The Power of Examples - What Stoics Say About Mentors and Examples
In this short writing I would like to instill within you a deep respect and desire for positive examples. When I say “examples” I mean people who serve as guides for how you should live your life. Few people can achieve high acclaim without having followed the example of great men and women. Yes, we must carve our own path in the world, and we should not wish to be exactly like someone else, however the power of a great example or mentor can not be overstated.
A quote from the Stoic Philosopher Seneca comes to mind. As he writes to one of his friends, Lucilius, he says the following of examples;
“There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”
Without examples and mentors to follow our life is without the ruler, and we are prone to moving to and fro, never correcting our character or seeing our faults.
I am reminded of a lesson that I learned in childhood. When I was about 11 years old my family moved to a beautiful 30 acre patch of land on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. In a field there stood three eucalyptus trees, all very tall and very thick. One tree stood out to me more than the others. Whilst the other two trees were both very straight, this one was leaning at an angle of about 45 degrees. It puzzled me that this tree could grow so differently from the other two trees that were planted in the same place at around the same time.
The same year that we moved to the farm I asked my parents if I could plant my own eucalyptus tree. They agreed and we went to the nursery to find my tree. I found the one I wanted - a gum tree that was tall enough to give some shade immediately and supple enough to be bent if needed. When we planted the tree my Dad did something that I hadn't seen before. Next to the freshly planted tree he rammed a stake into the ground and then tied the tree to the stake. I asked him why, and he explained that if the young tree was not tied to a strong stake then the wind would soon change the tree’s direction of growth, and over many years this could cause the tree to grow at a sharp angle. I soon understood the reason that the fully grown tree was at such an angle. When it was young it obviously didn’t have the support that was needed to fight the heavy wind, and now it was too late to do anything about it. The poor tree was stuck, and nothing could fix it. I was grateful that my new tree would have a better chance, and over the next few years it grew to be tall and strong until it no longer needed the support of a rope.
Over our lives we will be pushed back and forth by the winds of life, but we can still remain on a straight path to success if we choose to tie ourselves to great examples and mentors, people who we can measure ourselves against.
Seneca goes on to say;
“The personality should be provided with someone it can revere, someone whose influence can make even its private, inner life more pure… [Happy] is the person who can so revere another as to adjust and shape his own personality in the light of recollection, even, of that other. A person able to revere another thus will soon deserve to be revered himself. Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model.”
We would all do well to take the time and find great examples in people around us, and also people not within our circle. The person who is able to see great qualities in other people and cultivate those qualities within herself will never struggle to find success.
On my wall in my office I have placed pictures of many influential people who's lives I want to emulate. The goal is not to become exactly like them, but to focus on certain qualities that they possess. each person reminds me of a virtue that I wish to have. Rosa Parks reminds me of strength and courage, Napoleon Hill reminds me that I must never stop searching for wisdom, and Steve Jobs prompts me to bring passion and commitment with me wherever I go. Many more examples remind me of virtues that I need to cultivate. I have found that my office is now one of my most inspiring places, because now I can look up and see a wall full of examples that I can follow. I am excited to develop myself when I see their faces, and I would encourage you to find a space to to the same thing.
“One of the best ways to elevate your character immediately,” said the Stoic Philosopher Epictetus, “is to find worthy role models to emulate… Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”
Positive examples serve as great marks for us to aim at, and they also make our journey to success a straighter path. We all need to be constantly searching for people who are worthy of our admiration. These people are everywhere if we will look, and when we find these examples we must make the decision to develop the characteristics that we find so attractive in them. When we do this we should surely be more confident on our march to a more significant existence, and we will begin to experience what it truly means to rise to the good life.