Taking Advice From Others: Three Groups of People

Heroes

Heroes are people I don’t know. I come across their teachings from media sources and try to absorb as much knowledge from them as I can. Usually, these are people who have walked, at least in part, a similar path to mine at some point in their life and have built something great from it. People in this group might include Warren Buffett, Dave Ramsey, Peter Lynch, and the like – I usually review their books on The Simple Dollar, for example.

Role Models

Role models are people I know and observe, but don’t ask questions of. These are people I observe succeeding in life and doing it in a way that settles well with my values. They offer ideas for behavior in their actions and reaffirm to me that I can be successful by making those choices. I have several of these.

Mentors

Mentors are role models that I choose to approach and talk to about the things on my mind. These people often are role models that I feel very comfortable with or associate with regularly, and they often become close friends over time. I have several of these, too, thankfully.

Here’s some advice for finding these people in your own life, using what they can teach you, and putting it in the right context.

Advice for Finding and Benefitting From These People

1. Start off with the people you respect, even if you can’t figure out exactly why you respect them.

Don’t use your peers or friends right now as heroes or role models unless you already have a deep level of personal respect for them. Identify the people you truly respect, identify where that respect comes from, and use them as a hero or role model or mentor for that area.

2. Absorb as much as you can.

The more you absorb, the closer you’ll get to the core principles of the behaviors of the people you respect, and that’s really what you’re seeking. Heroes and role models and mentors are there to help you grow as a person, and the best way to do that is to watch for behaviors you like and respect and figure out why these behaviors happen. When you start to really understand why they’re doing this, you’ll often find that the underlying logic begins to appear in your own life – you’ve grown as a person.

3. Use people as role models for specific aspects of your life, not your whole life.

I wholly respect Warren Buffett for his investment skill, philanthropy, and personal finance philosophy and use him as a role model in some financial aspects of my life, but I don’t view him as a moral leader, for example.

4. If a mentor or role model says or does something that doesn’t ring true with what you personally believe or value, don’t follow your mentor blindly.

No one is absolutely right and you need to find your own path in life. Don’t just blindly follow what someone else says – apply what you already know and your pre-existing sense of what’s right and wrong to what they’re saying. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try out new ideas, just that you shouldn’t absolutely follow every word that comes from your mentor or role model.

5. Recognize when you’re adopting ideas and behaviors you don’t respect.

When I was in college, I adopted a post-doctoral student as something of a role model. He seemed to really have his life figured out, from my perspective: he truly loved the research he was doing and spent his free time following whatever intellectual whims took him at the moment. For a long time, I yearned for that kind of life and I worked hard to try to make something like it my own.

Over time, as I emulated that behavior and listened to his advice on how to get through school and such, I eventually began to dislike what I was doing. I was rejecting a lot of relationships that were very important to me so I could focus on research. Even worse (and this was a glimmer of things to come), I found myself spending a lot of my own money on activities and things that superficially seemed right, but actually didn’t fill any real purpose in my life. I paid to attend “enlightening” concerts that really didn’t speak to me, I purchased books that I would leaf through and then basically leave unread because they seemed “weighty,” and so on. Eventually, I realized that although there were aspects of this person that I respected a lot, he was not a great role model or mentor for me.

6. Don’t be afraid of the “anti” role model.

Along with having some heroes and role models and mentors in my own life, I have a set of “anti” role models as well – people who operate with value sets and ideas that I personally despise. Rather than ignoring these people, I often give them some thought as well, trying to understand the behaviors that I reject as well as the ones that I admire. Again, when I begin to understand the root cause behind behaviors that I don’t like, I grow as a person.

7. This is about you, no one else.

Make your own judgments. If everyone else is advocating a person’s advice or blindly participating in hero worship, yet you don’t see what’s so great about it, don’t follow along with the herd. Figure things out for yourself, and you’ll be just fine.

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  1. Robert says:

    Regarding the anti-role model, Jimmy Buffet said it best:

    “I read lots of books about heroes and crooks,
    and I learned a lot from both of their styles”

    Sometimes knowing how things work can protect you from being prey.

  2. If you’ve got a mentor already, nurture the relationship. It can be very hard to find someone who has done what you want to do and is willing to take the time to share their experience with you. I’m still looking for mine!

    Peter

  3. TheFrugalPlace says:

    Interesting post and on a topic I think about a lot.

    I have divorced parents.

    One retired at about 50 years old to a custom-built home and funds for the rest of their life in relative comfort. They grow a lot of their own food and they spend their days volunteering in their small town community.

    The other is now 61, a total shopaholic who just recently took on about 50K in student loans! In addition their spouse opted for a retirement where they get nothing once the spouse dies. The world will crumble as the spouse has a brain tumor that is inoperable and is starting to be a real issue in their lives, though it is not cancerous. My parent will end up with a not paid for house, tons of debt, and student loans up the wazoo. Truly insane.

    While DH and I have our issues I do try to emulate the parent who did things the “right way” rather than the other way I have seen….

    The horrible thing is that the parent with the horrible financial life inherrited about 300K about 6 years ago and spent it…

  4. Peter says:

    I’ve learned more about poor choices from watching the consequences of others making them, and think that’s an important aspect Trent raised in the article that’s often overlooked. For example:

    Watching my teenage friends pick up lipstick stained butts from the side of the road to get enough tobacco so they could roll a couple of cigarettes to tide them over until they got their allowances showed me I needed to smoke like I needed a hole in my head.

    Watching college buddies drink until they puked nearly every weekend, then seeing their grades plummet as the behaviour spilled over into the weekdays, showed me that that kind of lifestyle doesn’t cut it if you want to make anything of yourself.

    Being driven around in a Mercedes, wined and dined, and shown the high life by someone trying to get me on board their “team”, only to watch the way they spoke to a “team member” when they thought I wasn’t around, taught me to be less impressed by the trappings and more focused on the meat. (not to mention the reaction when I rebuffed their offer, talk about burning bridges)

    I’ve picked up lots of good things from watching as well. I can’t tell you the number of people who exhibit habits and behaviours I’ve tried emulating, some better than others. Even small things like how someone calms an angry customer and actually turns things around in a retail store can be instructional if you happen to be there and pay attention.

  5. What about the anti-role model? I love my dad but learned many things about what NOT to do from him.

    -Raymond

  6. Tabatha Alcina says:

    I really like this one, especially the last topic. A lot of people seem to think some heroes are mandatory, and they never even know why.

  7. Ryan S. says:

    One of my friends is the total anti-role model in terms of his consumerism. He and his wife were in five figure credit card debt, got bailed out by his folks, and within a year, were back in five figure credit card debt. A couple years later, her grandparents bailed them out again, and less than a year later, they’re back in four figure, approaching five figure credit card debt.

  8. Kay says:

    As others are indicating, sometimes it’s the anti-role models who have the strongest impact. However, the fact that my stepson’s mother is a financial screw-up is actually one of my motivations for educating him about money and giving him strong role models in his father and myself. We’re not perfect, but we have a nice home, a rental property, retirement accounts, emergency and college savings, and only one non-mortgage debt that will be paid off within months. We take nice vacations and live comfortably. Dinner is home-cooked every night, most of our “treats” are homemade, and we do the work around our house ourselves — effort that is not hidden from The Boy if he’s going to enjoy the reward.

    His mother, on the other hand, is a bright, charming woman with professional training. Her house — which she never maintained — was foreclosed upon this year after she lost a job through her own misconduct; she just moved out and abandoned it and her mortgage. She currently lives in run-down subsidized apartment with her frequently unemployed boyfriend. She doesn’t answer her phone or open her mail for weeks at a time, dodging creditors. Though she has a clerical job, she makes barely enough to get by and she has no savings. When The Boy is at her apartment, though, he can drink all the soda he wants, dinner is usually eaten at a restaurant or made from convenience foods at home, and his mom gives him $5 for lunch (I pack his lunch on the days he’s here). They also have thousands of dollars of computers, game systems, and games.

    This situation can make me — as a stepmother — walk a very shaky tightrope at times. I like his mom, but I strongly disapprove of her financial choices. So, we go out of our way to expose our financial planning to The Boy and let him see first-hand the differences in our lifestyles. We never speak negatively about his mother (when he’s here, at least), but when he shares the latest horror story from her place — like when the gas was turned off for non-payment and the house was very, very cold overnight — we try to make sure he understands how to avoid that when he is an adult.

    (I’m no saint, btw. When he’s not here, I’ll occasionally rant about the fact that we pay her hundreds of dollars in child support each month, yet she funds none of his clothes, school supplies, toys and games, travel, or spending money, and he lives with us five days a week. At the same time, she’s always 30-60 days behind on her car loan, which my husband co-signed and which could easily be covered by her child support money. It drives me nuts sometimes that her house seems like the “fun house”, because he can eat junk and play games all day, whereas he has to do his homework, get up early, and can’t pig out when he’s here during the week. But those are things I can’t change and they

  9. Kay says:

    As others are indicating, sometimes it’s the anti-role models who have the strongest impact. However, the fact that my stepson’s mother is a financial screw-up is actually one of my motivations for educating him about money and giving him strong role models in his father and myself. We’re not perfect, but we have a nice home, a rental property, retirement accounts, emergency and college savings, and only one non-mortgage debt that will be paid off within months. We take nice vacations and live comfortably. Dinner is home-cooked every night, most of our “treats” are homemade, and we do the work around our house ourselves — effort that is not hidden from The Boy if he’s going to enjoy the reward.

    His mother, on the other hand, is a bright, charming woman with professional training. Her house — which she never maintained — was foreclosed upon this year after she lost a job through her own misconduct; she just moved out and abandoned it and her mortgage. She currently lives in run-down subsidized apartment with her frequently unemployed boyfriend. She doesn’t answer her phone or open her mail for weeks at a time, dodging creditors. Though she has a clerical job, she makes barely enough to get by and she has no savings. When The Boy is at her apartment, though, he can drink all the soda he wants, dinner is usually eaten at a restaurant or made from convenience foods at home, and his mom gives him $5 for lunch (I pack his lunch on the days he’s here). They also have thousands of dollars of computers, game systems, and games.

    This situation can make me — as a stepmother — walk a very shaky tightrope at times. I like his mom, but I strongly disapprove of her financial choices. So, we go out of our way to expose our financial planning to The Boy and let him see first-hand the differences in our lifestyles. We never speak negatively about his mother (when he’s here, at least), but when he shares the latest horror story from her place — like when the gas was turned off for non-payment and the house was very, very cold overnight — we try to make sure he understands how to avoid that when he is an adult.

    (I’m no saint, btw. When he’s not here, I’ll occasionally rant about the fact that we pay her hundreds of dollars in child support each month, yet she funds none of his clothes, school supplies, toys and games, travel, or spending money, and he lives with us five days a week. At the same time, she’s always 30-60 days behind on her car loan, which my husband co-signed and which could easily be covered by her child support money. It drives me nuts sometimes that her house seems like the “fun house”, because he can eat junk and play games all day, whereas he has to do his homework, get up early, and can’t pig out when he’s here during the week. But those are things I can’t change and they’re certainly nothing he needs to hear.)

  10. turbogeek says:

    @Raymond & @Peter,

    Agreed. I’ve had both flavor role models / mentors.

    My Dad is an exceptional money manager and hammered into me the right things to do.

    One of my early bosses in my career leased expensive cars, bought houses with very little down on 40-year mortgages, and leased his life.

    The positive messages from my Dad never hit home until a ‘turning point’ conversation with my idiot boss one day. He was in his early 40’s and I was in my early 30’s; he had been earning 6-figures for over 15 years, and I was in my second or third year of 6-figure earnings. We were talking about an upcoming Bond Issue from a private company that had just announced intent for an IPO the following year. We both thought it was a wise investment, and in an industry we were very familiar with. I almost fell out of my chair when he said “Yeah, but the bonds are only sold in $10,000 blocks, and no normal people can do that.” My reply was, “Well… I don’t want to have this as more than 20% of my non tax-sheltered portfolio, or 10% of my portfolio overall, so I’ll only be buying 2 blocks.”

    I called my Dad and told him the story. Then my Dad, who has never had a 6-figure income, bought 2 blocks as well.

  11. Katie says:

    living (for the next few months, at least) with my anti-role model (in a lot of ways, money included).

    I have to say I’m CONSTANTLY being shown just how much money management can rule your life – and seeing them go through money like it’s an endless supply and wasting away their trust fund(s)… it’s CONSTANT motivation and reinforcement that the choices I’m making are right.

  12. Michael says:

    Trent, this is your site description in the blogads links:

    “The Simple Dollar is the most popular independent personal finance blog on the internet, reaching a million visitors per month. These readers are affluent, intelligent, and conscious of their money and the social issues around them. ”

    You are not the most popular, independent, personal finance blog. GetRichSlowly, for example, shows twice your RSS numbers. I don’t believe your non-subscriber/search traffic beats GRS either, because a linkdomain search on Yahoo returns 128,000 backlinks for GRSinks and only 78,400 for you.

    I respond: JD, is that you? I base my claim on SiteMeter statistics, the only tool available to directly compare the visitors and page views of The Simple Dollar and Get Rich Slowly. See them for yourself:
    The Simple Dollar’s stats: http://www.sitemeter.com/?a=stats&s=sm5trenthamm
    Get Rich Slowly’s stats: http://www.sitemeter.com/?a=stats&s=s25getrich

    Feed subscribers are rather inaccurate because (a) they’re somewhat based on the time a site has been around, (b) different audiences have different levels of adoption of RSS, and (c) some feed readers provide feeds arbitrarily as a default. If you believe in feed read counts as an indicator of popularity, you believe that PFblog.com is more popular than Get Rich Slowly, which is patently absurd.

    JD and I have very different audiences, and it’s impossible to tell whose content is read more. I suspect JD has quite a few more authentic feed reading people than I do, whereas I know I have quite a few more people visiting the site than he does. However, to say The Simple Dollar is “not the most popular, independent, personal finance blog” is at least reasonably off base.

  13. Michael says:

    Your site is seen more often.

  14. Debbie M says:

    The part about anti-role models also struck a chord with me, but for a different reason. Often I despise something about a person because it is a magnified version of something I hate about myself. Watching them do those things I am tempted to do and seeing it in such a big way makes it much easier for me to notice when I am moving in those directions in more subtle ways.

    Just knowing how not to do things isn’t enough. Sometimes we’re not doing things the way we’d like because we don’t know how. Seeing someone actually doing it, especially doing it in an extreme way, is very helpful.

  15. Brooke says:

    I like how you classified heroes, role models and mentors. I never really thought of them as being delineated along lines of contact methods.

    I would like to think I’m the protege of some of my mentors, but I guess only time will tell.

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