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.
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.
Reality check. That was a buzzword a few years back, and like any buzzword it quickly lost any real meaning and became just something printed on t-shirts and bumper stickers.
But in truth, everybody needs a reality check.
Everybody needs a standard against which to gauge one’s own perceptions. Without it, we would tend toward fiction, denial, or delusional thinking.
I remember hearing once a story (possibly apocryphal) about Pygmy people in Africa. They had spent multiple generations living day by day in a dense forest where you could not have a clear line of sight for more than a few yards. On some occasion, a Pygmy left (or was taken from) the forest, where he then saw elephants at a great distance. His companion tried to explain that these were the same elephants that lived in the forest, but the Pygmy did not believe it. They were too small. They must be something else.
But they are the same elephants. Reality check.
I don’t remember how I came across Greg Fallis’ blog, but Greg has become one of my reality checks. He writes things that I could not write, or am not qualified to write, or simply had not thought about from quite that perspective.
I admit that Greg and I share similar politics, which helps. But he doesn’t just validate my perception. Rather, like a good college professor would, he challenges and provokes, and yet seems to get it right most of the time.
I urge you to visit Greg’s blog. It can’t hurt.
And you may also find him to be a reality check.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]