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What Barbie’s director can teach us about finding (and becoming) a role model…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.

My goal: to give you—in the time it takes to finish on the toilet—one piece of practical career wisdom you can apply today, no matter if you’re a student or a seasoned professional.

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Did You Know? You could be more influential than a celebrity!

A story from the past

It’s 2006 and college senior and rookie actress Greta Gerwig was at an indie film festival. Not having gone to the movies much as a kid, Gerwig was mesmerized: To her, movies seemed like “things handed down from gods.”

Then, a female director’s name showed up first in the indie film’s closing credits. Gerwig’s jaws dropped. Wait, she wondered. Are we—[women]—allowed to do that? Who told you you could? Then, she realized: “Nobody told her. She was just gonna do it, like the guys were doing it.” 

Learning about the female director motivated Gerwig. So, as Gerwig grew her reputation as a talented indie actress, she kept her eyes on a different prize: to eventually direct her own film. One day, after working with—and impressing—a certain producer as an actress, Gerwig forwarded the producer a script she had written on the side.

One “yes” from this producer later, and Gerwig dazzled critics and movie-goers alike with her directorial debut Ladybird (2017), which received Best Motion Picture on top of 121 other awards. Today, Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) is now the first female-directed film to reach $1 billion in box office sales.

So, the next time you think, “I don’t know what to do with my life”, remember Gerwig, who found inspiration from a single name against a black screen—and went on to do something about it.

Greta Gerwig (via W Magazine) and the Barbie (2023) poster (via Deadline)

A study of the present

Gerwig experienced the power of finding a role model, yes. But, specifically, she experienced the power of finding an attainable role model.

Attainability, or how realistic something feels, matters. Research shows that…

So what? If you don’t feel like you’re inspirational enough to be anyone’s role model, think again. You might not be Steven Spielberg (the director of big-name movies like Jurassic Park), but that’s exactly what makes you a good role model. You’re attainable! And if you’re looking for a role model and find yourself wondering if you could ever become Steven Spielberg, it may be time to add a more attainable role model to your list.

A strategy for your future

Looking for a role model? Think of someone who’s just one step ahead of you (e.g., a grad school student if you’re in college or someone in their mid-career if you’re in your early career). They could be a role model to you!

  • Contact them and say, “Like you, I also ______ and am inspired by how you managed to ______. I would love to follow in your footsteps. Might you have a few minutes to share your story with me? In particular, I’m curious about ______ and ______.”

Looking to become a role model? Think of someone who’s just one step behind you (e.g., a high school student if you’re in college or an early career hire if you’re in your mid-career). You could be a role model to them! 

  • Reach out to someone who serves this group (e.g., your former high school teacher or the intern coordinator in your company) and say, “I was reflecting on how painful it was to ______ back when I was a ______ and would love to pay it forward. Might there be an opportunity to share my experience with ______, perhaps as a guest speaker?”

Not everyone will say “yes,” but one will—and that one “yes” could lead to you finding (or becoming) a role model that could change your and others’ lives.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When I first started writing The Unspoken Rules, I thought, I’m not a rich and famous CEO; what business do I have writing a book?! Had I not realized that I was actually more qualified than a CEO to write about how to succeed in your early career as someone who had just survived the experience myself, I would not have had the confidence to continue.

Look for the role models you already know—and remember the role model you already are!