One of the more pernicious notions of popular culture these days is the claim that we need role models. We’re told that the percentage of a particular type of face or mode of living shown on television or in magazines affects the ability of young Americans to enter the portrayed field, that celebrities of all varieties should consider their behavior in terms of its influence, that the climb upward can only be done along worn paths.
Call it my white, male privilege, but I see this as damaging to human progress. Instead, the message we should be giving to the supposedly fragile future generations is that potential is an individual thing, something that each person must personally discover. In other words, dear reader, you don’t need a role model.
Yes, as Isaac Newton said of his achievements, we stand on the shoulders of giants. But those giants weren’t always born into a lofty position. And the shoulders on which they stood belonged to pioneers who found their own ways into the unknown.
Hillary and Norgay had examples of mountain climbers, but were they good role models? Previous attempts at conquering Everest killed climbers who came before. And while human beings had climbed other mountains in the past, no one had reached the highest point on Earth.
Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins could look to spacefarers in their day who had stuck a toe into the cosmic ocean, but no one had done exactly what they did. And if they’d waited for a role model for landing on the Moon, no human footprints would be there even today.
Jonas Salk gave us the means to eliminate polio, and while he had some examples of how to go about making a particular disease a thing of the past, if Edward Jenner had waited for a role model, a lot more of us would be dying of needless diseases now.
Vera Rubin could have said that she didn’t see enough women in the sciences to justify her joining the field, and who knows how long we’d have waited to discover that dark matter holds our galaxy together? Margaret Thatcher might have said that politics is for men, and the British people might still be waiting for their first woman prime minister. Ann Dunwoody and Janet Wolfenbarger might have said that there are no women who are flag officers in the United States military, so why try?
In any field, in any profession, current or yet to be invented or discovered, someone will be first — first in, first to achieve, first to smash the perceived limits of what we’re able to do. The only question is why won’t that person be you.
You don’t need a role model. What you need is imagination, developed skill, and grit. Get to it.
For more of my writing, go here.