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.
[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.
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.]
The woman nervously stood to ask a question: How do you get a book published? The literary conference I attended some years ago had invited the author Alice McDermott for an informal question and answer session. This member of the audience, one of over 100 aspiring writers in attendance, was asking what was on most people’s minds that day.
“Write the best book you can,” McDermott replied, “and find an agent.”
That is all she has to offer? I thought.
In the shocked silence that followed, it struck me that McDermott had glossed over the most important part, exactly what we needed to know–how to write the best book you can. The questioner, appearing chastened and somewhat embarrassed from the knuckle-wrap McDermott had just delivered, sat down.
Writing of course is a mysterious and elusive occupation, and the path to success may be difficult to describe. But this was not an unusual occurrence. Successful people’s indifference toward those looking to break in to the field is common in many areas of life and work, I have found.
This unwillingness to help is befuddling. When I was growing up, my father told me that the people you went to school with, or who are in the same line of business, or those you know from church or social circles, would be happy to provide career advice and work contacts. Unfortunately, my experience has taught me otherwise.
A few years ago, my position was eliminated and I needed to find a new job or adjust my career path. One of the things that helped me think through my accomplishments and seek out people with experience was joining LinkedIn. I completed my profile, joined groups, posted discussions, and participated in chatter. But I’ve yet to see the kind of synergy that I expected to find.
In addition to LinkedIn, I sent e-mails and letters to a variety of fellow alumni, acquaintances, and recommended contacts. The response was underwhelming. Many didn’t respond at all. The few who did basically said “I’d love to help, but…..”
This situation, this lack of mentoring, can only be explained one of two ways. Those who are successful in their field either a) really have no idea how they got to be where they are today, and thus cannot help others, or b) they understand their success just fine but just don’t want you to know.
Let’s begin by examining the first scenario.
A LinkedIn group I belong to once included a discussion about how members got to be where they are today. Expecting to find helpful advice about the path to success, I instead found most comments to be like this one from a health and safety director at a major corporation:
The Lab Director gave me the Fire code, EPA rules, and the OSHA regulations and told me to “make our lab safe.”
Really? That’s how to plan a career?
Also on LinkedIn, Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, recalled how she had no political aspirations until one day, out of the blue, “the phone rings and it’s a former congressman who had just been appointed to head up a commission [who told her] … if I would come up with a few good ideas…he would figure out the politics and turn them into law.”
Wow, what an amazing offer! How do you plan that? The point is, you don’t: stuff happens, and people rise to the tops of their respective fields. It makes it nearly impossible to explain.
And yet, when reaching out either on LinkedIn or by more traditional means, aspiring young professionals and others wanting a new career are seeking advice. Many ask outright, “What do I need to do?” The answers, I have found, are almost always completely unhelpful.
Some professionals will state the obvious, such as go to college, get a degree, find a job. This works fine for certain well-defined professions such as medicine or the law, but for those with less conventional career goals, this is a whole lotta nothin’.
Even worse, some will give you platitudes (work hard! network!). Others will concede that times have changed and the labor market today is much different than when they first entered the field. In another discussion in a LinkedIn group, this commenter was realistic:
Currently, the public sector Environmental job market is very tough to land a position. As you know, the EPA is a HUGE agency. As of this morning, only ONE job is posted. It is a high level position that is probably filled.
Most will hold out very little hope, perhaps because they just don’t know what to say.
The second scenario is more sinister.
Professionals can be clannish, on LinkedIn and in real life. They network with people in their industry, only respond to people in their industry, and often dismiss anyone who is not in their industry. This circling of the wagons–whether intentional or not–creates a barrier to entry for anyone on the outside. Aspirants can’t get a toe-hold. They don’t eat lunch with the established professionals, so they can forget about gaining any substantial career benefit from them.
I wonder whether those who supposedly have earned their rank and experience are somehow afraid of competition. If they care about their chosen profession, why do they continue to starve the young, the future of their own industry? Where are the mentors?
I’m reminded of the scene in the classic movie Breaking Away (1979), where the young Dave Stoller is racing against his bicycling heroes, the Italian team. When these professional racers begin to view Stoller as a threat to their ability to win, they stick a tire pump in his spokes, sending him crashing to the side of the road.
I’d prefer not to think this is happening, but the evidence is compelling.