Having someone to look up to, whether we're talking about a living person from our surroundings, or someone that we never met, or even someone from the history – is important in various ways. Having healthy role models bears a great significance in the process of growing up because humans are naturally hardwired to imitate behaviour and to learn from other people's actions. Observing the actions of others helps us to understand what behaviour is desirable, and what kind of actions create consequences that we can see as beneficial, both for us and for others.
Role models help us to grow and become who we want to be. They work as catalysts for the process of initiation. In this sense, it is rather interesting to look into the archetype of a hero’s journey, if we position the elements like this: you are the one to become a hero, that is – you are to become who you want to be, presumably a healthy and happy individual. Becoming a hero is a process that lasts, it demands your time and effort and also – some sidekicks and guides.
Joseph Campbell wrote an interesting study called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he offered his own explanation of the structure of a hero’s journey, which can be simplified through these three stages: separation – initiation – return.
We are all going through constant changes and transitions and often we need some support and help along the way. Most of the heroic stories have the same pattern when it comes to hero’s journey, the only difference is in the variations of the basic structure. It is interesting to see that that’s how life works, so the mythical stories and the modern ones as well – tend to reflect life and its impulses, but it also works vice-versa.
First, we have a call for adventure. For example, we may be thinking about taking a new step in our careers, or we are thinking about moving to another town or taking a trip around Europe. It could be an adventure and it most certainly means challenging the status quo. The possibility of change is offered to us by someone else or there is a personal, inside urge for something new that, in most cases – also includes some role models.
Then, we have reluctance and refusal. We don’t feel completely sure whether or not we want to take that leap of faith. That’s where role models step in: they provide us with needed encouragement. Role models can take many different forms in our lives, it’s good to keep that in mind.
Finally – there is our consent for the adventure, which results in moving forward from our old world into a new, unexplored one. Every call for adventure implies a certain transition, which is inspired by some sort of a guide. It can be inspired by a historical figure, for example; or by a hero from our favourite book. That’s exactly why inspirational quotes affect us and that is how role models function: we think to ourselves – If he/she has done it, what’s stopping me? I want to be more like that! It’s important to stress that this doesn’t mean that you’ll lose yourself and live your life like a copycat. On the contrary, having someone to look up to can create great opportunities for you and help you to become a better person, as well as a healthy role model for someone else. It is not a written rule to have only one role model, actually – it is desirable to have more.
The Separation Phase comes after we have decided to leave our old world behind. We are voluntarily pushing ourselves forward and our guides give us the wind beneath our wings. It can be hard to leave safe ground and sail towards the unknown. Most people don’t like change, because although it can bring us bliss and joy – it can also make everything worse. This risk is what keeps people paralysed, stuck in one place – too afraid to move forward.
The main phase – initiation within the process of transition, means difficult times, defeats and victories, times where we are tested and where we grow; it’s a time where you’ll sometimes feel tired and feel like giving up; but then, with the help of your guide (role model) – you manage to survive and finish what you start. In the structure of fairy tales, the ending is happy; in life it doesn’t work that way always. However, in that case, you should perceive your journey as just one small part of a bigger, more important journey, so it was an obstacle that was meant to happen and rewards will not be lacking. In the process of transition, you will meet allies and enemies, supporters and foes.
The last phase involves returning to your old world, which paradoxically isn’t your old world anymore, not per se. It has changed because you have. The return means coming back home, but paradoxically – it’s not the same safe ground you left, it has changed because you’ve grown. Or, as Arnold Van Gennep (French ethnographer and folklorist) said – the process of initiation is done when the individual has been again incorporated in the community, as a changed individual. When it comes to real life, returning home shouldn’t be considered literally: in the process of transition, you might find a new home for yourself, but in this sense – home is a place where you took your first breath and somewhere you should always come back, even if it’s just for a visit.
This pattern that begins with a call for adventure is present in every heroic story, as we aforementioned. Remember how Bilbo Baggins (from Tolkien’s The Hobbit), refused to go for an adventure:
Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not today. Good morning! But please come to tea – any time you like! Why not tomorrow? Good bye!
But eventually, with the support of his mentor Gandalf, he managed to gather the courage and take a chance.
It is interesting to see the origin of the mentioned word – mentor. Mentor was actually a person from Greek mythology, a friend of Odysseus who was helping the management of Odysseus’s property in Ithaca, while he was gone. Athena used the human shape of Mentor in order to communicate with Telemachus and encourage him to go on his own journey and find his father. Mentor is here displayed as a person of trust, but also as a person of great wisdom. In modern sense, it is someone who guides as and teaches us, supports us and leads us with a specific intention: in order to empower us to become leaders ourselves.
There are plenty of examples. Yoda is a modern-fiction paradigm for wisdom; Dumbledore from the series of Harry Potter is the most known modern mentor, as well as Gandalf from Lord of the rings series. Role models can be found anywhere: in fiction, in our communities, in our own families and friends, and in history. Sharing positive values with someone means building your own credibility and growing to become a better person, which is also important in order to stay motivated and focused.
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