Role Models

Posted on December 13, 2009, under general, meta.

Consciously, I’ve never been keen on the idea of role-models. Thinking it synonymous with hero-worship, it has always seemed a bit of an anti-pattern to me. Why try to emulate anyone? There are enough people in the world behaving the same as someone else, being different and original is definitely more useful, even if it makes you a bit crazy. When I did a dubious “leadership style” test I came up as “anti-follower”, so maybe it’s just another form of contrarianism on my part.

Over time, I’ve found that the best way to learn is by example, even if it’s a process of unconscious osmosis. And when I’ve spent time on what is sometimes called “personal development” I’ve found that there is real benefit in reading the biographies and the writings of truly awesome people. It certainly seems more productive than reading self-help books that are written in truisms and marketing crap.

I thought I’d share some of the people who I’ve really benefited from reading about, truly amazing people.

Richard P. Feynman

RPF is a legend; a nobel laureate physicist with an uncanny ability to explain complex ideas, an anti-authoritarian maverick who loved to screw with officialdom but most of all an incredibly generous, warm, loving guy (even if a womaniser at times). His writings on physics and his letters to his first, dying, wife are an inspiration.

Robert M. Pirsig

Pirsig, someone genuinely crazy enough to have been institutionalised, still managed to write one of the best sellers of the 20th century and to invent a philosophical system that many consider to have merit. ZMM is amazingly well written, all the more so when you consider that every paragraph was planned out in advance on index cards. Worrying, his narrator in ZMM is the only literary character I’ve ever strongly identified with.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper signed up for the US navy during World War 2, and rose (primarily as a reservist) to the rank of commodore/rear-admiral back when this was incredibly unusual. But more than this, she was an excellent experimenter, and kept a rigourous lab-book, despite being mainly a computer scientist. She was a strong believer in getting things done, and coined the phrases “dare to do” and “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”. Seriously awesome woman. Oh yeah, and she invented the compiler.

Doc Watson

Doc Watson has been blind nearly his entire life, but that doesn’t stop him from being the truly most amazing guitar picker the world has ever seen, or doing crazy things like mending the tiles on his roof. His solo runs and accompaniment are incredibly good, and he’s somehow maintained humility in the face of multiple grammy awards and playing for the president on a regular basis. Another doer, he just kept going and became more productive after the tragic death of his duet partner and son Merle.

Dolly Parton

Dolly is a self-described mis-fit, but she is also a very very shrewd business woman as well as being a dedicated humanitarian and gifted songwriter. She is one of the really great singers, and is emotionally invested in every song she sings (even the ones that sound like bubblegum, listen to how sad she is in “Here you come again”).

CP Snow

CP Snow was basically a troll, but a very very good one. His arguments, lectures and writings weren’t always rigourous and balanced but they were always enlightening, thought-provoking and forward thinking. Most famously he identified the tension between literary and scientific cultures and made a great case for the unfair treatment of science. A scientist and a well-regarded author CP Snow is a great example that it is possible to straddle both worlds.

Peter Watson

Peter Watson is a prolific researcher and writer, the volume of his output and the breadth of his knowledge is unfathomable. I’m constantly reading something of his. He has methodically and thoroughly condensed practically all of known intellectual history, writing about all of the inventions of the human mind. His writing is great, but it also brings home how relatively ordinary our time in history really is, yet serves as a great reminder that so many things we take for granted even had to be invented.

No doubt I’ll think of more now that I’ve put a list together. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of these people, but I’ve also been even more fortunate in that other people I’ve come across in my life have served as role models (starting naturally enough with my parents). I don’t intend this post as meme, but if you have role-models, I’d be interested in hearing about them. As I mentioned, it’s definitely a great benefit to read about such inspiring people.

3 Replies to "Role Models"


ompaul  on December 13, 2009

Great photo. Four additional names you might want to include, Clive James for cultural works mostly Cultural Amnesia – Bryan Sykes for making genes accessible through anyone of his books on the subject – Diaro Fo for “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” – John Hersey Hiroshima –
The first two in this list make my own list of things everyone should read. If I had to choose a fifth perhaps it would be Douglas R. Hofstadster.


colmmacc  on December 13, 2009

I’ve read GEB by Hofstadster – but it didn’t make a very strong impression. It’s clear that the guy is clever, and I can see where he’s going with the strange loop stuff, but the writing is eclectic and awful.

There’s a long list of people I thought about adding including; Orwell, Joyce, Douglas Adams, Alan Turing.


MikeD  on December 15, 2009

Carl Sagan

I’ve only read one of his books and that was “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” but I have watched many of his interviews and I have always felt that he was the kind of thinker, and doer, who didn’t keep himself within artificial boundaries.

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