Published by CLIO’S PSYCHE, March 2010, Volume 16, Number 4
Michael S. Isaacs, MSW, NCPsyA, JD
San Francisco, California

     Career and Personal Role Models, Heroes, and Mentors

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For purposes of this article, I will be viewing role models as people we choose to mirror in our life’s journey.  Heroes are those we highly admire and often idealize. Mentors predominantly function in the teaching and coaching role. One person may embody one or more of these prototypes at a time, so some of my characterizations may appear fuzzy at times due to overlapping.

Role models and heroes often change with different stages of life. In my latency years, my heroes were cowboys, especially Roy Rodgers; the Phantom, a fearless awesome cartoon character; and Superman. At this stage, I dont remember what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I do know that I never wanted to be a fireman or policeman.

In my preteens and teens, I loved to hear the singing of crooner Frankie Laine. especially the song, Jezebel. Also, during this time period, rooting for the New York Yankees baseball team was a passion. I worshipped all its team members, especially Joe DiMaggio and pitcher Whitey Ford. What I wanted to be when I grew up, however, was not a baseball player, but a professional pop singer like Frankie Laine or a sports radio broadcaster announcer like Mel Allen of the New York Yankees baseball team.

Occasionally our heroes become our models. For example, a middle-aged patient of mine had cancer n his late teens. After successful treatment, he perceived his oncologist as saving his life. This doctor was his hero. His physician hero became his role model to the extent that he went on become a knowledgeable and compassionate medical doctor.

While it is only infrequently that our heroes become our main role model, it is true that many of the attributes of our heroes become aspects of our role modeling. For example, the poet Walt Whitman is one of my heroes.  Yet I have no desire to live like him. However, he has influenced my role modeling by his choosing to express his observational powers in writing, which in his case was free-flowing poetry.

Our early first role models are our parents, for their behavior and our dependence on them is our first life experience. Even if their behavior is not exemplary, out of familiarity, loyalty, and needing their love, we often hold on to them as role models for too long and sometimes forever.  As therapists, how often we hear the surprise of our patients when they are upset when they become aware of how they are repeating some qualities of their parents, which qualities they abhor.

My father was my first role model. From his influence, I have incorporated the importance of education, his emphasis on moderation, his value in stable family life, his analytical mind, and importance of reputation in the community. He was an attorney and a municipal court judge. I also inherited his sense of humor, although his humor sometimes descended to puns that were not of high quality.

Thus, it is not a surprise that after college, I attended law school. That was based on identifying with my father’s masculine yang side. After law school, I went on to obtain a master’s degree in social work, which decision was partially based on my mother’s kindness and compassion, my feminine nurturing yin side.

After my graduate school training in social work was completed, I started a career in law and solely practiced law for ten years, first with my father and then several years later started my own private practice. At the same time, I commenced individual and group psychotherapy. My first therapist was a psychiatrist who was just finishing his program at the William Alanson White Institute in New York City.

In his waiting room on a table there was a sculpture of Rodin’s “The Thinker”. The thinker was sitting bent over looking at the ground in deep thought.  I was impressed and awed by this figure who I perceived to be reflective and curious, willing to face his conflicts and demons with curiosity and courage.

After my father, my therapist was my second career role model. In my two years of treatment with him, I learned about the world of the unconscious and my own hidden world. He emphasized the analysis of dreams. From him I was inspired to read the books of therapists such as Eric Fromm, Karen Horney, Viktor Frankel, Rollo May, and Harry Stack Sullivan.

I idealized my therapist. I wanted to be like him, listening to people and to helping solve their conflicts and problems. He rose to the level of a hero.

During these ten years, I also started a life-long spiritual path, being strongly influenced by the ancient Indian wisdom and philosophy. I taught and practiced yoga and meditation and studied under a guru for many years. There were many heroes during my years of study of Vedanta philosophy. The most prominent one was Swami  Vivekenanda. He was one of the first illumined Indians to visit America in the latter part of the 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s.

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