How do the pictures in our heads guide us through life?
“Your name’s Sam…? Like Fireman Sam…?!” That was my friend’s two-year-old son the other week, bursting with excitement at the prospect of encountering a real-life person who actually shared the name of his hero. He had the little fireman costume too, complete with helmet. It was all absolutely adorable, of course. But it also got me thinking about human motivation, and how in some ways we never really grow up.
As children, we go to town on the role play, don’t we? Think of all the classics – fireman… soldier… policeman… footballer. We dress up as them; play our games of make-believe and always save the day. But this business of idealising certain roles in life doesn’t end with childhood. Indeed, as we grow up and gain maturity, far from shedding our idealised images, we will often retain them and go on to build an entire existence on the strength of them. So, for example, you find people joining the police, not so much to protect their communities or earn a living, but because they think it’s cool and because they really like the image. And it happens at a slightly more elevated level too. I once met a very successful lawyer at a wedding who confided to me, over the chicken liver parfait, that she had decided to become a solicitor after seeing the film “Legally Blonde”. …Surprising? Yes. Ridiculous…? Maybe. But this sort of thing seems to happen everywhere in life.
You even find it going on in the most serious of professions. Take the world of espionage. You might think that spies and secret service people – the men and women who thwart terrorist attacks day in, day out and defend us from evil – would be a bunch of hardened realists with absolutely no time for fantasies. But you couldn’t be more wrong. The late John Le Carré – the spy thriller writer behind “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, and former intelligence officer with MI6 – spilt the beans about the way spies really think. He explained in an interview that “spies adore their self-image” and that they absolutely relish the aura that the profession is perceived to have, even if the reality isn’t always quite James Bond....
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