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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The survey is still open!
(And I need more responses to get a good sample size.)
So take the survey today — and thank you!
People have various attitudes about work and life. Some are enthusiastic about their careers while others are much less so. Some are optimistic about life while others find it a struggle.
Individuals, of course, are the product of a complex set of unique variables. But larger groups, affected by similar social and economic forces, tend to share similar views (called the “cohort effect”). These generations may collectively have attitudes about work and life that are noticeably different from each other.
Below is a link to a quick survey (three questions) that I hope will shed some light on this.
Let me know what you think in the comments section of this post. I will share the results at a future date.
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.