Touching a Nerve: More on mentors

My recent post regarding mentoring, which was Freshly Pressed (and for which I am thankful), has received a number of comments. I was pleasantly surprised to see the post touching a nerve, sparking a response that I didn’t expect to see.

A Google search of “be a mentor” returns over 600,000 results. These results include programs at the regional, state, and national level to get people involved in mentoring, such as this one that uses the web to connect “individuals to meaningful mentoring relationships.” All are about fostering the next generation.


(I don’t know whose logo this is, but it’s a nice illustration for this post.)

With so many programs facilitating mentoring, it continues to surprise me how absent mentors seem to be from many people’s lives.

As I read the comments on my post, some themes emerged that have amplified points made in the original post. To organize these thoughts provided by you folks out in blog land (and to save you from having to read through all of them yourself), here are three categories that, as I see it, capture the heart of the issue.

1. Finding an effective mentor is not easy even under the best of circumstances. For one thing, we now live in a period of transition, where the economy and the things important to people’s lives are rapidly changing. The old career structures seem to be disappearing. “Younger people don’t necessarily want to be mentored by people whose knowledge may be considered obsolete,” one commenter said. Another said, “You’ll have to constantly re-invent (as we oldsters are having to do)…. I tell people not to ‘get a job’ but learn to ‘sell your skills.’ Very different way to conceptualize your career.”

For another thing, there is an element of luck involved — lucking into meeting someone willing and able to mentor, for instance, or being in an industry where mentoring is an accepted thing. Or luck in finding success, in which case, how do you mentor someone into that exact set of circumstances? “A lot of success stories simply boil down to having been in the right place at the right time,” said one commenter, to which another agreed: “Most of success just boils down to luck, which, as you said, can’t be taught.” Said another, “I think many people don’t actually sit down and plan out their career, i.e. where they will be in 20 years time. And how they get there is to a large extent dependent on what opportunities come up, who they know, etc.”

2. This being the case, you’d think people would be more open to mentoring, but they aren’t. In fact, they seem to ignore the younger generation or actively try to defeat those asking for help. I mentioned this in my original post and got many responses confirming it. “My husband recently told a cousin (who is in a position to help) that he was looking for a new position,” said one commenter. “The cousin responded, ‘Good Luck.’ Gee thanks.” Another said, “So when asked for words of wisdom – which ought to be flattering and elicit some ‘ah I remember being in that position… here’s what you need to do, kid’ -type response, they instead lash out with some maniacal, condescending, ego-driven, ASSHOLE-like response.”

Some successful people just respond with platitudes, as I said before, such as “be an entrepreneur,” “develop business skills,” “put yourself out there” [all actual quotes from LinkedIn]. Others just appear mean, like the mid-level “gatekeepers”: “There was usually a circle or two of people a rung or two below the top that were not welcoming, and saw it as their jobs to deny access, to keep the secrets,” one commenter said.

And then there’s the clannishness that I mentioned in the original post: “I have experienced both items you discussed,” said one commenter, “but specifically within [the industry I’m trying to get into], if you don’t know the secret handshake…good luck. Keep beating the wall or go around it to another path. I know others have done it, but ‘how’?”

3. It takes a special something for someone to become a mentor, and it takes a willing student. Many people pointed this out. So in spite of what the 600,000 websites are telling us, not just anyone can mentor. “Not everyone who knows is good at passing that knowledge onto others,” one commenter said. “And a few people have a gift for the know-how, but not the motivation or talent for the doing.” Observed another: “I think there is some level of emotional intelligence and intentionality required for good coaches/mentors.” It takes an awareness of your self and your circumstances. “Many of us just aren’t self-aware enough to understand or explain the complexities of our success,” another commenter said.

And on the receiving end, you have to know what you want from life in order to find it. “My most recent assistant, of eight months, got a lot of advice and insight and we loved the exchange,” said one commenter about someone mentored. “She is bright, enthusiastic, eager to learn — and knew the value of what she was gaining.”

“Good mentors are stakeholders with skin in the game who want you to succeed,” observed one commenter. Nicely said.

Lastly, in the time since my post was Freshly Pressed, an article appeared in Parade magazine’s online edition. It says that in the absence of a formal mentor relationship, people can benefit from taking some self-mentoring steps. But it also scuttles its own logic, saying on the one hand “become your own mentor” and on the other hand “I attribute much of my success as a business founder to my mentor.” It makes several assumptions that I don’t feel are valid, and I suspect many who commented on my original post would agree.

[Note: It has come to my attention that the word “mentor” technically is not a verb, although it has been used as such for decades. I am continuing to use the verb form (mentoring, for instance) since there appears to be no confusion about it.]


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