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.
A few years ago, Sheryl Sandberg made a stir with her book Lean In.
Except that it wasn’t her book. By that I mean she didn’t write it. It was ghost-written for her, and yet it’s her name on the cover as the “author.”
This is nothing new. Ghost-writers have been used for many years.
The problem is that when anyone can slap a name on a book, what are the qualifications for calling someone a writer? And what is more significant, the fact that someone put pen to page (metaphorically) or the fact that someone is a Big Name?
Sandberg, of course, was already COO of Facebook when she “authored” Lean In.
Big Name wins out, it appears.
Two years ago, I decided to start using this blog as a platform for my thoughts and my writing. One of those thoughts led to writing a short bit about how the smart phone is the new cigarette. It got a handful of views and four ‘likes.’
So I was surprised to see today a piece on LinkedIn about—wait for it—how smart phones are the new cigarette. It has a nifty stock-photo graphic to illustrate it. And it was written (possibly) and posted (definitely) by Tim Bichara, Managing Partner at Nimble Mobile and Co-Founder and Commercial Director at Q App.
It has over 45,000 views and over 1,000 ‘likes.’ In one day.
Now, I’ve never heard of Tim Bichara, in the context of being a writer or any other context, frankly. He has written exactly two posts on LinkedIn. But he apparently is a Big Name.
Being a Big Name means people Read Your Stuff. Yes, his piece is longer than mine, but not more original. The only thing he has that I don’t is an audience, a ready-made following, perhaps from—I can only speculate here—his work at Nimble Mobile or Q App, whatever those are.
Writing, I realize, is seldom about the quality of the thought or the writing. Especially now, it mostly has to do with slick marketing and targeted demographics, just like any other commercial product.
So the lesson seems to be this: go out into the world, make a Big Name for yourself.
Then become a writer.
I can’t believe it’s New Year’s Day, 2035.
My retirement party last week was enjoyable, although I didn’t get as much champagne as I would have liked. But my two kids were there, looking all grown up with their significant others. And I received lots of well wishes.
Which I’m going to need, since I’m not really sure what my plans are now. I was going to move to Virginia Beach, but I had to sell the waterfront property that was to be our retirement home there. A few years ago–2032 I think it was–the city condemned the lot since the seawater now covers it more than half the year. I took the city’s “fair market value” offer, which was a fraction of what I paid.
But living by the water was really my wife’s idea. After she passed away in 2030, there wasn’t much point of holding onto it anymore.
Honestly, I won’t be missing my job. Though I stayed with the same company for nearly 40 years, it was never what I’d hoped it would be. It was my fault, really. I never caught up with the single most important economic trend of the century: mobile information.
All those devices and apps feel just as foreign to me now as when they first appeared decades ago. When I graduated from college way back in 1990, I was completely unprepared for what was to come. I naively believed that a liberal arts degree would provide enough opportunities to allow some choices, some flexibility in where I’d go, who I’d be. Instead, the degree was a ball and chain. For my entire career, I felt I was barely keeping my head above water. Sure, the pay and benefits were sufficient to raise a family on, but I never felt that I was very useful.
I was a legacy of a dying economy. The new century flooded in and my generation was drowned by the flow.
My kids have managed to make it, no thanks to anything I was able to teach them. Resilience is key, and I just didn’t have enough. I was effectively retired from service a long time ago, so this “retirement” thing is just a formality.
Still not sure what I’ll do. Travel sounds good as long as my health holds out. Maybe I can finally take that trip to the South of France–the part that’s still above sea level anyway. It’s somewhere that my wife and I had dreamed of going years ago.
Back in the 1990s, when the dust-up over Napster was a big deal, what Napster was doing–peer-to-peer sharing without the middleman–felt wrong to me. But we’re in the 21st Century now and I’ve come around.
In fact, 10 months ago I laid out my idea for a peer-to-peer solution for job seekers. Here’s the gist of what I said:
It would look like this: the dissatisfied job holder would post a reasonable description of their job on the site. Others looking to change jobs could browse by category to find a job they’d be happy to fill. The current holder would provide sufficient information for the job seeker to be able to at least secure an interview. The current job holder also would agree to quit, creating the opening for which the job seeker would apply.
The peer-to-peer economy, according to the Harvard Business Review, is unavoidable. So should not have been surprised to find a recent Washington Post article about a product such as I described that is designed specifically for lawyers. The article describes the company, called Lateral.ly, this way:
Lateral.ly, which launches today after months of beta testing, is aiming to replace the middleman with technology. It is similar to online dating for the legal business. Lawyers create their own online profiles with their geographical location, objectives and years of experience, and Lateral.ly connects them with firms that are looking to hire attorneys with the same background and objectives.
The article makes the claim that the law industry is ripe for this service, which I can’t dispute. However, I don’t think it is only law that could benefit, but rather many kinds of professional work. In fact, I could see an existing career site such as LinkedIn providing a premium service that encompasses peer economy-style job searching.
One of the toughest thing about the process of job hunting is finding enough quality information on the position you are considering, something that a service without a middleman could rectify. Better matching of the job seeker with the position is win-win.
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.