Emily Kund recently discussed mentorship during the Tableau Fringe Festival. And it got me thinking. I’ve have many mentors in life, and still have a couple. I have, informally, been accused of mentoring others. Some claim I mentor them, but really, I just have conversations over ice cream, coffee, or whatever.
Here’s what I’ve noticed:
When I’ve found a mentor, they were just a good person who was in a space where I wanted to be; often not only professionally, but personally as well. They gave me their time freely without any stated expectation. And so, they set the model. And they’re usually my friends for life.
When I’ve been accused of mentoring (I don’t claim this), I usually see a piece of myself in that person. But, what’s more, I see someone who is going to add something new, something far better than I can offer, to the community. And I usually keep them around, too, but I tell them to find people smarter than me to emulate long term. It’s essential to grow as much as they need to.
Here’s where I struggle with most conventional ideas around mentorship – that the “mentee” or protege or whatever term you want to throw at it these days is looking up to the mentor. It takes on a teacher-ish aspect in its English form, the -or ending active (instructor, for example), the -ee ending passive or solely receiving (attendee, if you will). It’s never been that way for me, and frankly, I hope it never is.
My mentoring relationships have been more side-to-side (not because we’re equals in skills, but because my mentors chose to treat me that way), or in many cases, mirrored the ASL sign for mentoring. Here, quick lesson in ASL – take your 2 index fingers and point upward. Now, keep them upright, but bring one (gently) behind the other, so your thumb is touching the back of your other hand. (This is the actual start of the sign.) Now, gently push it forward (maybe an inch). And go back. Rinse and repeat a few times.
Notice in this variation, they’re nearly side by side. But it’s not the mentee struggling to catch up with the mentor in front; no, it’s the mentor, slightly in back and higher, pushing them both forward. The mentee is active, not just questioning, but discovering and leading the journey.
There’s a line in a Matisyahu song that goes, ‘A rebbe is the geologist of the soul. He can show you where to dig, and what to dig for, but the digging you must do yourself.’ Change 2 words (3 if you count me making it gender neutral), and that describes mentoring for me: ‘A mentor is the geologist of the mind. They can show you where to dig, and what to dig for, but the digging you must do yourself.’
If you don’t have mentor, go find one. Emily has done the hard work for you and created the network to find people who are interested in helping push you forward. Feel like you have something to give, but no one to give it to? Go fill out the form and make an impact.
But, here’s where I’ll challenge you. Often times, we find a mentor who is a lot like us – the same age, the same gender, the same cultural background. But sometimes, we find someone that’s a bit different. If you’re faced with a toss-up or haven’t decided and usually go with people like you, choose someone different. You’ll widen your horizons more than you can ever imagine and gain the advantage of not just new knowledge, but a new viewpoint. And you’ll do the same for someone else. And if you’re really lucky? You’ll make a friend for life.