As I write this, it is a Tuesday. I just finished checking the results of a running event that occurred today. It was exciting. The athlete involved, Des Linden, obliterated the 50k world best, covering 31 miles at 5:47 pace on rolling road. Very nice, I think. I am filled with admiration. I shut my computer and return to my schoolwork. I carry on with the rest of my day.
There is a tendency, described by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, to be mere admirers instead of imitators. We see someone excellent and appreciably perceive her, but remain unaffected. We carry on unchanged. In contrast, an imitator is compelled by the excellent other and acts on what he appreciably perceives. Kierkegaard writes, “An imitator is or strives to be what he admires, and an admirer keeps himself personally detached [and] does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him to be or at least to strive to be what is admired (1).”
I am reminded of this distinction as I shut my computer and carry on with my day. I can let my admiration of Des Linden remain inert, as a pleasant feeling that fills me up and then evaporates as soon as I turn my attention to something else. Or I can be an imitator. I can strive to be what is admired.
It is a truism in character education circles that imitation and emulation are a significant means by which our characters develop. From a young age, we take pleasure in imitation. My 10-month-old daughter, for example, already mimics my gestures and facial expressions. She is likely to imitate more substantial features of my character as she matures. Past childhood, we are still inclined to take cues for thinking, feeling, and acting from people we admire. But we generally become more resistant imitators because we already have our own habits in place (2). In many cases, this resistance means a missed opportunity. It would be constructive for us to imitate the good qualities we admire in exemplary others so we can become exemplary, too.
So, while we often cease to discuss role models as we move into adulthood, we really shouldn’t. We should continue to examine who plays—and has played—the role of exemplar in our lives. Moreover, we should prioritize learning from admirable people, starting with Des. But how do we do this? How do we move from mere admiration to imitation, or even beyond that, to possessing the same excellences ourselves? There are three steps:
1. Select a good exemplar.
Exemplars are role models, not to be confused with roll models, or attractive pieces of bread. Fortunately, we are in a sport that is full of exemplary people—Des Linden, Clare Gallagher, Dylan Bowman, Courtney Dauwalter, Jim Walmsley, and so many others. Your feelings of admiration can be your guide in selecting an exemplar, but you should critically reflect on the objects of your admiration. We often admire the wrong people, such as charismatic figures with otherwise bad characters. For example, think of the mean popular kids in middle school whom everyone wanted to dress like. Just because a person is magnetic or powerful does not mean that he or she is worthy of emulation.
Furthermore, empirical research supports the idea that we are more likely to imitate exemplars who are relatable to us (3). You do not need to select the best runner in the world to serve as your exemplar. Choose someone you find excellent and share something in common with. These days I often admire moms who live well-ordered lives, prioritize their families, and seek excellence in sports or academia. They seem accessible to me, and therefore more emulable than those whose lives are distant from my own.
2. Name the excellence in question.
It can be helpful to name what is great about your exemplar. Young children imitate without doing so, but the ability to name excellences and defects in those we look to for guidance can make us more circumspect admirers. It can help us distinguish what is truly excellent from confounding features like popularity or charisma.
Naming excellences can also help us to figure out which of an exemplar’s good qualities are imitable. For example, I may never be able to emulate the long, loping stride of Jim Walmsley or the aerobic efficiency of Des Linden, but I can emulate their perseverance, humility, humor, or courage. These qualities are imitable, or open to me. I can improve in these respects.
3. Practice the excellence.
As Kierkegaard observed, it is one thing to notice an excellent quality in an admirable person. It is something else entirely to act in terms of that quality, or to imitate the actions of an exemplar. Imitation means someone’s excellence makes a claim on us to do likewise. At this stage, one moves from a mere admirer to an imitator.
Here is an example. I admire the perseverance of an athlete, so I set out to practice this trait alongside the other athletic skills I am developing in my training. I might do so by sustaining an effort for longer than I would be inclined to usually, or I might try to persevere in the focus I have during runs. I appropriate the excellence in my own context, performing it myself.
Additionally, in the same way that we do not run hill repeats once to prepare for mountain running, we should not just imitate the excellence in question once. We should make a habit of it. We should practice a virtue until it defines us in a stable way. In practicing the admired person’s excellences, we take ownership of these qualities and develop them in ourselves.
We are fortunate to be in a sport full of exemplary athletes and people. These people are valuable because they provide us with a clear vision of what it looks like to be outstanding in a given respect. Moreover, in the ways that an exemplar exceeds us, she reveals areas where we can improve.
Today Des Linden set a world best, and my temptation was to be a mere admirer. I can let my admiration of Des Linden remain inert, as a pleasant feeling that wanes as soon as I turn my attention to something else. Or I can be an imitator. I can strive to be what is admired.
Call for Comments
- Who and what do you imitate?
- What actions or abilities in others do you wish to have or be yourself?
- Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity. Translated by H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 241.
- Sabrina Little. (2021) The graded engagement model of admiration. Theory and Research in Education. 1-16.
- Hyemin Han, Jeongmin Kim, Changwoo Jeong, Geoffrey L. Cohen (2017). Attainable and relevant moral exemplars are more effective than extraordinary exemplars in promoting voluntary service engagement. Frontiers in Psychology 8(283): 1-14.