How to Design Your Inner Role Models

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inner role models
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Are you living up to your potential? 

Before fleshing out article ideas, I like to bounce many of them off of my wife—the Queen of Honest Feedback When Requested. She’s especially honest if you catch her while she’s cooking—that perfect balance of distracted yet receptive.

I looked up to see her closely monitoring some tofu cooking in a skillet on the stove.

“Can I ask you a completely non-rhetorical question?” 

“Sure. What’s up?” 

“Would you say that you’re living up to your potentia—”

“—no.” 

“Wow, you didn’t even have to think about it.” 

As our laughter over her gunslinger-fast response settled, I was relieved to see that (a) my question had landed properly and (b) that this wasn’t a realization that crushed her spirit.

There’s a decent chance that you share my wife’s feelings about living up to your potential—and my own. Am I living up to my potential? Hell no. But, what would help me begin to move in that direction? In my experience, small daily nudges from a role model that understood me. 

External Role Models: The Good and the Bad

If you need a motivational pick-me-up, there are entire industries dedicated to such a service. From cheerleading personal trainers to power thinkers whose wisdom seems to ooze from their lips like honey off toast, the wellsprings of inspiration are brimming with influencers. 

And what can I say—I’ve been known to fanboy. I keep a rotating carousel of influencers in my consumption orbit—each with their “niche-itch” that they scratch. Maybe some — 

  • Beau Miles for exploring physical and mental space
  • Simone Giertz, Tom Sachs, and Van Neistat for resourceful creativity
  • Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton for naturalist running advice
  • Rabbi Nachman of Breslov for spiritual wisdom
  • Augustus Pablo and J Dilla for music production
  • Rabbi Dr. Benjy Epstein for some spiritual mindfulness
  • Ryan Holiday for relevant stoicism
  • Patrick Rhone, Alan Watts, and Ram Dass for contentment philosophy
  • And many others

And while I lean on them for advice during my various pursuits, there are downsides to such role models. 

A. I don’t know them. 

While I would love to be personally mentored by any of these individuals, this is simply out of my grasp. And I wouldn’t want to bug them anyway. 

B. They don’t know me. 

While some of the people have acknowledged my existence via a comment reply or even an email, most of these people don’t know I exist. In fact, several of my role models on this list are…(wait for it)…dead! Like, super dead. Rabbi Nachman has been dead for over 200 years. 

Because I don’t know them, they don’t know me, and some are pushing up daisies, there’s no way they could ever provide guidance tailored to helping me live up to my potential. 

But I do know who knows me. 

Me. 

You probably know you pretty well, too. 

Build Your Own Targets, Then Take Aim

Unless you’re in medical school or are currently on a trajectory to qualify for an Olympic team, most of us don’t know what our “achieved” potential would even look like. This lack of envisioning gives our potential no target. For this reason, it may be helpful to design your own inner role models. 

What is an inner role model? 

An inner role model is simply a characterization of your realized potential. To put it in another way, do you remember when your guidance counselor asked you, “Where would you like to see yourself in five years?” An inner role model is that version of yourself that stuck with your plan. But wait, what’s the plan? 

Extended Metric-Based Goals Suck

This may be a controversial opinion, but goals are overrated. Sure, they’re great for daily to-do lists, but they’re not great for building lasting personal development. What do I mean by this? Let’s explore with a quick example. 

Let’s say you have a goal to lose a certain amount of weight. Good for you! You start up a new diet and exercise program. Before long, you’re seeing the numbers roll back on the scale and your clothes are becoming looser. After months or even years of hard work and dedication, you’ve finally hit your goal weight. Congrats! But now what? 

While you may have chosen a sensible, sustainable route to weight loss, if you achieved your goal with a fad diet and an extreme exercise program, your wins will likely not last. Diets that feel restrictive take the joy out of eating. Extreme exercise can lead to burnout or injury. Metric-based goals have a hard endpoint before we’re forced into maintenance mode, which feels less like remaining svelt more like being chased down the street by your fatter self. 

So, if we’re not chasing a goal, what should we chase? An identity. 

Choose Your New You

In James Clear’s bestselling book Atomic Habits, he discusses how identity change is an incredibly helpful tool for habit change. He uses the example of someone who wants to quit smoking. When offered a cigarette, one could refuse it on the basis that they are trying to stop smoking. This person still sees themself as a smoker. A more powerful mindset is to refuse a cigarette on the grounds that they don’t smoke. This person has chosen to take on a new identity: a non-smoker. Non-smokers, by definition, do not smoke, thus making smoking not an option. 

There’s no goal to pursue— simply the process of choosing a new identity and then becoming acclimated to said identity. These new identities are a part of living up to your potential by being your own inner role model—in their case, the non-smoker. 

Designing Your Various Inner Role Models

If you were to seek out help living up to your full potential, there’s likely no single person that would be equipped to assist with every sphere of development. You are a multi-faceted person and your desired growth likely spans lifestyle categories. You may want to grow professionally, physically, spiritually, artistically, socially, and beyond. Each of these segments of your development would require hiring a different consultant—a different role model. 

For this reason, it is helpful to design an inner role model for each category of development—a different version of you that has reached or is in the process of reaching your potential in one mode of being. 

First, let’s explore where you can begin working towards living up to your potential and then design the inner role model that will help you on your journey toward this new identity. Let’s start with a five-year period.

Where would you like to be in five years? 

  • In what state would you prefer your romantic, parental, familial, or social relationships to be in five years? 
  • What would you like your relationship with physical fitness to look like in five years?
  • What levels of focus and peace would you like to experience in five years? 
  • Where would you like to be spiritually in five years? 
  • Where would you like to be professionally or financially in five years?
  • Etc. 

Now, what kind of person would you have to be to achieve these conditions and maintain them far beyond five years? These are your inner role models. 

Crafting Your Inner Role Models

When crafting your inner role models, it is important to remember that these personas are you. They share your motivations and your fears. Unlike you, though, these are versions of you that have persevered and have achieved the identity as a version of you that lives up to your potential. They are the non-smoker, the caring sister, the artist, the professional, the runner, the architect—while all being you. 

As an example for this piece, I will use an inner role model I have been in the process of developing to help me with my physical fitness and mindfulness movement—Kenny Sandals. 

Naming Your Inner Role Models

While the name you choose for this inner role model for yourself is not incredibly important, a name is a helpful handle to hold onto when you need to consult this identity. I chose “Kenny Sandals” because this role model is a free-spirited runner. Kenny Sandals runs in a natural way, usually in running huarache sandals. The name doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that. 

Choose a Sustainable Motivation

Why are you wanting to develop this side of yourself? Your inner role model’s motivation is the continued fuel in their tank. For Kenny Sandals, his motivation is experiencing as many hours of runner’s high as possible. 

While I could have said that Kenny Sandals wants to complete a marathon, this wouldn’t have been the best fuel in his tank. 

  • He may end up taking shortcuts to complete a horrible marathon.
  • He may overtrain and injure himself.
  • He may obsess over metrics and forget to have fun.
  • He may complete the marathon and then completely evaporate. 

However, because his goal is achieving the most amount of runner’s high, this ensures that other conditions must be met. 

  • His form needs to be smooth and prevent injury. 
  • His nutrition needs to support his running.
  • He needs to manage his weight so he can continue to run better.
  • While he will need to push himself to run miles through rough patches and run when he doesn’t feel up to it, he needs to remember to keep a cheerful outlook or the runner’s high may never arrive.

Choose Their Pet Peeves

Your inner role models need to be annoyed by distractions from their motivations. These pet peeves should begin to shape your own behavior. These annoyances act as a pebble in their shoe—forcing them (and you) to course correct when you’re beginning to lose sight of their motivations. Let’s look at Kenny Sandals’ pet peeves. 

  • He doesn’t like losing sleep—preferring sensible bedtimes and sleep-promoting behaviors.
  • He doesn’t like excessive junk food, sugar, or other substances that make running less enjoyable. 
  • He doesn’t like unnatural cushy footwear that messes with his running form and results in sore knees that hinder his ability to run.
  • He doesn’t like dwelling on negativity—instead, using bad experiences as learning tools. 
  • He doesn’t like being cooped up inside and not able to be active.
  • While he likes the occasional brewski (especially after a run), he doesn’t like excessive drinking because of how it impacts later running.
  • Oddly enough, he doesn’t like competition—unless it’s very friendly and lighthearted. He’s already competing with himself as much as it is.
  • He avoids whiners, complainers, and overall negativity wherever he can.

Describe Your Inner Role Models

Your inner role models are your supportive friends. Because they are your friends, you should be able to identify them. This exercise also helps them seem more real to you. 

Take a few moments to write a detailed description of each of your inner role models as you design them. Write what their day looks like, how they behave, what they look like, and how they would respond to certain situations. 

For Example: 

Part myth, part legend, Kenny Sandals is all about LSD—yep, long slow distance. He is a free spirit who loves exploring his world on two barely-sandaled feet. He carries an unflappable smile and doesn’t care what others think about him. He wanders down roads, shoulders, trails, sidewalks, and paths all over town like a grinning quick-footed wizard or gnome—long beard flapping in the breeze, toes exposed to the sky—usually donning a trucker cap, cheap shorts, a random t-shirt, the least amount of footwear. He waves to most people he passes and nobody ever knows where he’s headed. He’ll run the occasional race or pub crawl, but usually just for the sense of community. And you better believe he’s always game for a post-run beer, but he usually has to earn it first.

What Would (Insert Inner Role Model Name Here) Do? 

Now that this inner role model has begun to take shape, it is time to channel them to work towards achieving your potential in their facet of your life. When planning your day, consult your inner role models to see what they would do. Let them guide your daily habits, your diet, your personal interactions, and the like. If you have designed them with the proper motivations and pet peeves, they should guide your day in a sustainable way that meshes with what you truly want out of life. 

Once a month, make a date with your inner role model to make sure you’re living up to their motivations and not the motivations of others—even if those are misguided motivations you find yourself drawn toward—such as unhealthy habits, vanity metrics, acclaim from others, and the like. Make sure you’re not placing pebbles in the shoes of our inner role models and realign your daily activities to scratch their itches.

Revisit Your Inner Role Models

Though remaining tethered to a revolving carousel of inner role models is a great way to start living up to your potential, you may find that your motivations change over time. For this reason, every quarter or six months, reevaluate if your inner role models’ motivations still truly match your own or at are appropriately actionable levels. There’s no shame in adjusting the intensity of your inner role model’s motivations if you’re simply unable to live up to their standards. Still, this should only be done for the sake of creating forward momentum. While motivations may change, make sure that your new motivations aren’t simply surrendering to apathy. 

Inner Role Models Accountability

You may choose to form your inner role models with friends. Sharing your inner role models with friends is a great way to create accountability. In this way, you can check with each other to see how happy or annoyed their inner role models are. 

I’d love to meet your inner role models at ken@thekenlane.com and hear if you’re keeping them happy. Feel free to ask me how Kenny Sandals is doing. 


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