The other day I clicked on a LinkedIn video about a woman who went through amazing physical and mental hardship following a serious car accident and I found her story very moving. That said, I realized after watching her talk that I really couldn’t much relate to her experience and that got me reflecting back to my academic roots and Social Cognitive Theory (SCT). First, let me say that I LOVE SCT! At a high level, SCT posits that learning is social and occurs in reciprocal interactions among the person, their environment and their behaviors. I believe its tenets and associated constructs have a lot to teach us about goal setting, striving and achievement and I use it a lot in my work as a coach, but that’s a blog post for another time. Here, I’d like to focus on one element of SCT, namely observational learning.

Observational learning is one of the most powerful forms of learning. When an observer sees a model perform a task successfully, it offers the opportunity for that individual to begin to construct an image of him or herself achieving the same task, and from there, the seeds of learning begin to sprout. There are however, a few caveats to the success of this process. One key element to the success of observational learning is the degree of similarity between the model and the observer. If the observer does not perceive the model to be similar in some important way to him or her, all bets are off. Observational learning essentially doesn’t occur.

Back to the video of the woman. It occurred to me after watching that woman’s story, that although I thought she was amazingly brave and found her story compelling, I didn’t find that I could take the lessons she was dispensing and apply them to my life. In other words, I didn’t look at what she’d accomplished in her life and think to myself, “Wow! If she can do that, so can I.” Admittedly, SCT doesn’t really cover inspiration explicitly, but I think I can make a case for the idea that if an inspirational story is meant to be instructive in nature, then the observational learning component of the theory should apply.

Why is this important you might be wondering? Well, I remember many years ago when Eckert Tolle was all the rage. I listened to his moving story and I felt… deflated! I know there were many others who did not share this sentiment, but for me (and it was during a particularly challenging point in my life) hearing his story just made me wish I was lucky enough to have a miraculous experience that would ease my pain. If I recall his story correctly, he was contemplating suicide and then heard a voice or had some sort of mystical experience that snapped him out of it. For me, not so much. I wanted to take the learnings he’d so eloquently encapsulated and apply them to my life, but they just didn’t fit. I felt frustrated and disappointed in myself. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t extrapolate from his experience and change my life for the better as he had? Why wasn’t his transformational experience enough for the both of us? In retrospect however, I realize that I just couldn’t see myself in him. It’s not that I couldn’t relate to deep psychic pain. I just couldn’t relate to the path he’d found to get past it.

Reflecting on my history, I’ve had this experience numerous times with self-help books. I’ve read hundreds, maybe thousands of these types of books and while the ideas may have resonated to a greater or lesser extent, they’ve never quite convinced me that I could achieve personal mastery in an area of my life I wanted to change, solely based on the author’s own ‘aha’ experience. Perhaps I’ve just read the wrong books or watched the wrong TedTalks? It makes me wonder though, whether this is an experience unique to me or one that other’s share? Is it the dirty little secret of self-help gurus?

All that said, I absolutely believe in people’s ability to transform and, as I’ve said, in the power of observational learning. So how do we go about finding everyday people with whom we can identify who have been triumphant in an arena in which we struggle, in a manner that allows us to learn from them? I suppose that’s part of the ‘magic’ of 12-step programs. Professionally, I would say mentors can be extremely beneficial for much the same reason. We see them as similar to ourselves, just a few years down the road. What happens however, for those challenges we face that ‘fall between the cracks’? In other words, where do we turn for “relatable” inspiration not having to do with something as extreme as addiction or as specific as a career path? Most of the models (of personal growth or financial well-being) I come across on social media have either achieved notoriety or succeeded at feigning its appearance through marketing savvy. They tell me for example, that they started out as struggling solo-preneurs with huge debt, many fears and countless failures, but now are pulling in a 7-figure salary and are living a carefree life – they don’t serve as a proximal model for me. I can’t relate. Can you? It begs the question then, how do we access ‘regular’ heroes?

I understand that, on one level, we live in a time where social media platforms have made finding a proximal, yet inspirational, role model from which to learn more possible than ever before. On the other hand, having these platforms also means there is an incredible amount of noise to wade through in order to find the right model to help us grow and achieve our goals. On a more serious note, the endless array of online ‘models’ can be downright dangerous for some of our most vulnerable populations. Teens and the mentally unstable can and have easily connected to ‘falsely relatable’ models they believe are just like them, who have chosen to channel their pain into self- and other-destructive behaviors. Not the kind of observational learning anyone wants to see.

So what viable options exist for finding relatable models who can both inspire and teach us? The truth is that I don’t have a fully formulated answer yet, but I’m curious about the ways in which people in the LinkedIn community may be inadvertently serving in exactly that capacity. I’m interested in experimenting with this idea more intentionally and I believe it’s a topic worthy of discussion. As a first step, I put the question to you: Beyond your direct life experiences, who are the models who have truly facilitated meaningful change in your life? Have you found any of them on LinkedIn? If so, are these people who look like you or to whom you feel some type of kinship? I’m extremely curious to hear from others whether my hypothesis about inspiration, learning, transformation and having proximal role models holds true for you. While you may be inspired by anyone’s story of courage, who do you need to hear from in order to move from inspiration to the type of learning that results in lasting behavioral change? 

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