I’ve spent a bit of time over the past few months thinking about important role models in my life. One surprising conclusion that hit me right off the bat was the lack of correlation between having pleasant interactions with somebody, and that person’s ability to influence your life in a positive way.
I realized this as I was thinking of a friend of a friend who I met years ago, and have only interacted with on a handful of occasions. To say we did not hit it off would be an understatement; there have been few times I have received such a cold reception from anybody, before or since. And yet — those few tense interactions were enough to set off a cascade of thoughts (chain reaction, if you will) that have profoundly shaped the way I view the world, and for which I am very grateful. I have met few people who have voiced their Strong Opinions on things so articulately and unapologetically.
I’ve come to the realization that disagreeing with people and, yes, hurting their feelings in the process, does not make the sky fall in. I don’t think it’s a good model to be applied across the board, and I do try to tone down the attitude when talking to considerably younger folk. But I’ve realized that being nice is not a universal prerequisite to being a strong and positive influence. I think there is still an implicit assumption that women need to be warm and nurturing and that these qualities are critical to serving as a good mentor to younger generations. So it was, but shouldn’t have been, a surprise to realize that one of my most influential female role models is neither nice nor nurturing, but intelligent and ambitious and aggressive. It stuns me to think that all these, and many more, seismic shifts in thinking were results of only a few hours of (rather intimidating) conversation. I tip my hat.
The other example of someone making a lasting impression after very brief interactions involves an alumnus of my lab. The one and only time I met him was during a conference poster session, and it was amazing to see that someone could retain such unabashed excitement about science well into their “grown-up” years. I’ve never seen anyone’s eyes sparkle with such intensity as when he was describing his totally cool findings, and even cooler experiments done to exclude alternate explanations. The West Coast seems to breed a particular type of laid-back attitude which I have not even been able to fake, let alone adopt, so it was very refreshing to see an example of someone who succeeded in this environment despite being many standard deviations away from the norm, in terms of openly displayed passion. Finding out that he was not universally liked within the department, and that he went through periods of intense stress when things weren’t working, only added to my impression of him as a real-world role model, someone I can aspire to be like, instead of some unattainable standard of perfection.
So, dear readers (some imaginary number of you), tell me: who do you look up to? Are there people who have made unexpectedly significant contributions to your outlook on the world? Do you notice any recurring qualities in people who have influenced your thinking? Tell me in the comments!