Some thoughts about role models

Following the recent comments made by Arianny Celeste about UFC champion Ronda Rousey, it got me thinking a bit about role models in general.

There are many people who I admire. I often look at someone doing something well – whether it’s a skill they have, their character, personal attributes, how they carry themselves or live their life – and think ‘I’d like to be a bit more like that’. In that one specific way, I’d like to emulate how they do things.

The danger, though, is that in trying to present a total image of themselves that’s consistent with the way we’d like to see them, our role models sometimes seem under pressure to become one dimensional caricatures trapped inside their own hype. When we don’t see the struggles and the mistakes, the weaknesses, contradictions and the failures that are hidden behind the mask, it’s easy to believe that these people are fundamentally different from us. They become an idol to worship, rather than a human being with characteristics to aspire to. Then there’s the inevitable disappointment when we catch a glimpse of the real person, who’s always less perfect than we imagined her to be.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” – the Wizard of Oz

I’ve sometimes been called a role model, and I’m always flattered. I’m grateful for the people who write to me telling me that I’ve inspired them (or their daughter) to do something, or to believe they can achieve their own goals, or helped them during a tough time. It makes what I do feel worthwhile, and it also gives me something to live up to – an inspiration to carry on trying to do better. I appreciate that. And yet, the last thing I want is to be put on any kind of pedestal.

We’re all more complicated than that. Real people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’, heroes or villains. There are things I do well; and my best is pretty good. There are also plenty of things I do badly, and times when I’m a total disaster area. In some ways I might be a good example to follow (depending on what you want out of life) but in others ways, much less so. I don’t say that either out of false modesty or (heaven forbid) low self esteem. It’s reality, and it’s true of all of us. Some of the characteristics that allowed me to achieve the things I’ve done are the very same traits that have led me to mess up in other areas of life. I’m still living, and learning, making mistakes and trying to figure things out as best I can. So are we all, including our role models.

The best advice I can offer?

“Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.” – Judy Garland


  1. Great article, and so true. I think the media play a part in putting those in the spotlight on a pedestal to encourage idolisation. I really don’t think that helps people build realistic role models.

  2. Rosi I don’t think that there is anything wrong with having role models, in sport or in science. When you get to know them, you often find that they are not perfect despite their achievements, and that’s salutary.

    You are most certainly a role model for many people. Most people could not reach the heights that you have in just one of your endeavours, never mind in all three. Your abilities in music, maths and sports are truly inspiring. To achieve all that must have entailed a huge amount of focussed work and a stubborn refusal to let anything beat you. There aren’t many people around who can live up to standards like that. That’s fine for your fans, but I can understand that it’s hard on you.

    Many successful people I know have had bad periods in their life. I’ve had them myself. I know any number of Fellows of the Royal Society, people who are thought to have made it, who are deeply insecure when you get to know them. It can be tough at the top, and that’s hard to cope with, Sometimes it shows as arrogance and unpleasantness, both in science and in sport.

    When you are going through a bad time, it’s hard to believe that it will end. But in almost every case it does end. One’s fate has a large random element. It’s also cyclical. It has peaks and troughs. The next peak usually comes sooner than you expect..

    People like you have the good will of people around the world to support you through the bad bits. You have the advantage over some insecure senior scientists of being a thoroughly nice person. In the end, that’s matters most.

    I didn’t know that Judy Garland quotation, but I like it a lot.

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