One of my favorite books, on how to be a productive creative person
By Caitlin Kelly
It’s an odd thing to ask of fellow adults, perhaps — more common for young kids and teens to have someone older to look up to and possibly emulate.
I don’t have kids and fear the adulation so many youngsters now offer to celebrities, influencers and millionaires. The best people aren’t necessarily those with the fattest bank accounts. Fame and fortune are just easy, visible metrics.
I take a spin class at our local JCC with a teacher I knew was clearly in his late 70s. He’s whippet-thin, with nary an ounce of body fat. He also teaches fitness classes. I recently discovered he’s in his 80s. Amazing!
He’s also low-key, modest and very encouraging, all super admirable qualities in my book.
As I head into a quieter period of my life with less focus — finally! — on hustling for work, I relish finding older people whose lives and values I admire.
People with physical and intellectual energy, curiosity and liveliness, people still engaged in community, or community building. Where we live, (a place I enjoy), is also an expensive and competitive part of the U.S., which means most people are focused totally on getting and sustaining high incomes, raising their children to do the same.
Those priorities leave little time, room and interest in friendship, without which we can’t really see who someone is beyond the surface,
As former President Jimmy Carter enters hospice care at home, I know millions of us have long admired a man who spent decades helping others, often through Habitat for Humanity, a program that helps build housing for those in need. I wish we had more role models like him!
People like Paul Farmer, who spent years working as an MD in Haiti, or Peter Reed, a former medic recently killed at 33 by a missile — while volunteering in Ukraine.
Footballer Sadio Mane, like some other star athletes, has donated much of his salary to build a hospital and other facilities in his native Senegal.
People who choose to put themselves in harm’s way to help others are also extraordinary to me. I admit, I have tremendous admiration for the career journalists, like fellow Canadian Lyse Doucet of the BBC, who spend their lives bearing witness in some terrifying times and places.
Brave young women activists like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai.
I was also fortunate at 25 to meet a man I dedicated my first book to, Philippe Viannay, who died in the mid 80s, a few years after I won the fellowship in Paris he created for journalists from around the world to learn about Europe by reporting on it through four solo trips. He was a Resistance hero, helped found a major newspaper and sailing school and home for troubled boys. He was also a lot of fun! It was the greatest honor to know him and be liked by him. He came into my life when I was 25 and my own father, never an easy man, was often distant, emotionally and physically. It was deeply encouraging to meet and know someone so incredibly accomplished who — liked me! So I wasn’t simply admiring someone from a distance, but seeing up close how he comported himself in later life.
Social media can also create monstrous “role models” — like the wealthy Tate brothers, whose toxic influence on gullible teen British boys is so widespread that teachers are now addressing it.
This, from The New York Times:
In recent months, Ms. Stanton said, students have started bringing up Mr. Tate in class. They extol his wealth and fast cars. And for the first time in her 20 years of teaching, her 11- to 16-year-old students have challenged her for working and asked if she had her husband’s permission.
She has heard students talk casually about rape. “As the only woman in the room, I felt uncomfortable,” she said. Once, a student asked her if she was going to cry. At home, even her own three sons seemed to defend Mr. Tate.
“He is brainwashing a generation of boys, and it’s very frightening,” she said. “They seem to think he is right. He’s right because he’s rich.”
In the Midlands, Nathan Robertson, a specialist who works with students who need additional support, said that in the past year, he had regularly heard Mr. Tate broadcasting from students’ smartphones. Many in a class of 14- and 15-year-olds he worked with cited Mr. Tate as a role model. When the topic of abortion came up in class, boys began laughing, he said, and called feminism poisonous. Some said that women did not have any rights and that men should make decisions for them.
Many people see someone in their own family as a role model.
I have mixed feelings about my own parents…both born wealthy to difficult parents of their own. My mother’s mother married six (!) times, twice to the same man (my grandfather, who I never met) and my mother, desperate to flee, married at 17, never attending university, then or later.
So I did admire my mother’s spirit of adventure — she later traveled the world alone for years, living for a while alone in New Mexico, Bath and Lima, Peru. She was self-taught and read widely and deeply. She could be a lot of fun. In our good years, we laughed a lot. She offered her time as a volunteer to hospice patients in the hospital.
My father, an award-winning film-maker, is similar — their marriage lasted 13 years before divorce. He, too, loves to travel, is artistically talented as well, and was often gone for weeks working — in Ireland or the Arctic or Mideast. He is perpetually curious and has a wide range of interests, even at 93.
So in some senses, they are role models for me.
The qualities I most admire, in anyone:
A ferocious work ethic
I admit, I most often look to people who are fairly talented and highly accomplished at their work or in using their talents. But it’s not about their wealth or fame or public adulation. Too often, people who’ve hit the heights are quite happy to leave needy others behind.
We all need people to look up to, people whose behavior and demeanor set a high bar we can aspire to.
Who are your role models and why?