I know I've mentioned Real Role Models, the book I've spent the last 12 or so months writing, to many of you. I wanted to let you know that the manuscript has been written and handed to my publisher and is currently being reviewed. I'll try to keep you posted on its progress as we approach our anticipated release date in early 2009. To hold you over, here's a snippet that has even more relevance given the most exciting sporting event happening right now is the NBA Playoffs:
Before we can truly understand the concept of a real role model, we must acknowledge there is no simple definition for the term role model. It’s one of those terms that is frequently over used or misused because no one has ever told us exactly who or what a role model is. Often times, people like to think about role models the way they think about people they’re attracted to: I’ll know one when I see one.
However, we owe much of our common thinking on the term role model to Dr. Robert Merton, a longtime Columbia University professor and award-winning sociologist who died a few months before his 93rd birthday in 2003. Dr. Merton received honorary degrees from several prestigious colleges and universities not for his terming of role models but after having coined some other well-known academic terms such as "self-fulfilling prophecy” and “unintended consequences.”
Still, one could only wonder if Dr. Merton had any intended consequences when he came up with the term role model. It was Dr. Merton who initially stated his belief that every man compared himself with other men within a certain social (and professional) role that just so happened to be the role we aspired to attain. In other words, if you’re a young Black student interested in having a career in the military, every adult will probably talk to you about retired Four-Star General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In him, you’ll be told, you have yourself a real role model.
But today more than ever, profession should not dictate who someone views as a role model. For example, although I never aspired to be a rapper, I’ve been inspired by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter for years as he has accumulated fame and fortune while maturing, both personally and professionally. From this example, and the interviews conducted for this book, I established my own personal definition of a real role model.
A real role model is someone you admire who possesses and projects positive qualities that have helped them develop and grow, personally and professionally, and inspire others to follow in his or her footsteps toward success.
It’s a mouth-full, but everything necessary is included. For starters, your real role models should be people you admire. This is perhaps one reason why so many famous Black people cite their own mothers as their main sources of inspiration or best role model when receiving Grammy Awards or MVP trophies.
In the definition, there is an early emphasis on positive qualities because real role models should double as good people. While it is unreasonable to think being a real role model makes someone perfect (no one is), it is justifiable to expect them to be good people, at least by general standards. This, after all, is one of the reasons why Americans, and popular media, are so fascinated when celebrities have major character flaws that lead to things like drug addiction and infidelity. We are not only fascinated because of their celebrity status, but also because popular media has convinced us that these people are worthy of the highest praise and they have earned every bit of recognition (and money) they get. We are too often disappointed.
That said, when I say “good people” I speak to the nature of deserving one’s rewards such as honors and wealth. For a quick example, think about this: while winning the lottery then buying cars for your family members does not necessarily make you a role model, starting a community center with that money and working for 20 years to make a difference in the lives of others, outside of your family, may.
Also, the mention of personal and professional development indicates a real role model understands the important role personal success plays in helping one achieve success professionally, and vice versa. For proof of this, look no further than television shows like The Cosby Show or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where the main characters’ personal lives were depicted more frequently than their professional lives. We hardly ever saw Dr. Huxtable (Cosby Show) or Uncle Banks (Fresh Prince) - the role models of their respective shows - at the office. Even the TV writers realize that working all day and night and living without family or enjoyment may be the quickest or most expected route to professional success, but it doesn’t make someone worthy of role model consideration.
Lastly, the word “inspire” is included in order to acknowledge the often understated, but real influence one’s success has on those around them. One of the main differences between simple role models and real role models is the acknowledgment of their influence on others. For an example of this look to chapter 23 where we interview children’s surgeon Dr. Tim George, who proves having an understanding of your role and influence on a young person’s life makes you more of a real role model than being a successful doctor alone.
In all honesty, though, this definition of a real role model only goes as far as this book takes it. As you read these pages, you should tweak it and develop your own definition of a real role model, which helps you create your own vision of what kind of role model you want to be. Regardless of definition, I think there will remain some shared concepts and principles.
Amongst those shared concepts and principles of a real role model was the importance of personal responsibility. Each and every person we interviewed indicated that a real role model doesn’t run from the duty that is entailed in being someone’s role model. There are no Charles Barkleys here. Each one of them considers it an honor and privilege to be a positive influence in the lives of others, especially for young Blacks.
In acknowledging their duty, honor and privilege, these real role models are representations of the kind of people that exist throughout the Black community, albeit in hiding it seems, who can be a positive influence for others. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of others who could have been interviewed and included in these pages. It will be your task to take the lessons from this book and find some real role models of your own.
Also, I must clarify that I do not believe real role models have to be people you know personally nor must they be famous. While it makes for a much stronger connection to have that role model in your life on a regular basis, this is not a necessity. I have been equally inspired and motivated by some people I’ve read about in magazines just as much as people I have met before. However, you don’t need to look to a magazine or TV to find one because - as this book demonstrates - there are real role models all over the country.
That’s what makes it so beneficial to identify real role models of our own. Through role models, it becomes easier to see what opportunities are available both in your community and in your future, learn by example, and understand how one person’s path to success can be used as a roadmap for your own.
In many regards, that is exactly what a real role model is, a personal and professional road map. Sure, they may not all be as rich and famous as Jay-Z or as accomplished and dignified as General Colin Powell, but they can all represent a roadmap to success and fulfillment for someone.
Personally speaking, my mother, who never graduated from college or made more than $40,000-a-year, is my best example of a real role model when I think about the kind of work ethic I want to have and what kind of parent I want to be someday. Similarly, I don’t know what kind of parent Jay-Z would be (I do not believe he has children), but I know he’s been a role model to millions of Blacks because of the doors he’s helped to open for an entire generation of fans.
That said, it’s important that we not see real role models as having to be all things to all people nor should they be expected to be perfect (unless a certain Nazareth native is your role model). Instead, a real role model can be someone who represents the kind of parent, person or professional you admire and intend to be one day.
In other words, maybe you consider someone your real role model because of their work ethic or passion for what they do professionally or maybe it’s simply because they made it out of the rough neighborhood and went to college. Or maybe they raised you and your siblings on a shoestring budget and never complained about how much it seemed the system was built against them.
Definition aside, there’s no single image of a real role model, but there are many ways to identify one. That said, let’s briefly discuss one of my favorite movies, Above the Rim. Its story, although indirectly, is one about identifying yourself through a real role model in order to reach your own potential.
The main character, played by Duane Martin, had all the basketball skills he needed to get himself a college scholarship. Still, even as a point guard, he lacked the full understanding to be a top-notch leader on the court. That is, until he met Leon’s character, a former basketball star himself who learned the hard way and had a few lessons to share with Martin’s character. Although initially reluctant, both men were able to put aside their differences and work together - Martin’s character as the student and Leon’s character as the silent teacher - to win it all.
Sure, the movie didn’t win any Academy Awards or make either of the main characters mega movie stars. But that movie stands out more than thousands of others I have seen in my lifetime. Like Martin, Black youth (like others) must understand that there are many lessons about life to learn from others and that there are people ready and willing to help. This is the way to realizing your full potential. The way to rising above the rim.
So in going back to the creator of the term role model, let's assume Dr. Merton would be fine with my using another one of his terms by saying this book's intended consequence is to help young Black people, and not just the characters in movies and TV shows, get above the rim.