Since the very beginning of our lives, we have modeled actions by our parents, teachers, friends, celebrities, and countless others who have left an impression on us.
This is how we first learned about our world and how to interact in it.
You see, although we often like to think of ourselves as completely independent and autonomous individuals, the truth is who we are is greatly influenced by the people we choose to look up to.
Therefore, one thing I recommend people do is to write a list of the people they admire the most and why they admire them. This is a very useful exercise for determining what it is we really like about others, and how we can model these characteristics in our own lives.
A few years ago I wrote my own list of some of the influential figures in my life. I go back to this list at least once every month to reflect and add new people.
Here is just a small sample of some of the names on my list and how I break them down into different characteristics that I admire:
Intelligent: Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Raymond Kurzweil, Daniel Dennet, Marvin Minsky, Ayn Rand, Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Hofstadter
Funny: Robin Williams, Dave Chapelle, Bill Hicks, Louis C.K., Doug Stanhope, Norm MacDonald, Zack Galifianakis, Steven Colbert, George Carlin, Aziz Ansari
Creative: David Lynch, Frank Zappa, Charlie Kaufman, Quentin Tarantino, Alex Grey, Salvador Dali, Coen Brothers, Pixar, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton
Kind: Buddha, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Carl Rogers, Anne Frank
Hard working: Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Gary Vaynerchuk, Mike Patton, Henry Rollins, Lil Wayne, Google, David Wright
Seductive: Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Gene Simmons, Jared Leto, Neil Strauss
Of course, this list is personal to me, and your list is going to include many different influences not mentioned here. You can also “break down” the list in a way that suits your own values and goals. Maybe you want to focus on your health, then you should make a list of people who you find know a lot about being healthy and fit.
I also find it useful to include family, friends, and acquaintances who embody these characteristics – often having a “real world” reference is even more beneficial than looking up to individuals from afar.
Identifying people we admire is a key component to self improvement. It provides us with powerful resources to learn from and be motivated by.
When we focus on people who have achieved values and goals that we care about, we can use their example to achieve similar values and goals in our own lives.
As I mentioned in another recent post, 5 Attitudes Wired in Happy and Successful Brains, those who are happy and successful are often individuals who were willing to first learn from other happy and successful people. Creating a list of the people you admire is a great first step in doing this.
By the way, learning from other individuals is not about trying to copy or mimic their every move. In the end, you have to be yourself. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from someone else along the way.
Having people you admire doesn’t mean you worship everything about those individuals or think they are perfect. Model them only based on what they are good at. If you want to learn how to be a great boxer, watch videos of Mike Tyson, but that doesn’t mean you should take relationship advice from him too.
There’s something in psychology called “the halo effect” that we need to be careful about when admiring others. The Halo Effect is our tendency to judge a person as solely good because they are really good at one particular thing.
This is a big reason advertisers put celebrities in commercials. We falsely believe that if a person is good at one particular trait then that means they are also trustworthy in something else that is completely unrelated. For example, why is Dr. Dre telling me to drink Dr. Pepper? Sure, he is a great rap producer, but does that have anything to do with knowing good soda? Probably not.
Instead, it’s way more useful and practical to see people as a mixed bag. Sure, some people are really great at many things – and we can learn a lot from them – but we all have some flaws and weaknesses too. Don’t forget that the people you look up to are human at the end of the day.
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