My Mom Banned Me from Having Role Models, and I am Thankful

Since I can remember, my mom, endearingly known by my friends as “Momma Weekes,” was the fiercest protector of my dreams until I reached a ripe age to assume the lead role. My mom and dad had immigrated to the United States in the 70s with a vision for their lives that centered on raising a child who had endless possibilities at her fingertips.

Growing up, Momma Weekes had rules for the home that seemed unconventional and just plain crazy at times. I certainly was not the envy of my high school friends when it came to household rules. My curfew was a little too early. My time to watch television was limited to two to three hours a week. My summers required book reports that I had to submit to my mom in addition to having a job or participating in a leadership camp.

One unconventional rule I abided by, but did not fully understand, was Momma Weekes’s ban on having role models. She would always say, “Dana, you are allowed to respect certain qualities and characteristics about a person, but you can never place that person on a pedestal.” My mom would explain to me that when you idolize people, their greatest accomplishments can unintentionally become the ceiling of your dreams.

So, while I loved Oprah as an 80s baby and a 90s kid, my mom refused to have me strive to be like Oprah (although watching The Oprah Winfrey Show was excluded from my weekly television time quota). No posters of Oprah or anyone else could be taped to my walls, and I did not dare utter a phrase like “I wanna be like Mike” in Momma Weekes’s presence.

Instead, my mom would ask me, “what are the qualities you like about Oprah that you think make her successful?” “Why are these qualities important to you?” “What else do you think you need to be successful that Oprah may not be showing or telling you?”

And after her questions, she would remind me in her own way that there is only one Oprah and only one Dana — “so what is Dana going to do with her life?”

“Envision your own success,” she would say, “don’t let Oprah do it for you.”

In my late 20s, I lost touch with Momma Weekes’s lesson. In many ways, I had prioritized striving over thriving by exhaustively expending my energy to make real the visions others had for me. I was in a mental state where I distanced myself from the person I should have known the best. Me.

At the very instance when I had a moment of brilliance that enlivened me or I heard my inner voice telling me to take a leap of faith, questions of doubt emerged. “What would people think?” “How would other people do it?” And a passion once ignited would be rationalized to its death over and over by fear.

My default setting had become to define my life outside of myself.

I had freely given permission to family, friends, colleagues, mentors, public figures, and even strangers to impose their ideas of success on me. For the people I knew, especially those I loved dearly, I gave their advice unilateral authority when they spoke about my career, my desire to be married, my health, my happiness, and pretty much anything else about me. For the people I did not know, I was convinced that the imagery they projected of their lives should serve as the GPS of my own life. Interestingly, very few people questioned my deference to them because most perceived my actions as a courtesy and compliment of their well-intended advice, wisdom, and insights.

They thought they were helping me.

And many times over, I was rewarded for mirroring others’ lives or meeting their benchmarks of success through bonuses, friendships, Facebook likes, and other affirmations intended to make me feel accomplished. And, of course, after my sugar high of accomplishment wore off, I came back to my secret reality of feeling empty, uncertain, and a bit bitter at myself (with a painted on smile or a witty social media post as my guise).

Now, well into my thirties, I finally get Momma Weekes’s longstanding ban.

I understand that she was teaching me not to give another person — no matter how successful — dominion over my thoughts, dreams, and aspirations.

My mom was teaching me to trust and protect my authentic self and inner callings, instead of making it vulnerable to validation from others’ successful or failed experiences. She did this because my mom knew that her baby girl would grow up in a society overwhelmed with a culture of comparisons and external validation. A society where it is normalized and rewarded behavior to define who we are based on the actual exclusion of our authentic selves.

Now more than ever, there is a need to recreate ourselves from within — on ideas, principles, and beliefs that are of our own convictions, passions, and callings. The world is demanding for individuals it has yet to imagine — beyond the Oprah Winfries, Neil DeGrasses, Serena Williamses, Barack Obamas, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies. Of course, it is important that we learn from those who have come before us and understand their personal, non-linear journeys. Their stories should help to inform but not become our own visions of success.

I hope the lesson in Momma Weekes’s ban gives you liberty to start defining yourself from within, rather than mastering a well-crafted rendition of someone else. It is difficult and takes courage to have dominion over your own thoughts, ideas, and visions, especially when the answers offered to you come from people who already seem to have what you desire.

But as my mom always shared with me, “all the tools you need to live your calling are already within you.” “No one else,” she would say, “can live your life’s purpose better than you.”

And in all honesty, the world is demanding nothing else of you.