Growing up, most of us had an exemplary person we looked up to, learned from, and aspired to be like one day. Maybe it was a relative, teacher, coach, peer, religious figure, supervisor, or co-worker. For me, it was my father, Vito, a child of the Depression era, who taught me about the value of hard work and taking care of others. He passed away nearly 20 years ago, but I so wished I could’ve talked with him during quarantine. I never expected I’d still be seeking role models decades after settling into a career and becoming a parent. It turns out we need them lifelong.
“All of us at each stage [of life] need to have people to look to who we can admire and emulate,” says Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of adult life ever conducted. “Many of the people in the Harvard study had role models” — parents, coaches, commanding officers in World War II. Begun in 1938, the study has tracked the lives of hundreds of men, and now their wives and children, to understand what keeps us healthy and happy as we age.
We organize our lives around life stories — our own and other people’s, Waldinger says. When we watch people we admire, “Their lives tell us a certain story about what it’s like to live a certain kind of life.” For those with role models, that’s a more resilient and optimistic life, research shows. A study on aging found that 85 percent of people ages 18 to 99 had at least one elderly role model of successful aging — someone who was leading an active life — and that helped the younger person envision a positive old age for themselves. My dear friend’s 99-year-old mother has set the bar for me on that. She’s inquisitive, generous, laughs easily, and is the closest thing I know to a saint, if saints drink wine.
Our role models may teach us how to be the kind of parents we hope to be, live according to our values, or take care of ourselves. A close friend in her 60s lost her mother-in-law recently and only realized after she had died what a powerful role model this woman had been for her. “She took care of me, and I never had that in my life. I always had to take care of my mother,” my friend says. “She was so strong. There was something about her presence, her tenacity. She was a huge figure in my growth and in my learning to become a mother, and a grandmother.”
Hilina Ajakaiye, executive vice president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, credits the many role models in her life for where she is today. “My success does not belong to me, it belongs to so many people, specifically my mom,” she says. Ajakaiye’s mother put her young daughters on a one-way flight from Ethiopia to the United States to join their father, an attorney living in Cambridge who had fled Ethiopia without his family years earlier due to political unrest and death threats. “She made the ultimate sacrifice,” knowing life in the United States would be better for her girls, says Ajakaiye, who was only 12 when she boarded that plane. Now 44, she still turns to role models for guidance in her career. And wanting to reciprocate for the “great advice and folks around me that wanted to help me,” she founded a nonprofit, R.I.S.E. Women’s Leadership Conference, to help mentor and empower women navigating the workplace.
Since the start of the pandemic, that workplace has shifted to the home office for many of us, and with that shift we’ve lost many of the human connections that help ground and guide us. Even at age 70, Robert Waldinger says, he has felt the need for role models during this moment in history. “At a time, particularly when we’re confused and scared, it’s really helpful to have a model of someone who stays calm and keeps perspective,” he says, pointing to Drs. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, and Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, as two people with these qualities.
Role models in some ways offer us a vision of our future selves, the “person we can realistically hope to grow into,” John D. Mayer explains. Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and a trailblazer in the development and study of emotional intelligence — the ability to perceive emotions accurately and understand and manage them — says that getting to know your future self can help you attain your goals and put you on a path to greater well-being. When talking about role models, Mayer emphasizes that “one of the keys there is the realistic part.” When we’re kids, we may dream about becoming baseball players, singers, celebrities, he says; as we mature, we start to learn, “I can take this piece of a person and this other piece of my friend and those would be good things to incorporate and include in part of my own growth plan.”
So perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves, no matter our age, isn’t “What do I want to be when I grow up?” but rather, “How do I keep growing into the person I would like to become?”
Marianne Jacobbi is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.