Tagged: employment

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.


The Peer-to-Peer Economy is Expanding

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.

It would be a way for people who are unsatisfied with their jobs to make this known in a confidential way and allow others browse for new work. Think an Airbnb for employment.Peer-to-Peer-300x225

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.

More Paths to the Middle Class

I went to a public junior high school in the late 1970s, where I took one of my favorite classes ever: wood shop. There was something about turning a rough chunk of wood into something beautiful and useful that really appealed to me. I still have a few of my creations, including a cutting board and a lamp.

I didn’t take the class seriously, though. I didn’t realize that some of the kids in “shop” with me were probably learning skills for a future career. To me, it was just something fun to do. An easy “A.”

Because it was implicit to me that I would attend college and have a career shaped around working with my head, not my hands. And there was never a question of whether my family could afford the cost of my higher education.

While I now support myself quite comfortably with my work in the “knowledge economy,” the allure of wood shop remains with me to this day. Few things that I do each weekday are something I can point to and say “I did that.” But I can show someone my cutting board and say “I made that.”

woodshopIn a previous post, I discussed some exciting new programs that are serving to correct what may be an over-emphasis on college. Now, I’ve come across an article in Slate that reinforces that point, delving deeper into the question of whether college is right for everybody. More importantly, it makes the point that education should serve to prepare people for the future and give them a shot at being self-supporting and having a better life, whatever form that might take.

We need to have “real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education,” says the author, Michael J. Petrilli, an executive with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.  “We shouldn’t force anyone into that route, but we also shouldn’t guilt kids with low odds of college success—regardless of their race or class—to keep trudging through academic coursework as teens. Yet it appears that we are doing just that….”

Petrilli acknowledges that, by saying some kids just won’t cut it in college, he is vulnerable to accusations of determinism or classism. But he effectively deflects those arrows. “We should build a system that helps many students find another road to the middle class,” he says.

More options are always a good thing.


Random Scribbles: Have I been here before?

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

In the 1987 movie Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend’s character goes through many struggles to try to make it in show business. Throughout the movie, one of his relatives—his mom, an aunt, I don’t remember exactly—keeps telling him, “There’s always a job at the Post Office.” The gag at the end of the film is that the character ends up making promotional videos for the Post Office.

The point though is that once, there were jobs in this country that felt as if they would always be there. They were not glamorous, but they were solid and steady. Being a postal employee was one of them. Working for a newspaper was another, whether as a “copy boy,” a reporter, or an editor. And there was always the local factory.

Today, even these jobs are vanishing. The journalism business is in a state of disrepair, as I have discussed before. And the Post Office is shedding employees, closing locations, and ripping blue mail boxes out of the ground. A neighbor of mine has worked as a postman for decades, and his brother recently retired from the Postal Service. In a recent conversation, neither seemed optimistic about the future of the organization.

As I look ahead, and try to see what my children will do for a living, I worry. I just have no clear idea of what the future might bring. The solid, steady jobs are disappearing. New jobs are risky and untested. The so-called service industry—McDonalds, Walmart—is a joke. Personal assets that once were valued—loyalty, integrity, the ability to write and think critically—are now nearly worthless.

I’m sure we as a society have been here before—the Industrial Revolution, for example—and will be here again. I just don’t like being here now.

Random Scribbles: Finding the right person

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

A recent article in The Atlantic caught my eye, about the use of personal data to assess job candidates or promote workers. I don’t want to appear to be beating a dead horse, but I want to highlight some of the article’s points because they reinforce some of the things I’ve said previously. Specifically, the piece rounds out the discussion by analyzing one of the more inscrutable areas of employment: the hiring process.

First, it points to the same Gallup research that I’ve mentioned that finds a low level of job engagement, using it as evidence of poor hiring practices and “the abysmal status quo.”

Second, it provides evidence for what many have found to be true, that hiring is based on “clubby, insular thinking” that “involves a level of dysfunction that should be inconceivable in an economy as sophisticated as ours.” It’s the world not of equal opportunity and being whatever you desire, but rather the one of secret handshakes and knowing the right people.

Finally, this little gem: “According to a national survey by the Employment Law Alliance a few years ago, most American workers don’t believe attractive people in their firms are hired or promoted more frequently than unattractive people, but the evidence shows that they are, overwhelmingly so.” [emphasis added]

I’m not too hip on the idea of data crunchers using my personal information to determine my future. But the prevailing situation has not served me well, nor many of my peers. Since college, I’ve thought that hiring should be based on merit, not on whether you are good-looking, appear to be confident, or share leisure interests with your boss. So maybe a more objective approach using “big data” will rectify some of the hiring mistakes made in recent memory.

As a final note, the article mentions efforts at Microsoft to reduce employee attrition. Once the vulnerable workers are identified, Microsoft takes a number of steps, including…wait for it…the assignment of mentors.