Learn how to model successful people to accelerate your own success

17 minutes reading time

I was a fashion model for Calvin Klein for more than 10 years. In those 10 years, the most important things about modeling that I learned was … Stop there, I’m just kidding.

I don’t have the looks to be a model and I certainly have zero advice or experience on how to become a successful fashion model. Today, we’re going to talk about a different kind of modeling.

Modeling is one of neuro-linguistic programming techniques designed to recreate excellence that only the best people reach. With modeling, you want to duplicate extraordinary results of high achievers by mirroring their conscious and unconscious behavior.

The main principle and idea behind modeling is that if you overtake the behaviors, strategies, beliefs, language (words, phrases, questions), emotional states and other traits of successful people, you will also become more successful.

By having access to someone who achieved exactly what you want to achieve, you could simply ask him or her: “Teach me how to do that!”.

The second best thing you can do, if somebody isn’t prepared to coach you in person, is to study them through all the public materials available. The latter is not as effective as full in-person access to the exemplar (the person you want to model), but indirect modeling can still prove to be valuable.

If we take a step back and go to the definition, a model is a simplified description of a complex entity or process – in our case, a model is a simplified version of the whole system and process that lead the person (exemplar) to the desired outcome.

A psychological model carefully describes a method, form, ways of doing, customs and styles. It kind of gives you a step-by-step formula to replicate the success as much as possible.

Nevertheless, every psychological model is still a very simplified version of a real-life success scenario, with many limitations. In modeling, we tend to focus only on the main variables that lead to success. We try to slice the success into small chunks, identify the biggest contributors to the success, and build them into a replicable model.

In the end, modeling is successful when you manage to achieve more or less the same behavioral outcome as the person you are modeling. You achieve that by mirroring the main “psychological personality chunks” or contributors to the success.

How to model successful people

In this article, you will learn all these things, like:

  • The mindset you need to successfully apply modeling
  • The detailed process of how to use modeling in everyday life
  • The limitations of modeling
  • The questions that can help you build a successful psychological model
  • The most practical approach to modeling
  • Practical examples of how to use modeling in your personal life

By the way, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) modeling is a very complex and detailed subject, way beyond the scope of this article. If you are interested in NLP modeling in particular, I suggest you read the book Modeling with NLP written by Robert Dilts.

I will rather describe a simplified version of modeling that you can quickly and practically use in everyday life. I will also give many examples on how I use modeling to achieve my goals faster.

I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me. – Virginia Satir

Modeling others comes naturally to human beings

A child doesn’t pay as much attention to what their parents say or command as s/he does to what they do. A very big part of a child’s personality development is modeling their role models – they want to be like them; in the early age, that means especially their parents and other caretakers.

That’s why we say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

A little bit out of the context, but an extremely useful exercise when it comes to choosing a spouse to start a family with is the following: ask yourself if you want your child to be the same as your spouse (especially the child of the same gender)?

If the answer is yes, you clearly respect the personality traits your spouse possesses. If the answer is no or you don’t have a clear opinion, you should probably reconsider if you are with the right person.

You might tell a child to clean their room a thousand times, but if your room is messy, there’s a high probability that the child’s room will also be messy.

Now let’s get back to modeling. With age, the interest to model other successful people and have role models declines in most people, as does the interest to learn new things.

There are many reasons for that, from ego defense to a lack of curiosity, fixed mindset, intellectual sublimity, general laziness, and so on. Much like people stop reading books, exploring the world and acquiring new competences, so they stop mirroring their role models.

But here’s the trick. Even if you stop looking up to your role models, you’re still influenced by the people who surround you. That’s why you can hear over and over again that you are the average of the 5 people you spend most time with.

Whether you want to or not, you are overtaking the mindset, behavior, values, beliefs and actions of people you spend the most time with. You are unconsciously modeling them, because no matter age you never stop modeling others. Slowly, you overtake other’s people attitudes and behaviors.

You maybe didn’t have a choice about who to model when you were a child. But you can absolutely choose who your role models and people who surround you will be in your adult age.

People who surround you are the people that you will sooner or later consciously or subconsciously model. Thus, make sure you use your modeling capabilities to your advantage. Carefully choose with whom you spend time with.

Try to be positive among 10 grumblers. It’s impossible, and sooner or later you also start to whine, bitch and complain.

Modeling success

Practical use of modeling in everyday life

If you’re going to model anyway, make sure you are modeling the right kind of people. Below are a few very practical ideas for how to use modeling to your advantage, from the simplest forms of modeling to the most complex ones:

  1. Read biographies of successful people to get inspired when you feel down.
  2. Never put your ego in front of learning something new, there is always something to learn or model from other people. Find that one thing in which the person is better than you are.
  3. Spend time with people who have personality traits and skills you want to develop. Make sure you are never the smartest person in the room. You will slowly assimilate their characteristics. And you will learn the most when you spend time with smart people.
  4. Study people you admire. Read their biographies, interviews and other articles. Read and watch everything that exists about them. Ask yourself: what would [an extremely successful person] do in the same situation as you are facing?
  5. Find a person who has achieved exactly the same thing as you want to achieve. Ask them to coach you and based on regular interactions, build yourself a model of how you can apply their behavior in your life to become more successful. That is real modeling.
  6. Model your previous successful self. There are times when you’re feeling up and there are times when you’re feeling desperate. Just thinking about your thoughts, beliefs, actions and decisions when you were feeling assertive and ambitious can motivate you to take action.

I use all six ways of modeling in my personal life. Besides reading books and regularly experimenting with new things in my life, modeling is one of the fastest ways how I learn about life and develop new skills. Let me give you a few examples:

Practical examples
  1. I regularly read biographies and watch documentaries about successful people I admire. From Siddhartha Gautama, Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius to Sigmund Freud, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and others. It always greatly motivates and inspires me.
  2. Whoever I meet, I usually ask them many different questions to understand them and learn from them. I really get interested in a person’s life – how they think, experience reality, where they blossom and what are their struggles. And people love to talk about these things.
  3. I always surrounded myself with people who are more successful than I am. With investors, scholars, entrepreneurs, scientists, and so on. There are so many clubs, meetups, communities, associations and co-working places you can join and meet people smarter than you.
  4. At the moment, I am studying the most successful personal development bloggers that I like the most – Tim Urban, Tim Ferris, Tai Lopez, Ramit Sethi, Mark Manson, James Clear, James Altucher, Steve Pavlina, Barrie Davenport, Derek Sivers, Cal Newport and Steve Scott. I read their blogs and books, watch or listen to interviews with them, and want to learn everything about their strategy, mindset, skills and daily habits. I already see some patterns in their success (every one of them innovated a distribution channel, they all have a few simple ideas that they repeat over and over again, and so on).
  5. I always learned the most with a personal coach, either a hired one or people who were willing to be my mentor because we worked together. I learned the most and the fastest when I spent several hours over the course of a year with people who mastered the skills or possessed the knowledge that I wanted to learn. From selling skills to athletic moves, in-person coaching or real modeling is how I learned the most.
  6. Last but not least, when I’m feeling down or my spirits are dampened for whatever reason, I vividly visualize a particular situation in my past when I was highly motivated, determined, had a clear goal that I assertively pursued and felt mentally strong. I transfer the past positive feelings and thoughts into the moment when I’m feeling down and it always helps motivate my spirit.

No matter how smart we are, on the basic level we are still monkeys. Monkey see, monkey do. Thus, make sure you choose your role models and people you spend time with very carefully.

You are modeling people around you, whether you want to or not, even in your adult years. Make sure modeling is working to your advantage and accelerates your personal growth.

Your role models play a huge role in how you pick your vocation and make other important decisions in life. If someone looks like you, has had a similar upbringing, belongs to the same religion order, has attended a similar school, and is making a good living, it naturally has a huge impact when you’re trying to decide your calling in life. [Thus, ask yourself:] Where will your life lead you if you follow the path laid out by your parents, peers and other role models? – Mohnish Pabrai, Dhnadho Investor

Limitations of modeling and why modeling is not copy-pasting

You can absolutely progress faster in life with the use of modeling, but there are still big limitations. First of all, the less frequently you personally interact with an exemplar, the harder it is to build a model that you can replicate in your own life.

You would get the best modeling results if you were able to do a “shadow experience” with an exemplar. That means you would spend hours observing them in action every day.

In-person modeling is most effective because it gives you the opportunity to model the same way you did as a child. By observing, you get a chance to mirror and match the behavior of the other person – their conscious and unconscious parts.

You don’t try to merely understand and rationalize what the exemplar is doing, you employ your unconscious resources to exactly mimic the behavioral patterns.

Here is the hierarchy of the information quality you can gather when it comes to modeling:

  • Consistent live observation or shadow experience
  • Watching video or audio material
  • Interviews in person
  • Role-playing
  • Questionnaires
  • Reading biographies, articles and written interviews

Secondly, no success can be completely replicated. You have your own set of talents, your environment is different and there are always “blind spots” – things that contributed to the success that neither the exemplar nor the modeler know about.

If success were that easily replicated, everybody would be successful. That means you have to always account for an individual’s specifics in every model and must keep realistic expectations about the extent to which the success can be modeled. Real modeling takes a lot of hard work.

Last but not least, modeling does not equal copy-pasting other people’s personalities. You don’t want to lose yourself by trying to be someone else.

That might not be a problem when you try to model skills and habits, but it can present a huge challenge when it comes to beliefs, values and personality traits. You can’t just change your personality like underwear.

But there are two core things you can do that will protect your true self:

  1. You can find a healthy intersection between you and the exemplar you’re modeling. If there are parts of the exemplar’s character that don’t fit your ideal self, there is no point in modeling them.
  2. You can only temporarily take over different beliefs, values and personality traits to find a balance that works better for you. For example, if you are always giving yourself away to other people and consequently they take advantage of you, you might temporarily model someone who gives nothing, and then in the following step find the right balance between giving and taking.
Your current self Your ideal self
Modeling >>

You must use common sense when it comes to modeling. It’s not a miraculous solution, it has many limitations, but it can absolutely help you progress faster in life towards your ideal-self. Now let’s move to a more practical level of how to use modeling in everyday life.

Different stages of modeling successful people

These are four very simple and logical steps when it comes to modeling:

  1. Choosing a person to model – In the first step, you must find a person worth modeling. It must be someone you respect, who already possesses a skill or personality trait that you want to acquire. The best scenario is if you have access to spend a lot of time with the person. You can also choose several people to model (that’s often an even better approach).
  2. Observing and mirroring – When you have your model chosen, the analytical part comes into play. It is a combination of mirroring exactly what a person does (unconscious mirroring) and employing questions that can accelerate learning (logical modeling). You want to understand in detail what the person regularly does, how they do it and why they do it.
  3. Finding similarities and differences – By mirroring, spending time with people and asking questions, you want to find which behavioral differences are present. You want to list all the small personality chunks (traits, behaviors etc.) and understand how they contribute to success.
  4. Designing a model – In the last step, you try to build a model that can be replicated. The model is like a manual that can be presented to other people so they can improve their skills. It describes all the important pieces together with the sequence, system and process.

Modeling personality traits

Things you must pay attention to when modeling other people

In a way, we could call modeling reverse-engineering psychology. The idea is to find as many factors as possible that lead to a specific successful outcome in someone’s life, and rank their influence. From the macro perspective, you are interested in three different types of information when you are modeling:

  1. External behavior – habits, responses, words, phrases, skills, competence etc.
  2. Internal states and processes – values, beliefs, emotions etc.
  3. Environment – social circles, trends, support etc.

Here’s the big catch. When you are listing elements, you must pay attention to those that the person you’re modeling is aware of as well as those they aren’t aware of. Many times, people have no clue why they are really successful. They just are.

It’s because they possess a competence or a personality trait they aren’t even aware of. It’s called an unconscious skill and competence.

Very similarly, we know universal success principles and situation-specific success contributors. Many people are successful merely because they were lucky. There was no skill involved. You probably wouldn’t try modeling a lottery winner.

Thus, you must make sure you’re not fooled by random success factors, like being born in the right family, being in the right industry by accident, or being one of the first employees in a high-growth company.

These factors don’t mean that there is nothing to model per se, you just have to make sure there are really strong personality traits or skills present that contributed to the success and outcome that you’re trying to model.

If we go back to the three macro factors – external behavior, internal states and processes, and environment – you are interested in questions that help identify cause (activity) and effect (outcome):

  • What exactly do they do? – A precise description of an activity that leads to the desired result.
  • How do they do it? – Detailed description of how they perform an activity.
  • When and where do they do it? – What triggers the behavior and how often.
  • Why do they do it? – What is the motivation behind their actions.
  • What kind of support do they have? – How the environment influences their actions and outcomes.

Personality chunks and dimensions

We can parse the question further into different personality dimensions. Only understanding all these dimensions (“personality chunks”) really well gives you all the necessity input to build yourselves a viable model:

  1. Purpose and intention – That’s the big question why, consisting of motives, desires and wants.
  2. Identity – How the person sees themselves.
  3. Outcomes – What are their ideas about goals, what exactly do they tend to achieve.
  4. Strategies – What does the person do to achieve a particular outcome, what procedure and methods do they follow.
  5. Beliefs – The main ideas about life that they agree with and validate. Beliefs are philosophies and attitudes that lead to a specific heuristic and cognitive strategy.
  6. Values – All the ideas that are important to the person, things they like or tend to avoid; values expose how they decide to invest their resources, and they’re tied to emotional aspects of life.
  7. Representations, submodalities and meta-programs – How the elements of the environment are identified, interpreted and reacted to.
  8. Understandings – All the mental support of the inner world (subjective interpretations of reality). Personal interpretations of how the world works, supporting individual beliefs, values and representations. Understandings are realizations about what kind of actions will lead to a specific outcome.
  9. Heuristic – How evaluations and judgements are made in problem solving.
  10. Attention – What the person focuses their limited mental resources on and what do they think most of the time.
  11. Cognitive strategy – Proactive response to the environment based on representations; mental syntax and sequence involved in performing a specific action or behavior.
  12. Behaviors and habits – Behaviors that are repeatedly performed, usually based on triggers.
  13. Emotional states – What is the dominant emotional state when the person performs specific activity or behavior.
  14. Conscious and unconscious knowledge and skills – What kind of competences are present that enable successful execution of an activity. They can be simple or complex behavioral, cognitive or linguistic skills.
  15. Physical (somatic) skills and physiology – Particularly body (or motor) skills and what kind of a connection between the mind and the body (posture, muscle tones, balance etc.) is present when the activity is executed.
  16. Language, communication style and non-linguistic symbols – What are the dominant words, phrases and questions used and other non-verbal cues.
  17. Peer group and environment – What kind of people surround the exemplar most frequently, what kind of support do they have, what are the industry trends and other environmental variables.
  18. How exactly everything ties together – Prioritizing elements that contribute to the success.

Perspectives and questions that can help you accelerate the modeling process

Before we go to specific questions, there is one more useful trick that can help you build the model you want to replicate. In the process of modeling, you can play with four different perspectives:

  • 1st person perspective – Analyzing how you’re currently performing an action, how it’s different from the exemplar and experimenting on your own with the exemplar’s behavior.
  • 2nd person perspective – Empathically putting yourself in the exemplar’s shoes and trying to understand completely why they do things as they do, together with mimicking their thoughts, feelings, actions and other personality characteristics.
  • 3rd person perspective – Observing at a distance as an uninvolved witness how the modeled person is behaving and what are their actions. Acting like a scientist that tries to analyze a specific person and situation.
  • 4th person perspective – Trying to understand a situation from the perspective of the whole system, from the environment to the individuals involved.

It’s extremely important that you first mirror the person’s behavior and only then try to logically parse and understand it. That will give you the greatest insight and benchmark with your current situation. Then you can start logically building the model while playing with different perspectives.

Questions to ask successful people worth modeling

You can accelerate your learning and model building with the right questions. Below are examples of the questions to use when you’re modeling successful people – some questions are meant for asking the exemplar directly, others you can answer by yourself with observation:

Purpose, identity, beliefs and values

  • How do you see yourself? What do you believe about yourself when you perform a specific action?
  • What is driving you to do this, what is your mission, vision or why do you do it?
  • What do you believe about yourself, the world and your life circumstances?
  • What are your beliefs that support your doing when it comes to that particular goal you’re trying to achieve?
  • How do you express your beliefs on a daily level – through thoughts, words, actions etc.?
  • What kind of expectations do you have towards yourself and others?
  • What kind of standards do you follow? Which standards must be met no matter what?
  • What rules do you tend to live by and why are these rules important to you?
  • How would you describe the hierarchy of your values? How do you satisfy these values?
  • How do you make decisions when you have to choose between two things in your schedule?
  • How do you respond when things don’t go as you planned?
  • What kind of gains you tend to enjoy with achieving the goal and what kind of pain are you trying to avoid?
  • What do you focus on for most of your day?
  • How do you make decisions and what criteria do you use when making decisions?

Habits and patterns

  • What patterns do you easily recognize and why are these patterns important to you?
  • What are the dominant thoughts you repeatedly have? What do you think about most of the time?
  • What kind of emotions do you experience on a daily basis? Why are these emotions important to you?
  • What do you do when things go wrong or when you experience severe negative emotions?
  • Which are your dominant personality traits and what strengths do you have?
  • What kind of habits do you follow on a daily basis? What kind of activities do you not do at all?

Competences – skills and knowledge

  • What kind of skills have you mastered and how are these skills helping you in life?
  • What skill helped you the most in achieving that particular outcome?
  • How and when did you acquire this skill or knowledge?
  • How often do you practice this particular skill? What is your learning style?
  • If you were going to teach me to do it, how should I approach it? What would you ask me to do?
  • What do you pay most attention to when you’re performing that specific skill?
  • How do you know you’re really good at these things?
  • How do you feel when you perform that specific action? What kind of an emotional and physical state are you in?
  • What kind of a situation happened in your life that led to you being good at this particular skill?


  • In which places do you spend the most of your time? With which people?
  • Can you describe the main characteristics of your environment – industry, market trends, target markets, people that surround you etc.? Did you consciously choose them?
  • What kind of an infostructure do you have – what do you read, watch, which apps do you use?
  • How do you acquire the knowledge and information that you need in order to be successful?
  • Which are the main social groups in your opinion, where and how do you network?
  • Do you have any role models that you tend to model?

Language and non-verbal behavior

  • What were the main words used in the conversation with the exemplar?
  • What is their dominant body language, what part of their physiology stands out?
  • How do they use body language when interacting with other people?
  • How do they tend to speak to themselves and others? Which words do they mainly use?

Trust me, if you have answers to these 40+ questions, you understand the person extremely well and you have all the input needed to build a model to replicate their success. These questions are also very useful when it comes to practicing empathy or developing new perspectives. Last but not least, these questions can also help you better understand yourself.

Flexibility comes from having multiple choices; wisdom comes from having multiple perspectives. – Robert Dilts

NLP Modeling

The final stage of modeling – implementation of the model in your own life

We have come to the final stage of modeling. Implementing everything that you’ve learned about the chosen model in your own life.

The very good news is that you have the ability to think about your thinking. You can perform self-reflection and find the differences between your strategies, behaviors and thoughts and those of the people who are more successful, those you want to model.

Before implementing anything, you must first analyze all the gathered data:

  1. How exactly did you feel when you mirrored the model – what felt right and what felt wrong?
  2. Which things did you notice when you spent time with your exemplar?
  3. List of all “personality chunks” you gathered through observations and asking questions
  4. List of all other insights you have gathered by analyzing interviews, videos etc.
  5. Analysis of all other data that you managed to gather (interviewing other people etc.)

Based on the data, you should build a model – a prioritized “personality chunk” list that explains all the main external behaviors, internal processes and environmental variables that led to a specific outcome.

In the next step, you can analyze how the model differentiates from your particular situation as well as which differences are aligned with your ideal self and which aren’t. That should help you make a solid decision about which behavior you will continue to mirror, and which “personality chunks” are not part of your authentic self.

NLP offers many tools that can help you permanently implement the “personality chunks” that you intend to keep in your life and that represent a way of personal improvement – from anchoring and mental rehearsal to game playing and visualization.

But more about that in one of the next articles. Until then, find a person worth modeling and parse their personality down to the smallest chunk. Play with mirroring their activity and ask them thousands of questions that will help you better understand their motives, behaviors, languages and other personality traits. It’s a very fun exercise to do.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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