Everybody needs a role model. Your nephew loves baseball, wants to be a major-league player when he grows up, and will probably nurture that dream until another little punk tells him that few human beings can hit a ball more than 450 feet without a little help from steroids. Intellectual role models are much easier to embrace, if only because the physical standards are so much lower. Nobody cares if a famous theorist or world-class poet lived on a gallon of coffee and two packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day, because what ultimately matters is the results of their thinking. For aspiring intellectuals, a role model proves all the pondering and toil can (against all odds) end in recognition, validation, and triumph.
Putting This Theory Into Practice
Choosing a specific role model is largely dependent on your personal interests; but all role models, no matter what the nature of their work, share one common trait: their example encourages those who come after them to reach further. The quote, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," is attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, who subsequently became a giant to two centuries' worth of physicists. In the work of our role models, we find that hope that we can someday achieve on a similar level.
Literature: If you're a literary-minded intellectual, you can have your pick of role models. Dante and Shakespeare wrote verse that has withstood time's every test. Hemingway's stripped-down style proves an irresistible temptation to legions of budding writers, as does Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo prose. Joyce Carol Oates offers a template for anyone who aspires to be ultra-prolific and endlessly versatile.
Science: Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only to win two, for her work in physics and chemistry. Galileo pushed his theory of the earth rotating the sun, despite the opposition of the authorities. Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, and Albert Einstein advocated groundbreaking theories despite considerable personal hardship and, often, doubts from their colleagues. This perseverance in the face of extreme adversity elevates them as role models for any scientist toiling to peek into the universe's clockwork.
Business: Henry Ford developed the manufacturing assembly line for his automobiles, birthing the modern factory. Apple CEO Steve Jobs grew his company from the edge of insolvency to one of the largest in the world. Both executives stand as examples of how innovation can create a business juggernaut.
Art: Sculptors might look up to Alexander Calder, whose airy "mobiles" redefined sculpture; painters to Georgia O'Keeffe, and her still-lives that remain synonymous with the American West, or Pablo Picasso and his groundbreaking work in Cubism and other genres; photographers to Diane Arbus or Man Ray, who shot iconic photographs and, in the latter case, helped develop techniques such as photograms; animators to John Lasseter, whose Pixar films demonstrated how computer animation can be used in service of great stories.
History and Politics: History belongs to the victors, according to the old saying -- but it's the job of historians and political analysts to frame the past in a way that gives people some insight into the present. Howard Zinn belongs on that list of notable historians, thanks to his A People's History of the United States and its alternative view to what you were taught in high school. Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) and Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) composed works about the economy and the early United States, respectively, that more than two hundred years later are still cited by historians as insightful texts.
And the Inevitable Footnote...
You can debate endlessly whether certain famous figures' not-so-stellar personal lives and beliefs disqualify them from serving as role models. Some intellectual titans have been incredible thinkers, but -- let's not mince words about this -- abhorrent human beings. Pablo Picasso left stories of infidelity and abuse in his wake. Steve Jobs famously ripped into anyone he perceived as an idiot. Whether that sort of behavior bars someone from becoming your figurehead is a personal choice; if you're public about adulating them, be prepared to deal with the inevitable questions about their biography's unsavory aspects.
Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.