Over coffee last week, my friend Angela and I lamented how we sometimes miss emails in our inboxes. Even really, really important ones.

Angela’s a post-doc, and she contrasted herself with her academic lead.
This woman always delivers a detailed and careful response, within a jaw-dropping 60 minutes. No matter what time of day or night you send an email.

With a self-deprecating laugh, she said ‘One day, I’ll be able to do that too. When I’m a grown-up. But for now, every time she does it, I realise how far away that future-time is.’
 
You need to be careful who your brain chooses and on what basis
 

It happens that I know the senior academic in question quite well. And I understand why Angela sees her as a success to aspire to. The woman is not only an email ninja, but:

 

  • is a superstar academic in her field
  • publishes widely, and to significant acclaim
  • is pleasure to listen to lecture, presenting in a lucid and engaging manner
  • is sought after as a teacher and supervisor
  • is popular with her colleagues
  • contributes generously to the life of her department.
Classic role model material. So why did thinking about her make Angela feel inadequate rather than inspired? Why was she using this woman to show how she was ‘failing’?
 
Angela was comparing herself, an early career academic, to someone who’d been honing her professional skills for decades. Their circumstances are very different.
 

The role model:

 

  • is an older woman in her late 50s or early 60s
  • has grown up children
  • is doing just one job
  • has been in a secure permanent academic position for decades
  • has a retired husband who takes pride in running their household.

Whereas Angela:

 

  • is in her late twenties
  • has an incredibly active two year-old
  • navigates around elaborate childcare arrangements shaped by financial constraints
  • has fractional, precarious, contracts with several different employers
  • has a doctor-husband working complex hospital shifts
  • shares the responsibilities of the household with her husband
 
#SameNotSame
 
I drew Angela’s attention to the differences I saw, and asked ‘would you really want that to be you? Do you want to be responding to emails from your colleagues and students at 10:30 at night?’
 
And she laughed ‘definitely not. If I’m still awake at 10:30 I want to be watching Netflix with my husband and a glass of dry cider’.
 
And it hit me:
 
When we admire something about a person, it’s easy for us slip into using them as a general standard against which we measure our ourselves. Even when – on the briefest of inspections – the broader comparison isn’t valid. From there, it’s easy for that critical gap-analysis to become part of our negative self-talk about how we’re failing.
 
I used to have a list of aspirational role models I carried around in my head, who had sneaked in by this route. Great academics, writers, speakers, creators, all statue-like in my imagination. Looking back, the implicit criteria for entry onto the list seem to have been:
 
1) to be remote from my every day life
2) to have done something remarkable

3) usually against extraordinary odds.

 

And I’d regularly find myself reflecting on how X had already achieved Y by the time she was my age, or A had done better than I did at B, despite doing it under much more challenging cicumstances. It always left me feeling pretty flat.
 
Nowadays, things are different. I still look to people who’ve achieved fantastic and wonderful things. Their successes give me a little kick of joy, a breath of ‘that is possible’.
 
But the quiet of lockdown has allowed me to notice that when days are just hard to get through, I look to people closer to home for guidance. People whose experience intersects with or mirrors my own.
 

And because I’m a crafter, I visualise this as a patchwork quilt, in which I choose the pieces and form the pattern. It grows over time, and is tactile, soft and close, rather than austere or remote.

 

Patchwork quilt
 

The people who inspire me most are close to home
 

As well as being a friend, who makes me laugh when few others can, Angela’s inspiring. She’s already making significant contributions to both her discipline, and a developing country.

 

I watch her fitting complex and competing professional demands around being a present and engaged parent to her two-year oldI see it when it’s all going well, and I see it when she’s been a shift-widow for a stretch, lonely and exhausted, still putting one foot in front of anotherI’m heartened by her willingness to acknowledge the struggles and complexities of life, and by her grace under pressure.
 
She’d never stand for me talking like this. Her Imposter Syndrome would dismiss me with phrases like ‘I’m muddling through’, or ‘we’re all just winging it’.
 

At the moment, the patches I see most often in my mind’s eye (in formation with Angela’s grace under pressure), are:

 

  • Yue’s cracking into any task, and finding fun along the way
  • Ana’s commitment to her activism and serving her community
  • Kara’s systematic but flexible organisation
  • David’s determination to iron pomposity out of his academic writing
  • Christine’s reframing my difficult thoughts to help me move forward
  • Javier’s efficient approach to managing his work projects.
 
It’s work in progress, but worth it ….
 
These (and many others) are the people, by whom I’m inspired and from whom I learn, copy, imitate. And because I’m focussing on a specific skill or approach, it decreases the scope for my monkey-mind to berate me for failing to measure up.
 
But it doesn’t remove it entirely, and every now and again, I see something that brings to mind my former pantheon. I might have a flash of ‘I don’t measure up’ or ‘I’ll never be able to do that’. Then as with any practice of the mind, I draw my attention back to the better and more helpful thoughts I’ve chosen.
 
 
TLDR: We need to exercise care in the way we frame and invoke our role models, to avoid them adding to, rather than relieving, pressure. Because there’s quite enough of that already, thanks.
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