Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Role Models
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The past few weeks, we’ve had a pretty lively discussion of behavior and the professional freelancer. If you haven’t done so, go back and read the comments sections in the two posts on jealousy and in last week’s post on courtesy.
In addition to those comments, I’ve received great e-mails from folks, some detailing terrible behavior by professionals, and some discussing some absolutely wonderful behavior. It’s nice to see the upside, considering how egregious some of the downsides were. Thanks for sharing, everyone.
I’ve been thinking about this all week, particularly the kafuffle that has appeared on some boards (and in some blog posts) still defending envy as a learning tool, and trying to discuss envy in ways that make it less harmful.
I finally came to the conclusion that we’re mixing apples and cats here. What’s going on is twofold. First, we as freelancers need role models because most of us do not have a training program that teaches us how to run our business. And second, we’re not sure how to behave when a friend whom we thought of as a peer leapfrogs us and achieves one (or many) of our goals.
I’m going to deal with both issues in this post. Most of this will be about role models from two different sides—why we create them and what happens when we become one.
We all have role models, even those of us who have gone through some kind of professional training before we open our own businesses. It’s the nature of human beings. Anyone who has watched a child visibly mimic an adult knows that this is hardwired in our species, maybe even in mammals. I remember watching one of my nieces at the age of three or so try (and fail) to copy my mother’s sitting position. Mom was wearing a dress and had her legs crossed at the ankles and twisted to the side like a debutante. My niece could cross her legs at the ankles but she couldn’t handle the twist, and she nearly fell off the chair as she tried to reproduce the entire look.
I just watched my youngest cat do the same thing with the oldest cat in the house. The young cat spent most of a month trying to learn how to sleep on her back, all four paws in the air. She couldn’t get the balance right. She’d look at the older cat, then try to achieve the exact same position.
My youngest cat does everything the oldest cat does, in the exact same way, clearly modeling herself on the Queen of the House. The oldest cat is our most successful cat—every other cat is afraid of her and lets her do exactly what she wants—and clearly the youngest cat sees her as an authority on everything. We have photos of our oldest cat doing the same thing with her role model, the charismatic alpha male who ran our household more than a decade ago.
So the modeling behavior is built in. We all do it, especially when we don’t have a clear path to follow. We try to invent a path from scratch, using our understanding of someone else’s path to pave our own.
I underlined that last part for a reason. We don’t know someone else’s path exactly, nor could we replicate it properly even if we tried. The differences come in personality, background, environment, and in the world itself.
There’s a beautiful example of this type of modeling in the movie, Julie and Julia. (If you haven’t seen the film and care about spoilers, skip the rest of this paragraph and the next two paragraphs.) Julie Powell chooses Julia Child as her role model, deciding to cook every recipe in The Art of French Cooking in the space of a year. (If you’ve ever looked at this cookbook, you know what a daunting task that is.) Powell’s obsession with Julia Child, as portrayed in the film, goes to dressing in 1950s/60s attire, mimicking one of the dinner parties that Child held, and in reading everything she could about her role model. Powell makes pronouncements about who she believes Child to be—thinking that Julia Child would never have been defeated by a flawed soufflé, Julia Child would never have burst into tears about a burned dinner—and uses those pronouncements to change herself and buck herself up.
I found that part of the film fascinating, because the Julia Child I remember was a buffoonish woman who often appeared on television drunk. I remembered thinking that Dan Ackroyd’s imitation of Julia Child on Saturday Night Live wasn’t that different from the real thing, since I never saw the early Julia Child, the one who changed a nation’s cooking habits.
But be that as it may, the imagined Julia Child became important to Julie Powell—and helped her through some very difficult times. Then Powell’s quest made the news, she sold a book, and some reporter asked Child what she thought of Powell. And Child said she did not approve. The reporter told Powell to get her reaction. She didn’t give any reaction over the phone, but the very idea shattered her. The climax of Powell’s story in the film deals with the loss of the dream of approval by her role model.
Which I can understand. I learned a long time ago that people’s public personas are very different from their private ones. Perhaps that’s because I was groped constantly as a cute young reporter by major politicians who thought touching me was their due. Or maybe it was because at Clarion Writers Workshop, I learned that writers are nothing like their writing. You can’t tell who someone is by what parts of themselves they put forward for public view.
Those realizations didn’t stop me from having role models. It just stopped me from wanting to meet them and getting disillusioned. I’ve met a few of my writing role models over the years, and in all instances I’ve acted like a complete dork. I couldn’t talk to two of them—me, the former broadcaster, the woman who can talk to anyone (and has). I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth.
I have fled from a few others, and I’ve vacated the room before my biggest role model showed up at an event at a speaking engagement. Can’t, won’t, don’t wanna deal. Just don’t.
Why don’t I want to meet someone I’ve admired from afar for years? Because, like Julie Powell in Julie and Julia, I don’t want my image of my role model shattered. Because I have needed that image over the years. It was one of those pillars on which I built my career.
Here’s how I see it: As I said above, most freelance careers are put together by observation and pluck. We have no guidelines. We make our own rules. So we try to find someone to emulate, someone whose career we claim we want, someone who is doing what we want to do and doing it well. Then we walk the same path—or what we imagine to be the same path—as our role model, struggling to survive, telling ourselves stories about our imaginary companion. Clearly, we say, this problem didn’t bother our role model when really, how do we know? Publicly it didn’t bother our role model, or maybe our role model never experienced the same problem. We have no idea.
But we use that handhold to pick ourselves up and keep going.
The role models become not just a beacon on a dark road, but a railing that we use to pull ourselves up. And for those of us who become successful, it works. Whatever we tell ourselves about these role models becomes part of our stories, whether it’s true for the role model or not.
We’re using the outlines of a real person to build a fictional person—a kind of spirit guide for our careers, for lack of a better metaphor. And then we follow that guide as far as we possibly can.
I think this is what some of you folks were talking about when you were discussing the importance of envy. And I think you were using the wrong word. You—we all—need someone to emulate. There’s a line in a Paul Simon song that has reached out to me this past year: what do we do when our role model is gone? When we’ve outgrown that role model?
Some of us find another.
I would reckon it’s rather hard for someone of Paul Simon’s level of success to find another role model. Especially one in his own industry. Because Simon himself has become a role model for hundreds, maybe thousands of others.
Which segues to the next part of this section. Eventually, as we become successful in the various parts of our lives, we will become a role model for someone else.
That’s a tough position to be in, as Michael Phelps learned in 2008 when he got photographed taking a hit off a bong. Tiger Woods is learning the same lesson right now. A lot of people, including my husband, are very disappointed in him. While Dean’s upset about the way Tiger has hurt golf (Dean used to be a professional golfer), a lot of parents are upset because this seemingly upstanding role model had a secret double life.
We all have secret lives. Those lives may not be as dramatic as Tiger’s (my mind boggles at keeping all those relationships straight!), but they are private and they are ours.
The problem with being a role model is that the people who look up to us don’t see us as entirely human. Look at the section above. Role models are imagined—taken from the shape of another person, but not actually that other person. So in no way can someone who looks up to you know exactly who you are.
And it’s not your responsibility to tell them. I think some of the disillusionment in the Professional Courtesy section—including my own examples—comes from the disconnect between the imagined and the real. You, as a role model, can’t prevent the disappointment, although you can be courteous to the person who admires you. Respect that little bit of what Dean calls the gosh-wows. Something that you did or suggested or implied became important to the person before you. You don’t even need to know what that something was (and you probably don’t want to know). But you should understand that whatever it was, it had an impact on the other person. Treat them gently.
I’ve watched a lot of people try to make themselves into just another human being to the fan in front of them, and the fan deny what they’re hearing. I think you’re better off saying thank you and letting them ask questions—if any. If they do ask, answer honestly. But if they don’t, don’t volunteer.
Of course, here I’m dealing with someone you don’t know. All of us become role models to people we do know. And sometimes we become active role models—parents are automatically role models for their children, and often so are older siblings or extended family members. Then it is your obligation to pay attention, to try to be the best you can, whatever that means—and within the realm of being a person as well.
I think one of the most important aspects of being a role model is showing that, as humans, we have flaws and we do make mistakes. But we try to correct the mistakes, and to grow as human beings.
You can’t be that kind of role model to a stranger, but you certainly can to children or the people around you.
I think the trickiest position to be in, however, is not a person who needs a role model (in other words, all of us) or the person who is a role model (most of us), but the person who watches a friend cross from peer to success.
When you work in the arts, like I do, or in some very difficult endeavor, like national politics, you often do not have role models nearby. If you want to be successful on an international level, like I did, or to have a lifetime career in an area that chews people up, like I do, then you won’t find a lot of role models in your own backyard (unless you’re lucky enough to be raised in one of those families like the Bridges family—you know, Lloyd Bridges, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges—a family with a history of success in a particular industry). You have to make strangers your role models, which leads to a lot of imaginary role models like the ones I described above.
I met my first professional writer in college, poet Galway Kinnell, who turned out to be a wonderful, generous man—at least with college students. Most of the writers I met, with the exception of the Canadian literary writer I mentioned last week, were gracious and very giving of their time. They were the first actual people I met who had some measure of success in my dream job.
But I had wanted to be a professional fiction writer for nearly ten years before I met my first fiction writer. So I developed a lot of role models, from bits and pieces of public information about my favorite writers. And I cobbled together a career path that has alternately worked and hurt me. It worked because it gave me a way to walk, and hurt because I can’t achieve what they achieved. No one has the same career as someone else—and certainly not on the same timetable. As a musician friend of mine said woefully when he turned 40, “I’ve lived longer than Mozart, and I’m not one-one-hundredth as successful.”
Yep. I’ve felt that way at times, and that’s when the role model thing hurts. Of course, we never look at the downside of our role models. Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave. I doubt he thought of himself as a success at the very end.
When you design your own role models as many of us do, then you get used to the idea that they’re imaginary. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to meet a few of my earliest role models. I don’t want the real person to impinge upon the imagined.
The problem is when the idea of success becomes imaginary too.
As freelancers, a lot of us work in professions that are “too hard to succeed in,” or “impossible to make a living at.” We’re “not strong enough” to handle the difficulties, “not special enough” to get noticed, “not talented enough” to climb to the top. We really should “give up” and “get a real job” and stop “daydreaming” or “wasting time” or “fooling around.”
These attitudes, from well-meaning friends and family, are so common that most successful people cite them in their autobiographies or in interviews or in songs (my favorite of which is by George Thorogood and the Destroyers, “Get a Haircut and Get a Real Job.”) These phrases add to the idea that success is illusory, impossible, and unattainable.
Yet we continue to try, because we’re following a dream.
We find other people who are trying, and we band together—a group of hobbits against an impossible foe.
And then, one day, one of our little band breaks out. They sell a story or they open a shop or they win an election. They achieve a measure of success.
Success that, until this moment, has been illusory.
And suddenly, the rest of us have a dilemma. Because this takes our little quest from the realm of illusion into the realm of reality. The success of one of our peers challenges all of our assumptions, the greatest of which exist in our imagination.
Think about this: Imaginary role models—that we know, down in our heart of hearts, aren’t the real person; impossible success—that we believe, deep down, we’ll probably never achieve and that’s okay; the important thing is the journey, or so we say.
And then—the success becomes real. A real person, a person we know, achieves it. That person is not and never has been a role model. That person is a friend or at least a compatriot. A person whom we’ve seen at her best and at her worst, a person with flaws, who doesn’t always react well to criticism or who isn’t as talented as we are. A person who clearly isn’t perfect, any more than the rest of us in our merry little band.
So what have they gone and done? They’ve shattered our illusions. And that’s why we often react badly to them. Not because we’re jealous or envious. But because we’re scared.
Rather than show us the path, they’ve blurred it. Rather than becoming superhuman as they achieved the impossible, they achieved it while remaining their imperfect, very human selves.
They knocked the railing out from underneath us, destroyed the underpinning of our belief system.
Some of us bounce back from this better than others. Some of us have been disillusioned enough in our lives to understand how to rebuild. But for some of us, this is the first time we’ve seen behind the curtain, the first time that we realized the Great Oz is just a guy from Kansas, blown in on a storm like the rest of us.
What most of us don’t do is step outside ourselves, and start asking, Just how did a guy from Kansas become the Great Oz? How did he survive in this strange and hostile world? What’s he doing that I’m not doing?
It’s hard to step from illusion to reality. But that’s part of growing up, as both a person and as a freelancer. Eventually, you have to realize that you’re walking on your own path, one you’ve been forging from the very first time you figured out your dream, and you have to value that path. You’re a trailblazer in your own life, whether you want to be or not.
I still have role models. But I tend not to idealize them any longer. Instead, I take bits and pieces from a lot of them. I want to write for at least as many decades as Jack Williamson did. I want to die at my desk, a working (and still publishing) writer, like Robert B. Parker did last month. I want to continually improve my skills like both Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates do.
In other words, I’m still creating an imaginary role model, but the shape I’m using is my own. The bits and pieces I use to create it are inspired by other writers, and other artists, and other businesspeople.
I know that disillusionment is part of the business, but I try not to stay disillusioned for long. And when I find something that disappoints, I try to remove it from my imaginary role model and substitute something else.
Which makes me—and my imaginary role model—a work in progress.
Which is as it should be, I guess.
I’m just feeling my way around this Guide, trying to figure out what’s important and what isn’t. You folks have helped tremendously with that. I have a hunch that had I written this as a nonfiction book with no input from outside, it would have been less interesting and a lot less challenging for me.
So thanks for the comments, e-mails, and the donations. Remember that I’ll give an e-copy of the Guide to anyone who donates, when this thing is done, which is taking a while partly because of the interactivity (not a complaint!) and partly because I keep thinking of more stuff to tell you. Thanks, everyone!
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Role Models” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.