Build a Do-it-Yourself Role Model

Neil deGrasse Tyson at the 1,000 days since launch party for Kepler in December, 2011. NASA Ames Research Center photo licensed under Creative Commons

By Joe Grimm

Other than astrophysics, what can an astrophysicist teach journalists?


Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote the newly released book “Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.” In it, he argues that an ambitious and exciting space mission would bring multiple benefits to the country.

On NPR’s “Science Friday,” host Ira Flatow asked Tyson about role models. This is an excerpt, from the transcript, of what Tyson said.

“. . . For me, role models is an overrated concept because typically when you look for a role model, you’re trying to find someone who, like, looks like you or grew up where you grew up or had the same struggles in life.

“… I think it’s a self-defeating notion that you’ve got to find a person - for example, if I needed a black astrophysicist from the Bronx to be my role model so that I can be an astrophysicist, I would have never been an astrophysicist, and I realized this very early.

“So … I assembled my role models a la carte. So I found the scientist who I wanted to emulate and the educator and the person who had good moral fiber and the person who had a good sense of humor. And I patched all this together to become a hybrid role model that I would then use, and in that way you’re not beholden to what might be personality quirks in one person or another.”

What an interesting approach.

Tyson, who graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, Harvard, the University of Texas-Austin and Columbia, takes the best of people, ignores the rest and can tweak as he moves along.

The closer he comes to matching his a-la-carte requirements, the more he becomes his own role model.

I saw a similar approach in a young journalist who chose not one mentor, but many. He assigned each a role and called he group his coaching staff. He reasoned that a football team has at least an offensive coach, a defensive coach, a coach for quarterbacks and one for kickers and figured he would follow that plan. He had a journalism coach, a financial coach, a career coach, a relationship coach and more. Two coaches were his parents.

Rather than ask, “Would you be my mentor?” such a journalist might ask, “Would you be my writing mentor?” This helps us focus on people’s best traits and allows us to emulate their greatest gifts.

It reminds us that very few people are adept in all areas and that we can find role models in other fields, too.

In the NPR interview, Tyson sounded like someone who could be part of my a-la-carte role model or my coaching staff. I am not looking for help with astrophysics, but I like the way he thinks about growth.

How have mentors or role models helped you, and what kinds do you need to add?

Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at since 1996. Questions about careers? E-mail Joe for an answer.



  1. I’ve found several role models to help me, though they’ve been somewhat general (like “non-profit leadership”). I love your suggestion to drill down into what you want from a specific mentor, and focus on that when asking them.

    I’ve also found it helpful to develop a mission statement for my life. I’m focusing on 3 main areas of focus, and using your/Tyson’s suggestions, I’ll look for a mentor (or two) in each.

  2. I just realized I typed “I’m focusing on 3 main areas of focus.” Apparently I need a writing mentor.

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