What Makes a Good Role Model? Luke Burgis Explains

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Wanting" by Luke Burgis. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What makes a good role model? What should a role model be able to accomplish? What characteristics should they have?

Author and educator Luke Burgis wrote his first book, Wanting, to explain why we imitate others and pursue false desires in society. In the book, he explains what makes a good role model, how to identify and choose role models in your life, and how to avoid bad role models.

Read on to find out what makes a good role model, according to Burgis’s advice.

Good Role Models, According to Burgis

Luke Burgis is a writer, entrepreneur, and educator whose work revolves around teaching others about mimetic desire—the theory that we imitate what other people want or have. Wanting, published in 2021, is his first book. Burgis mentors budding entrepreneurs by combining ideas on mimetic desire with his experience as a former CEO of a large wellness company. He also teaches business to university students and serves as an adviser for several K-12 initiatives on educating children about desire. When asked what makes a good role model, Burgis claims models should be able to strengthen your commitment to following meaningful goals and introduce you to new goals worth mimicking. 

(Shortform note: Educational theory supports Burgis’s claim that you grow when you surround yourself with positive models. Experts on the psychology of learning use the term “zone of proximal development” to describe the skills and knowledge that you may not be able to achieve on your own but can achieve with the support of others. According to this theory, students learn best when they’re surrounded by peers whose skills are more advanced. Similarly, you may be able to commit thoroughly to your meaningful desires and discover new meaningful desires when surrounded by models who skillfully demonstrate how to chase meaningful desires.)

In this article, we’ll explain what makes a good role model by describing Burgis’s strategies for identifying and following role models that exhibit meaningful desires and how to avoid those that exhibit misleading desires.

Identifying Good Role Models in Your Life

First, begin by identifying all of the role models in your life who influence your desires (whether positively or negatively). Burgis recommends making a list. Begin by listing your nearby role models at home, at work, and in your other communities. Examples include your partner, your siblings, your boss, and your religious leader. Next, list your faraway role models, such as people you follow closely on social media, celebrities and politicians you admire, and historical figures who inspire you.

(Shortform note: Consider listing not only who your role models are, but also what they’ve inspired you to desire. For instance, next to your sister’s name, you could write that she has inspired you to carve out more time for creativity in your life. Creating a more specific list like this might make it easier to complete the next two steps, which we explore below—identifying models of meaningful desires and decreasing your exposure to models of misleading desires.)

Identifying Models That Exhibit Meaningful Desires

Next, Burgis claims that you should discern which of these people model meaningful desires by researching their credentials and determining how trustworthy they are. To further discern what makes a good role model, we’ll contrast untrustworthy and trustworthy models.

Untrustworthy role models: According to Burgis, some people obtain false credentials through mimetic desire. This happens through a four-step process: 1) They become popular; 2) more people start wanting what they want; 3) this attention further increases their popularity; and 4) this popularity makes them seem credible and trustworthy. However, these models may lack the expertise to truly model meaningful desires, and therefore they’re likely untrustworthy.

According to Burgis, you can spot untrustworthy models because they’re typically self-proclaimed experts who lack true experience in the areas that make them popular. For example, be skeptical of a self-proclaimed white antiracist ally who “talks the talk” about how to be antiracist but doesn’t “walk the walk” by committing to meaningful, antiracist action.

Trustworthy role models: By contrast, Burgis claims that trustworthy models earn true credentials through experience and wisdom rather than through mimetic popularity. Perhaps they have a degree or years of experience in a field that’s important to you. This high level of experience is strong evidence that you can trust their advice and desires.

Limitations to Burgis’s Criteria for What Makes a Good Role Model

When recommending which models you should follow, Burgis equates a lack of experience with untrustworthiness and ample experience with trustworthiness. However, these definitions don’t reflect situations in which experienced people model desires that don’t necessarily reflect their experience. Examining the case of influencers—people with a large following who are paid to market products or services—reveals limitations in Burgis’s criteria for identifying models of meaningful desires.

For instance, imagine that an experienced psychologist—someone who fits Burgis’s definition of trustworthy—gains a large following on Instagram for her psychology-related posts about self-acceptance. To earn an extra income, she then begins a role as an influencer who markets beauty products by implying that the products make her more beautiful and therefore happier. Because her recommendations for these products stem from her desire to be paid rather than her experience-based wisdom, her modeling of these desires is no more trustworthy than if a self-proclaimed expert modeled them.

This example reveals that just because a person is experienced and therefore trustworthy doesn’t mean that they always model meaningful desires. This example also suggests that a single person may model both meaningful and misleading desires. The psychologist models both the meaningful desire of self-acceptance (in her psychology posts) and the misleading desire of physical beauty (in her marketing posts).

Therefore, when deciding which models to follow, you may want to base your decisions on whether the desires they model are meaningful, rather than whether the model themselves seems experienced and trustworthy. Additionally, just because a person models meaningful desires one day doesn’t mean all the desires they model are meaningful—further suggesting that it’s worthwhile to hone your ability to distinguish meaningful desires from misleading ones. Given that the number of influencers is on the rise as companies increasingly rely on them for marketing, the skill of distinguishing misleading and meaningful desires will become arguably more important over time.

Avoiding Models That Exhibit Misleading Desires

After identifying role models that exhibit meaningful desires, your next step is to decrease your exposure to those that exhibit misleading desires. If you keep these negative influences in your life, you may feel continually tempted by the misleading desires they model—which could distract you from pursuing the more meaningful desires you’ve identified. After explaining what makes a good role model, Burgis provides advice on how to avoid bad role models, both those faraway and nearby:

Faraway models: You can decrease your exposure to faraway role models of misleading desires by unfollowing their social media accounts or other content they produce. 

Nearby models: To decrease your exposure to nearby role models of misleading desires, limit your interactions with them. For instance, imagine one of your colleagues frequently models the misleading desire of losing weight by making it seem like thinner people are happier. They frequently talk about their fitness routine and compliment others on looking slim. To decrease your exposure to their misleading desire, limit your interactions with them to only those that are necessary to complete your job. 

Setting Boundaries With Nearby Models of Misleading Desires

Whereas decreasing your exposure to a faraway model might be as easy as clicking “unfollow” on social media, limiting your interactions with a nearby model of misleading desires may require the more difficult task of setting clear boundaries with them. One expert on boundary-setting provides the following tips for setting an effective boundary:

Clarify the boundary you’re setting. Decide what types of interactions are necessary or fine to have with the person versus which types of interactions are unhealthy for you. For example, clarify that it’s necessary to talk about work with your colleague who extols the virtues of being slim, but you want to avoid talking with them about topics that could bring up body weight, such as eating, fitness, and clothing.

Clarify in advance what you’ll do if the other person violates the boundary. Deciding this in advance helps you feel prepared to respond appropriately to boundary violations in the moment. For example, you might decide that any time your coworker brings up eating, fitness, or clothing, you’ll provide a vague comment and then change the subject to something more work-related. If that doesn’t work, prepare something you’ll say to them that will reflect the boundary you’ve set, such as “I’d rather avoid talking about weight since it’s a complicated topic and it involves unique factors for each person.”

Consistently apply your boundary. The person you’re setting a boundary with is more likely to follow that boundary if you repeatedly, consistently remind them of it. For instance, even if you notice your colleague looks great in their new outfit, refrain from crossing your boundary by complimenting them, as this could invite them to cross the boundary in return by making a comment about body weight.
What Makes a Good Role Model? Luke Burgis Explains

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Luke Burgis's "Wanting" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Wanting summary:

  • Why we want the things that we want
  • How our desires are influenced by what other people want or have
  • Strategies for living a more meaningful life by taking control of what we want

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.