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.
When taking advice and leads from others, I tend to break people down into three groups:
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.