Why Having a Role Model Makes You Less Likely to Succeed

I still remember a 4th grade assignment I struggled with: “Write a paragraph about your role model.” This turned out to be lesson in fiction writing, because I did not have a role model.

Recent research might vindicate my 10-year-old lie. A study from the University of Richmond suggests that honing in on exceptional performers might actually be counterproductive: Their achievements seem so unattainable that hearing about them actually discourages us from working towards our own goals. In the experiment, women reported greater feelings of inferiority and performed various tasks less effectively after reading descriptions of extremely successful women.

Think about it. When you read an article about Hillary Clinton, do you feel inspired to go into politics? Or do you feel like you’d better not enter the field at all — because when you think about her incredible achievements, the only thing you feel confident about is that you’ll never measure up?

What’s more, there is no simple correlation between success and skill or hard work. Equally important are things like luck and willingness to take extreme risks that you can’t — or shouldn’t — emulate.

“The more exceptional performers are, the less we may learn from them,” Chingwei Liu, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the UK’s University of Warwick, told the New York Times .

The same principle has been studied among dieters. When women are exposed to super-thin models, many exper­­­ience feelings of inadequacy — which drives some to starve themselves, and others to binge. A study this year from the Netherlands’ Tilburg University found that dieters who recorded their food intake in notebooks with skinny models on the cover lost less weight than dieters who used food diaries featuring average-weight models.

Now I don’t feel so bad about not having a “role model” in 4th grade — or that I still can’t name one. There are plenty of women (and men) I look up to, but idealizing one person as the composite of all good things seems pretty silly.