EDITORIAL: In Picking Role Models, Don’t Confuse the Forest for the Woods

December 7, 2009
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Tiger "Not Quite Out of the Woods" after admitting to past transgressions.

Tiger "Not Quite Out of the" Woods after admitting to past transgressions.

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger …

Tiger Woods’ admission that “I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all my heart” is not enough to make me swear off role models.

We continue to need role models. We cannot overcome ourselves by ourselves. We simply need to be open to more kinds of mentors, taking more of a cafeteria-style approach in selecting those worthy of inspiration, not necessarily of imitation.

Mentors only can take us so far; the hard work still has to be done by us. If we rely too heavily on others to do our work for us, we will only suffer. “O, how wretched is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favors,” wrote Shakespeare in Henry VIII.

So look beyond the media-made mentors, such as actors, athletes and rock stars, to your teachers, ministers, coaches and to anyone else who can help you improve as a human being.  Don’t copy from them, rather borrow from them and your own style will develop naturally. Guard against making heroes out of your role models or elevating them to positions above yourself, because, as human beings, they are imperfect, too.

Think of your mentors as your current board of directors, with each one bringing different strengths and assets that can help you reach your full potential and promise. But no one on the board gets a life pass.  Admission to your club has to be earned.

You might never have heard of Stephen King if his wife Tabitha hadn’t rescued from the trash his short story about a teenage girl named Carietta White. Fortunately for King, his wife not only retrieved the crumpled pages from the circular file, but also read them and encouraged her husband to continue his story, which he finally submitted to Doubleday as “Carrie.” When Doubleday sold the paperback rights to New American Library for $400,000, King got half, and he quit his teaching job to pursue writing full time.

Looking back on that episode of his life, King said, “It was a time when my wife would have been expected to say, ‘Why don’t you quit spending three hours a night in the laundry room, Steve, smoking cigars and drinking beer we can’t afford … and get an actual job?’”

So, Tabitha is on my board of directors, but so is Tiger despite his “transgressions.” The Tiger Woods Foundation and Tiger Woods Learning Center have advanced educational opportunities for thousands of youngsters and put many more on the path to achievement.

Role models may not always live up to all of our expectations. Often, we need to look past our own anger, disappointment and disillusionment over a single act, and remember the totality of the human being we have long admired. Just because the great scientist Galileo Galilei abjured many of his lifelong scientific assertions under pressure from the church, he and his body of work, helping us to see the universe in a whole new light, should not be thought any less of. Would it have been better for Galileo to be burned at the stake clinging to his convictions, per the perfect Hollywood ending?

Don’t give up on finding role models who can help you and teach you. They can hail from anywhere. Just remember, even the best among them are still imperfect. From several role models, seek inspiration, not imitation.

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