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Earl R. Smith II, PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

I work as a Mentor and am often asked what the differences between mentoring and coaching are. It’s not a question that I take lightly because understanding that difference can often be the key to an individual getting what they want out of a relationship with a mentor or a coach or wasting their time and money.

The description which I’ve come up with, and which seems to make most sense to the people who have asked me, is that coaching is focused on the tactical improvement of specific skills while mentoring involves work on the foundational questions of a life. The example I most often give is that a Coach will help you improve your golf swing while a Mentor will help you decide if you should be a golfer.

Both of these kinds of contributions are very important to helping an individual realize the potential that their life represents. Coaches, particularly good ones who are deeply experienced and capable, can make a huge difference in a person’s life experience. They can help you clear away roadblocks and embark on a highly productive program of personal improvement. They tend to be much more effective if you done the heavy lifting beforehand. A solid foundation of self-understanding will help a coach be more effective. That’s where a mentor comes in.

Most of the people that I work with have decided to address foundational questions. Many of them have been following a particular path for years and have begun to suspect that it has been taking them in the wrong direction. Often this shows up as a growing dissatisfaction with the way their life is developing. Sometimes they have been thinking that there are other things in life that they want to accomplish before it is over. No matter what the motivation, they come to me seeking help in finding a new path that it will be more fulfilling and represent a better use of their life.

The kinds of transitions that I am talking about are not easy. Overcoming habits that have developed over many years, and sometimes decades, is very difficult. Changing patterns of thinking or a way of viewing the world can be a very daunting undertaking. But, when you come right down to it, that is the nature of life itself. Each of us has to find a way that fulfills our inner needs and potential. Helping people do that is my fundamental contribution is a Mentor.

The average person that I begin working with has tried a number of things prior to contacting me. Most often they have worked with coaches in an attempt to get better at navigating the path their life has been on. Sometimes this work has gone on for decades. When they finally come to the conclusion that more of the same is just not going to do it, they begin to look for alternatives. That is the critical phase that determines whether a new path will be found or more of the same experienced.


Someone dancing inside us
has learned only a few steps:
the “Do-Your-Work” in 4/4 time,
the “What-Do-You-Expect” Waltz.
He hasn’t noticed yet the woman
standing away from the lamp.
the one with black eyes
who knows the rumba.
and strange steps in jumpy rhythms
from the mountains of Bulgaria.
If they dance together,
something unexpected will happen;
if they don’t, the next world
will be a lot like this one.

Bill Holm

Joseph Campbell

The first steps in all of my mentoring engagements begin with foundational questions. Who am I really? What are my passions? What are my interests? What should I be doing with my life? These and others form the initial basis for our work together. There is also a great deal of clearing away brush and deadwood. Most people experience rather severe vertigo as this process advances. They are casting off that person that they have been telling themselves that they are and it can be a sobering, and often frightening, experience. But you cannot see your true reflection in the mirror until you remove the mask.

“We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”
Robert Frost

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