“For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.”
To live your best life, you must form a clear and concise picture of the kind of person you want to be. Most people do that by thinking about what they want to achieve.
But it goes much deeper than that.
Our achievements make up only a small part of our lives. Getting a job, making lots of money, traveling to a certain place, getting married — they’re all just milestones.
But in-between those milestones we have our daily lives. The work you do each day, the people you associate with, the decisions you make, the way you think, speak and act.
These things make up the bulk of your active life. They will define your character and ultimately the quality of the life you will be living. Therefore, it makes much more sense to set a goal for your character, in order to live the best life you can.
Using role models to guide your character
Setting a goal for your character is far more involved than regular goal setting.
Our daily lives are far more complex than well-defined milestones. It’s hard to say “I want to make wise decisions” and then embody that. You would have to define wisdom itself. This would be a much easier exercise if you had examples of what wisdom is, rather than just an abstract definition or theory.
There is a way that comes from stoicism that is particularly effective. The method is based on selecting role models and using them as ideal representations of how we should live.
Whichever aspect of your life you want to improve in, think of someone who you admire in that aspect and imagine them as your mentor. Try to picture them looking over your shoulder in daily situations.
Whenever in doubt, ask yourself, “what would my mentor do?”
A role model can be anyone who’s qualities you wish to have. It can be a parent who’s work ethic you admire or an athlete who’s fortitude is unshakeable. It can be someone from history, like Marcus Aurelius from whom we can learn stoicism or Muhammad Ali from whom we can learn confidence and courage.
A favorite role model of the stoics was Socrates. He was an ideal wise man of sorts, who claimed the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. He would go around the city asking everyone questions, in order to learn as much as he could.
Why this works so well
This is a very powerful exercise. Instead of trying to imagine how we want to live, we’re using our role models as examples. This makes our target of the character we wish to have for ourselves a lot clearer.
It’s far easier to think something like “what would my father or Socrates or Marcus Aurelius do” than it is to define things like wisdom or courage or mental toughness. We’re looking at our own situation from an outside perspective, through the eyes of our mentors. We’re forming our own character out of clear examples from those whose characters we admire.
It’s OK and even better to have several role models, one for each aspect of your life. This will ensure that you are taking the best aspects of each of your role models and applying them to the different aspects of your life.
You’re spending less time trying to imagine who you want to be and more time on following real examples. It’s a practical and incredibly effective exercise of stoicism.
This article was inspired by chapter 3 of the book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.