Dear Rachel,

For years, my friends tried to help me lose weight by inspiring me with their success stories. It didn’t work. What did work was meeting someone whom I didn’t want to become. She was very, very heavy, whined about it all the time, but repeatedly eschewed any suggestion for losing weight, claiming that it was impossible for her to do. And she was hundreds of pounds overweight! I didn’t want to see myself get to that point. I was finally motivated to lose my excess pounds.

My question is, is it wrong that I was inspired by someone’s bad example instead of good example?

Setting an Example

Dear Good Example,

Ethics of the Fathers tells us: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man”1 (or woman). It is a mark of wisdom when one learns from everyone—either what to do or, in this case, what not to do. Likewise, it says in Psalms: “From all my teachers, I grew wise.”2 This not only means that every person we encounter is a potential teacher, but that the more teachers we have, the wiser we’ll be.

In Hebrew, a stork is called a chassidah (“righteous one”) because she helps her fellow creatures.3 So why isn’t she a kosher animal? Because she only helps her friends. She has conditional righteousness. Of course, animals are programmed to behave the way they do; a stork doesn’t decide to whom to be kind. Regardless, we are instructed to learn from every animal, both from good and bad examples—and likewise from people.

What we are not allowed to do is judge others. We all have own limitations and challenges, and what is easy or even possible for us is often very difficult or virtually impossible for others (at least in their own eyes). In fact, instead of judging this woman, you owe her a debt of gratitude for inspiring you to do what you were otherwise unwilling to do.

Some people are motivated by success; others are intimidated by it. You obviously are inspired by others’ mistakes, and it is certainly better to learn from others than to label or judge them.

I hope this lightens your burden. May you always be inspired by others and be a source of inspiration yourself.