Finding your Imaginary Mentor

Fulfill your human potential with invisible friends for grown-ups

It’s difficult to explain my ambitions to people. I’m young and my plans are vague, to say the least. I don’t have a one-word, or even a one-sentence answer that I can use to start a conversation at a cocktail party. I don’t want to be an accountant, astronaut, animal trainer, or any of the traditional clean and compact vocations. I can’t even say “I want to work in Industry X doing Y,” because I just don’t know. Rather, my most personal ambitions hinge more on nebulous ideas and feelings that I try to guide myself towards — things like intellectual curiosityindependence,competencesimplicity, and efficiency.

Vague, I know. So how to articulate what I want out of life to myself and others? I’ll put it this way— I want to live up to my potential as a human being.

I think about all the great people who have lived throughout history, the ones I most admire as high marks of human achievement, and I find that if I keep their images alive in my mind, I am better at managing distractions and staying focused on what is important— that is, working hard every single day do learn more about myself and figure out how I can most effectively fit into this world and serve it. To tell myself every morning, as Marcus Aurelius did, “I have to go to work— as a human being.” I trust that if I do this, the details will all shake out OK.

Your Imaginary Mentor

Seneca suggested an exercise: Find someone who you revere, and keep his image in your mind all day long. A Lincoln, a Roosevelt, an Obama, a Beethoven, a Miles Davis. A Steve Jobs. A Hemingway. Whoever excites your ambition and makes you feel admiration and respect. Your task is then to measure your own deeds against his deeds, and use him to guide you. Let him be a model for your own character.

Image you literally have to answer to this person at the end of the day, like a boss or a father. “So how was your day? What did you do?” Are you going to let him down by telling him that all you did was watch reruns of 30 Rock, masturbate, and get drunk by 8pm? Of course not. You’ll feel a certain tension as you go about you daily activities, a tightness and a sense of duty to your imaginary mentor.

Seneca. Read his brilliant “Letters from a Stoic” and it will change your life.

Treat your own character and your habits as defective, says Seneca, and use this other great person, this high mark of human achievement as a ruler. Measure yourself against them to “make the crooked straight.”

This exercise has a twofold effect on me— it inspires me to elevate myself to the level of some of the greatest humans who have ever walked, and at the same time it paradoxically brings them down to my level. Someone like Abraham Lincoln is a historical giant, so much larger than life as to be almost mythical, but if you get in the habit of actually visualizing his presence in your life, sitting at your desk, wasting time on Reddit, literally standing over your shoulder so close that you can feel the heat of his body and catch the scent his thick musty 1860s wool coat, then you succeed in seeing him as he really is— as a human just like you. Just a collection of bones, muscles, and blood, who has flaws and distractions and fears, and who overcame them anyway and did great things in his life. It makes me feel strong, because I realize that the potential for that same greatness also lives inside me.

Christopher Hitchens said this about Martin Luther King:

“I like the fact that he had feet of clay and a digestive tract and reproductive organs: all human achievement must also be accomplished by mammals, and this realization puts us on a useful spot. It strongly suggests that anyone could do what the heroes have done.”

Like all things that are true and profound and important, it is a deceptively simple concept. Of course all your heroes were flesh and blood. What else would they be? But ask yourself, how deeply do you realize it? How completely do you connect with that reality, and use it to guide your actions every day? Probably not enough.

I try to meditate on this day in and day out, because the powerful realization that you yourself are made of the same stuff as the greatest humans who walked the planet does a remarkable thing. It drags them down from the sanitized hills of Mt. Olympus and convert them into real people with real problems, struggles, and insights that are applicable to your life. And then can you finally begin to learn from them.