Do you have a role model? Somebody whom you admire enough to wish you have some of his or her same attributes and characteristics?

Do you have a mentor? Somebody whom you can look up to, and go to for advice and guidance in a particular field?

We all need such people in our lives — some admired from afar, others close enough to guide us, to encourage and help us navigate our way through confusing times. But it’s not as simple as just choosing someone for the job.

Even someone as successful as Oprah Winfrey — a role model to countless women herself — chose thoughtfully from an older generation. She has said of Dr. Maya Angelou, the 80-year-old American poet, “She is the one I often look to for strength, for wisdom, for comfort and courage.”

On the other hand, many young children will unquestioningly look to sports heroes as role models. The fame and fortune of celebrity athletes is enchanting to impressionable young children. But fame and fortune are not a guarantee of the integrity that stamps a true hero.

Barry Bonds, for example, is this generation’s baseball great, surpassing both legendary Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in numbers of home runs. Impressive, but he’s been charged with using anabolic steroids to bolster his game — and lying about it under oath.

So does his athletic prowess trump his alleged substance abuse and cheating? Not in my books.

Finding a role model whom you can actually one day come close to emulating is a far healthier choice than one who operates with no restraint or discretion. Britney Spears is another good example of a bad role model.

So many young girls thought it would be great if, with just a little bit of talent and some help from Disney’s Mouseketeers, they too could become world-renowned pop singers. That could have been true — except that Britney, after hitting it big, went off the rails. She married when very young and immature, and had two children before she was ready to raise them, and continued to live as though she was still single and carefree.

Having role models who influence your goals is healthy, but finding a good mentor can be even more rewarding. On the practical level, a mentor can show you how to enhance your life specifically — in your relationships, your career, or whatever their area of expertise.

A mentor can be anybody with whom you connect — someone whom you can talk with freely, and whose advice and wisdom you’ll not only listen to but also follow. Sometimes it’s an obvious pairing, like the medical student who connects with a top surgeon in his/her desired specialty; in other instances, you may find great insight from an unexpected source, such as a neighbour.

It makes no difference who your mentor is — it’s what you do with the information that matters.

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