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Screengrab: Bad-Boy Billionaires (Netflix)
Screengrab: Bad-Boy Billionaires (Netflix)

The enduring absurdity of following our role models

  • People confuse the impressive with the inspirational and try in vain to achieve what they can't

One night, in a villa in Gurgaon, the drinking session of a circle of friends entered the peacock phase, a standard chapter in a house party when one person begins to display a special talent and others then show theirs. Someone sat on the floor in a lotus position and rose without using her arms or knees. A woman who was surprised to find out she could not do that displayed her own superpower, which was to stay in plank position for several minutes. Two people then started swinging on their arms while seated. A man then showed he could do several push-ups. Seeing this, another guy started doing push-ups on the back of his palm. An amateur runner who could not do that without breaking his wrists wondered if he should challenge everybody to a long midnight run.

As you can see, everyone here displayed something almost exceptional their body could do because of long training or some physical anomaly, and they demonstrated their gifts as evidence of specialness. At a grander level, this is what “role models" do. Yet, those tipsy friends, like the rest of the world, take role models seriously.

The origin of their peacock chapter itself was in a recent tweet from one of India’s most famous role models—Milind Soman, who had posted a video clip of himself sitting on the floor with his legs folded and rising without any support but from the edges of his feet. This manoeuvre had found fame a few years ago after people with impressive medical degrees claimed that the elderly who can do it tend to live longer than those who cannot. Many old people then tried to do it, and injured themselves. What was merely supposed to be evidence of fitness among senior citizens soon became something that people worked on to achieve; a bit like what we do with aptitude tests. Many more will injure themselves after watching Milind Soman’s clip. This though will not be as destructive as the recent preening of a fitness simpleton who had posted a video of himself swinging an LPG gas cylinder around claiming it was an exercise. It was in reality the very opposite—an impressive way to injure your back and shoulders.

The world is filled with bad role models. A disenchantment of life emerges from this. People confuse what is impressive with what is truly inspirational. Every extraordinary person, or every person who can do one extraordinary thing, transmits two simultaneous messages, both erroneous. One appears humble—“You too can do it"—and the other is vain: “Why can’t you be like me". This is at the heart of the advice industry’s perpetuity. Successful people offer advice without revealing or in ignorance of the overarching reason they are able to do that one thing. This overarching reason could be a physical anomaly, mental anomaly, or just genes. Millions who do not possess this crucial factor, without which the task is impossible, try to imitate success and fail; and then they seek more guidance, and are given more wrong guidance.

The absurdity of role models for physical health points to the kind of rubbish that goes on in the mental health and spiritual advice industries. A person with a particular mental condition sits on a pedestal and asks others to be like him, or to do what he does, and others who do not have his mental anomaly try in vain to achieve it, misunderstanding a mere fog for a mountain that they must scale.

A new documentary on “bad-boy" billionaires makes something about wealth clear to those who wish to see the truth—that, like in the case of exceptional athletic fitness, the overarching reason why some people become extremely wealthy cannot be imitated. They are simply scions of rich dads, or corrupt in ways that are not possible for most people, or just plain lucky. These are not virtues that a role model imparts. As a result, they impart only the virtues that usually form the second rung of reasons—like persistence and technical intelligence, which are useless without the overarching factors.

This is why good-boy billionaires could be worse role models than bad-boy billionaires. The unflattering paths to success of bad boys are exposed, but the paths of good billionaires are rarely known. Let us not forget many bad-boy billionaires were once good billionaires, who even spoke like role models about how to be successful.

Another group of highly influential but useless role models are wealthy underdogs. They hail from victimized segments of the society, but are mostly also from extremely wealthy households. Like African-Americans, Muslim migrants and others who are celebrated for facing “great odds". It is not that the famous among them did not have to fight any battles; just that their success cannot be replicated by the other marginalized without an overarching factor—an exceptional head start provided by a very wealthy home. The lucky are not duds as stars; they are duds as role models.

So is there no such thing as a role model? Are all imitations of extraordinary people fated to fail? Can there be no inspiration at all? That is not true. Who then is a good role model?

A meaningful role model is usually never a star. He or she instead is a regular person who not merely shares your broad identity, like gender or culture, but also is in your exact hyper-local situation, an ordinary person with flaws who transcends his or her circumstances using ordinary and imitable qualities. A true role model thus is often someone who knows your name.

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