The very first tip in Daniel Coyle’s book, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, is “Stare at who you want to become.” In her new book, How to be Interesting (In 10 Simple Steps), Jessica Hagy writes, “Find yourself a hero. Seek someone who makes you smile. Someone who lives the way you want to. Someone you admire. Someone real and imperfect. Learn from them two thing: (1) What they do well, and (2) What they do not do so well.” A few years ago, when I was going through a difficult time trying to figure out who and what and how I wanted to be, a really wise person told me, “Find a mentor. Find someone who is like who you want to be.” There must be some truth to it. There must be something about mentors and mentoring, apprenticeship, and/or having someone to watch and model yourself after that helps you to become the person that you envision yourself being.
Do you have a mentor? Do you have someone that you look to – or stare at – so that you can notice those things that they do well and emulate them? When I was growing up, my hero was Billie Jean King. I loved the way she played tennis. I loved the way she spoke up for women’s tennis. I loved the way she beat Bobby Riggs. I must have checked out her autobiography from my public library dozens of times. I knew every part of her story from growing up in a middle class family, learning tennis on the public courts in California, how her brother played baseball in the major leagues. I knew about her struggles with weight, her knee surgeries, and her close companionship with another woman. When the story broke about their relationship, I remember my mom telling me that she was sorry my hero had let me down. I wasn’t of an age or mindset to understand or care about any of that stuff. I said it didn’t matter to me. She was my hero.
Years later, she still is. Whenever any magazine or network or other source attempts to generate a list of the most important sports figures in American history, I always look to see that Billie Jean King’s name is near the top. If it isn’t, then the list means little. She changed women’s sports – and sports in general – in ways few others have ever come close. She is on par with Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali – others who, simply by being themselves, changed their landscape. To me, what makes these people the most special (and the most admirable) is that while they each had flaws, they just could not be anyone other than who they were. Billie Jean King was going to be an outspoken individual who demanded fairness in her sport – equal pay for women – because she was a person who demanded fairness. The same characteristic emerged when she became a spokesperson for Title IX, for the Women’s Sports Foundation, and for the GLBTQ community. It’s always been about demanding fairness.
But how about in work? Particularly when you’re delving into a new area or just trying to survive in a profession that’s quickly changing all around you. Who do you look to for guidance and encouragement and some semblance of what “success” looks like for you? Who do you look to when the very institution that you prepared yourself to work in changes before you even get out of school?
I actually found a really good hero a couple of years ago. I want to write about it and share what I’ve learned and experienced since crossing paths with this person, but first I’d like to hear from others. I’m going to post this and wait for some comments – hoping to hear other’s stories before I tell my own. I hope you’ll share.