Category: Advice

Mentor: A meditation


Mentor was the tutor of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. He easily could have been Michael or William, but he happened to be named Mentor.

Today, then, when we say that someone is “a mentor,” it is like saying they are “a mike” or “a bill.” Somewhere along the line, the name became a title, then a common noun, then a verb. Maybe it’s because Mentor sounds so much like “editor” or “creditor” that we’ve bestowed new parts of speech on it.

Considering that, what should we do with the word “mentee?” Almost everyone recognizes what it means: the person who is receiving the mentoring. But is it a word? Does it have meaning just because people think it does?

The answer is no. And yes.

Mentee does not appear in my dictionary. And yet, a quick Google search will yield about half a million results. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, the word has been in use for only about 50 years.

If Mentor were in fact a real person, he would have been alive somewhere around 1,000 B.C. His name has been known to Western Civilization, then, for more than 3,000 years. That means that “mentee” has been a word for one-sixtieth of the time that “mentor” has. A lot has changed since 1,000 B.C.

About two years ago, I wrote a piece wondering at the woeful state of mentoring in this time, this place. What I had hoped to find when I entered the world of work, in the way of a mentor to guide me, has never materialized. It has left me disappointed and disoriented, searching for what seems to be missing.

Art by Hans Erni

Art by Hans Erni

Over time, along with the word, the idea of a mentor—the person of greater experience who takes you under their wing and fosters the knowledge and skills for you to succeed—has become contorted, it’s true meaning lost as it has become institutionalized, incorporated, and marketed. (Alarmingly, “toxic mentor” is a term in circulation these days.)

What we’re really talking about, after all, is the act of having a more experienced, more mature person (or people) provide support, knowledge, and perhaps even love to the novice learner. While these people don’t have to be that far apart in age, it’s usually the case that the mentor is older.

This inter-generational relationship is how societies have been run since the dawn of humankind. Only in recent centuries have we destroyed the model, making it unrecognizable and ineffective. This loss can be correlated to many of the social problems we have today. It’s time that we revived the practice. Surely we have nothing to lose.

It’s hard to “give back” when you feel you’ve never gotten—I understand that. And what has taken hundreds of years to develop won’t be changed overnight. But like anyone who has had to turn their life around, there’s always the first step of recognizing the problem.

Poor Mentor. I think he’d be shocked to see what’s been done in his name. Maybe it’s not too late to change that.


I Don’t Rush to Volunteer Anymore. Here’s Why

Recently, I contacted a public interest nonprofit to find out about volunteer opportunities. Without learning anything about me, the coordinator pleasantly asked “Can you help market an event to show a movie in your town about tax loopholes?”

Um, no. Public relations are not part of my skill set, and spreading the word about this movie would’ve involved a significant amount of what little free time I had. Politely, I declined and she never contacted me again. This got me thinking about why it is that I’ve increasingly avoided volunteering for anything.vol_comp

During National Volunteer Week (April 12-18, 2015) we will likely hear many appeals for various opportunities for service. Organizations such as schools, churches, civic groups, and nonprofits are always in need of volunteers. In fact, these organizations chronically lament the fact that they struggle to find adequate manpower and funding to support their missions. But just as important as donating your time to a cause is being aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Generally, organizations that can’t afford to pay all their workers recruit volunteers by offering intangible incentives. But these incentives, I have observed, don’t provide all the value that they promise.

To varying degrees, organizations base their appeals for volunteers on one or more of the following:

  1. You will benefit from “giving back”: Giving back implies that you have received. However, many who are struggling to make ends meet, stuck in an unsatisfying job with no chance for advancement, or lost on the road of life are still waiting to receive. This makes the idea of “giving back” pointless. People have a need to feel needed and useful, and until that need is met, the “giving back” part doesn’t play.
  2. You will share your unique skills: Everybody wants to feel like they have something special to offer. In fact, that is exactly what we are asked to define when we apply for a job: the unique value you, as an individual, can provide the organization. However, volunteer organizations are looking for just the opposite. Most openings for volunteers are jobs that require no experience and very little skill, such as shuffling papers, raking leaves, or distributing food. Anyone with an IQ higher than a zombie can do the work. To the organization, you are not a person but a resource to be used as they see fit.
  3. You will network with a group of like-minded people: People who volunteer have a large amount of time on their hands. From what I have observed, this means they are either retired, supported by a spouse, or unemployed. They may share your interest in whatever it is you are volunteering for, but they are not a representative cross-section of society. It is highly unlikely that your association will move beyond that day or two of working together because these folks are just as struggling and disconnected as you. Despite the warm fuzzies, you won’t receive anything that could boost your network.

Unfortunately, all of these are based on assumptions that don’t hold true for everyone, and shaming people into volunteering or enticing them with false promises is bound to backfire. Organizations that are wondering how they can recruit and retain more volunteers should look at what they’re offering and see if it matches up to their volunteers’ actual experience.

In case anyone is wondering, I have volunteered many, many times. I spent two years on a citizen committee for my town, three years as a Cub Scout assistant den leader, six years on a committee at my church, and six years working at my county fair. Before that, at various times and places, I have shoveled manure, sorted books, manned booths, served food, and collected canned goods, all as an unpaid volunteer. I did all these things because they needed doing and I have no regrets.

But none of these—with the possible exception of the church committee—have provided any of the alleged benefits listed above.

Just to be clear, by “volunteer” I’m not meaning volunteer firefighters, or physicians who volunteer during disasters or epidemics, or lawyers who work pro bono. These are trained professionals donating their skills. They are certainly doing good work and personally benefitting from doing so. Rather, I’m referring to the incessant call from countless directions to donate your valuable time.

I’m sure that many people have had very fulfilling volunteer experiences, and that’s fine. Perhaps my need for these intangible benefits is higher, so that when an experience does not deliver on its promises, I notice.

If somebody were to offer me the opportunity to be part of something that I deeply cared about and to contribute my skills to a good cause, then I might renew my interest in volunteering. Until then, don’t bother calling because I’m not signing up.

Random Scribbles: You may just end up being right

My wife got a job this week. She’s been a substitute teacher for several years, and now she has a permanent teaching position. In college, she’d planned to be a teacher. But her reservations about it got the better of her and she ended up working for an environmental education organization, then in retail pet supplies. We had children and she stopped working for about a decade. And now she’s returning to where she’d wanted to be 20 years ago.

My brother is an editor for television in Hollywood. In college, he’d intended to be an editor, but life took him to work in retail record sales for a while. He then dabbled in video production, but now he’s returned to where he wanted to be when he graduated.

In college, I wanted to be a writer. But, as life would have it, I worked instead in retail food sales, then got a job in a legal news and information company. But now I have this blog and have been posting my writing for over a year now. I too have returned to what I thought in college that I wanted to do.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here: go with your gut, don’t second guess yourself, believe in what you feel.

You may just end up being right after all.

Don’t Fall Off the Ladder

LinkedIn has been positioning itself as a forum for career discussion, including, most recently, their series called If I Were 22, on what advice you would give to your 22-year-old self. The flinging of advice to the unknown crowds can be tricky, though.

Photo by jacq.mag on Flickr

Photo by jacq.mag on Flickr

The series is viewed as a kind of virtual commencement speech. While some of the articles are a decent read, most are formulaic variations on “work isn’t everything,” “find your passion,” “take risks,” and “don’t be arrogant.” Honestly, we’ve heard all of these before. They’re as old as The Golden Rule.

Life, as most people realize, has its ups and downs. What fewer seem to understand, however, is that advice is not a “one size fits all” solution–especially regarding careers–and one person’s “up” can be another person’s “down.” With the way the economy changes and the job market changes, things that may look like good advice on the surface may be difficult to implement in practice. Or may be irrelevant to your path entirely. (Note that the posts on LinkedIn are all from people who, it’s safe to say, are phenomenally successful.)

So for this exercise to be of value, it needs to have a whiff of some universal truths but not be cliché.

That said, I would like to take a stab at my own advice to my young self, and perhaps to anyone else living in the “real” world. Feel free to add your own to the comments.

1. Get your hands out of your pockets: I think one of the hardest transitions people face in their young lives is the change from having things done for them to doing things for others. My first real job was with a roofing company. I was just 18. One cold morning, I was on a jobsite, standing with my hands in my pockets. “Get your hands out of your pockets and help out,” the head roofer told me. I protested that my hands were cold. He said too bad, get busy, you’ll be fine.

He was right, my hands are fine to this day. Don’t worry about cold or dirty hands, if what you’re doing is constructive and helps others.

2. If you want something, you must speak up: Another difficult transition is from being told what to do to finding your own way. One of my early jobs was as a waiter in a restaurant in Hanover, N.H. I saw that the next step was working behind the bar, and after a few months a bartender position opened up. I was not offered the promotion–it was not even discussed with me. Later, I spoke with my manager about it. He said he had no idea I was even interested.

If you want something, you have to tell someone. They can’t read your mind. If you have something to say, say it. Nobody’s going to say it for you.

3. Don’t fall off the ladder: The roofing company took me to many different places and many new situations. One time, I was assigned to assist one of the roofers to fix a low spot in a flat, tar-and-gravel roof where water was pooling. This required that we build up the low spot, tar it over, and cover it with gravel. The sacks of gravel were heavy–about 80 pounds–and we had to get them onto the roof. I’m not a big guy, so I was maxed out just lifting the bag. Then I had to climb a ladder with it over my shoulder. About midway up I started to fall backwards. The roofer saw this and intervened, steadying the bag and the ladder. “Don’t be stupid,” he told me afterward. “The gravel doesn’t matter. If you’re about to fall off the ladder, just let it go.”

Keep your priorities balanced. Know what’s worth hanging on to and what you can let go.


These three things–get your hands busy, speak up for yourself, and keep things in balance–have been my touchstones for the past 20 years. I don’t always follow my own advice, I’ll admit. But when I feel myself in a jam, they help me find my way through.

What is your advice to your young self? Leave a comment.

Random Scribbles: Banning bossy bounces like a bad bomb

[Random Scribbles are my occasional posts of half-formed thoughts, half-baked ideas, and off-the-cuff observations.]

Sheryl Sandberg is at it again. Unless you’ve been living off-world for the last month, you likely may have heard about her new “Ban Bossy” campaign. The gist is this: in order to encourage girls and women to be leaders, we need to make using the word “bossy”

I won’t argue that language doesn’t have power, because it does. It can bring order and meaning to the otherwise chaotic. It can give something weight and substance, culturally speaking, that it might not have if we didn’t give it a name.

I’m also completely in favor of empowering girls and women. But ceasing to use the word “bossy” will not change the underlying behavior that Sandberg is trying to address.

Children (boys or girls) who want to impose their will on others will continue to do so whether we have a name for it or not. Think of the kid who “took charge” of the games on the playground in sixth grade using force, aggression, and/or subtle forms of blackmail. Adults who (rightly) perceive that this is going on will counsel these children to stop.

There’s a difference between bossiness and true leadership. As any parent knows, leadership is more than just saying “because I said so.”

More importantly, banning “bossy” will not correct some deeply-seated biases that exist against women’s achievement, including some in Sandberg’s own back yard: the tech industry. A recent study has shown that venture capitalists are more likely to support a project proposed by a man than by a women, even when the projects being proposed are exactly the same.

Sandberg’s first major attempt at cultural influence, her (ghost-written) book Lean In (2013) left a lot of women cold, even as it claimed to speak for all women. (Some feel that Susan Cain’s is better.) I think banning bossy will also be less successful than she’d like it to be, for many of the same reasons. Until Sandberg can find more common ground with the majority of women and the problems they face, she’ll continue to lob more duds.