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Monkey See, Monkey Do

Choose Your Role Models Wisely

Awareness is based on self-observation—the ability to see without judgment. But before we learn to observe ourselves, we are programmed to intensely observe those around us. It’s second nature. It’s a survival mechanism. And it’s imperative you own the tool in order to ask: who am I looking at and why?

Modeling helps, but you need to be clear about where you’re looking, why, and when you need to look away…No one said your models are always revealing awesome tricks; they could be showing you the fast track to misery.

Social cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura’s theory of observational learning (modeling) underlines the power of role models:

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” (Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977)

To own this theory is to see the huge flaws in a “Do as I say, not as I do” mindset, including lecture-based education and talking head theatre. Arts educators touting risk-taking and authenticity must also model it in order to have a lasting effect on their students. Artists must care deeply about their work in order for their audience to begin to connect. The only way I can be a successful sustainable artistry coach is by personally walking the walk, falling, getting up, and trying again—daily, hourly. Actions not only speak louder than words, they evolve the words into arrows of personal truths.

I also love Bandura’s theory as a way to explain the transformative power of the arts. An audience member can expand their understanding of the world right there in their seat while Prior and Harper hallucinate together in Angels In America. Our deep-rooted curiosity makes us look for “what if…?” experiences we can test drive before committing to the full experience ourselves.

The Student Must Find the Teacher


A Fire Just Waiting play development residency at East Chapel Hill High School. Book by Jess Pillmore, Music and Lyrics by Ani DiFranco, directed by Creatively Independent.

With each new stage of your journey—relationships, projects, homes, occupations—your three sustainable artistry questions of identity, intention, and impact can be difficult to answer. You may know who you were, but what about who you could be?

Modeling helps, but you need to be clear about where you’re looking, why, and when you need to look away. Without conscious choices, it’s Russian roulette on whether you’re getting more magic or emotional baggage. No one said your models are always revealing awesome tricks; they could be showing you the fast track to misery. It’s up to you to:

  • Break down the aspects of your artistic process. For me, these include: risk, play, vulnerability, authenticity, professionalism, community connection, awareness, collaboration, work ethic... The list is long.
  • Define who or what is your model in each section. Make conscious choices. Stop relying strictly on what you were taught (which is often other people's models). Choose anything—people, events, art, creatures—that inspire you to dream and strive.
  • See, own and expand the pattern. When you are clear about the many models you have in your sights, patterns emerge. Now see which models serve and which ones are holding you back. Are your models mostly from your world (age, gender, ethnicity, education, location, occupation) or do they live in the far-off regions of your awareness? A healthy balance of both allows us to see things beyond what is and into what could be, making the seemingly impossible possible.

“At The Center of it All, Your Eyes”*


The Epic Gaze. Photo collaboration by Jess Pillmore and Lee Mylks.

The effect of role models can be life-altering, especially when helping you navigate out of the unknown fog into a new stage of your life or art. It is easy to place them high above you as an authority, rather than beside you on this journey, or even better, inside your heart and mind.

You can flip this common mistake by remembering:

  • You chose them. Own that you were drawn to this model. Often the model doesn’t even know of your existence. This is about you.
  • They represent aspects of you that you wish to explore. Get clear on what drew you to each model and where that spark lives in you. It’s an illusion that the entire being drew you in. That blanket view places models on unstable pedestals reserved for infallible idols. Leave those empty. Nothing is infallible.
  • The lessons are not in their actions, but your interpretation of their actions. Your identity creates a unique lens that filters your observations. How you process and move forward with what you've observed is key.
  • The model only holds a piece of the lesson. Modeling is a step towards experience, not the experience itself. We feel that distinction the most when our models pass away.

Great artists crossed beyond the veil last month, causing many of us to lose our balance as if someone ripped off our training wheels mid-ride. We didn't realize how much we were relying on their presence to do the heavy-lifting of providing inspiration, risk, and boundary-breaking acts. But relying heavily upon training-wheels can slow us down, limit our possibilities, and even mar our technique over time. It’s your turn to risk, inspire, and break boundaries.

The late Alan Rickman encouraged young artists to courageously process their training by going out into the world and creating a point of view. David Bowie’s awe-inspiring departure from this world was a true model of an artist playing with life and death right up to the end, and beyond. In Blackstar, Bowie challenges us to move beyond modeling into ownership of our identity:

“Something happened on the day he died/Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside/Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:/ I’m a blackstar/I’m a starstar/I’m a blackstar”*

Saying goodbye to a model is a conscious act of independence and appreciation. It’s a moment to say, “Thank you for the support and inspiration. I can take these steps alone now. I’m ready.”

*(lyric excerpts from Blackstar, David Bowie, 2015)

Thoughts from the curator

Jess Pilmore explores sustainable artistry by breaking down the starving artist myths and giving mindful support for blazing your own, flexible, dependable path.

Sustainable Artistry by Jess Pillmore



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