In one way, each of my mentoring efforts is different. Each individual brings different challenges, needs and capabilities. Each advances at their own particular pace. Some have sufficient resolve to continue until we achieve the breakthroughs that we are seeking. Others run out of resolve and turn back. The ideas we discuss and the exercises we undertake are determined more by the capability of each person. As the process is intensely personal, it needs to be shrink-wrapped and heavily customized.
But there also is a rather predictable rhythm to my mentoring work and a fairly predictable path that it follows. It all begins with a rising dissatisfaction. Most people come to me because they have, for years, suspected that their life has taken the wrong path. As the years roll on, and often build into decades, that dissatisfaction can build until it becomes the proverbial elephant in the room. Maybe they start expressing their concern to friends. Maybe they read one of my articles or books. But for one reason or another, the phone rings or an email arrives.
The initial sessions are generally focused on this dissatisfaction. Most people who seek me out for mentoring support seem to need to vent. Many of them are able to describe their frustrations in great detail. The sessions are very important as they establish a baseline understanding of where we are starting from. They also give me an opportunity to assess the possibilities that my mentoring work will be productive. There is an old Zen saying, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. But the implication of that saying is that the student must be ready.
Once the venting is over and we begin to work most experience and initial sense of vertigo. Mentoring is not about how to improve your backhand or your social life. It is about how to find the true path for your life and to set your feet upon it. One of the reasons that most people find themselves trapped by rising dissatisfaction is that they keep asking the same questions over and over again and those questions tend to be the wrong ones. One of the most important achievements is to get them to focus on the right ones. Once they begin to do so, they can feel destabilized and disconnected from their comfort zone. Halfway across the lake, they begin to fear that they have forgotten how to swim. But, of course, they know how to swim and they know how to find the right path for their life. That doesn’t make it easy. If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, sanity might be defined as doing new and different things without knowing what the results will be.
Overcoming vertigo requires determination and focus. It is very important that a person not relapse back to old patterns. As the old song goes, “it takes six months to form a habit”. Like everything else, when you are trying to learn to do something the early attempts take far more effort. Once you’ve mastered the thing doing it becomes second nature. But, although mind and language can span the that description easily, the process of a human being making the journey is considerably more difficult. That’s where determination comes in. I have had people actually swept from the effort. But they kept on and eventually persevered.
The first couple of breakthroughs tend to generate a burst of euphoria. I have very fond memories of people leaving one of our sessions with a beaming smile on their face and their feet barely touching the ground. Their hard work, determination and fearlessness as help them overcome what initially seemed like a completely daunting challenge. But they won out. Many of them want to immediately share this startling new insight with all of their friends and family.
But the path of a life does not change easily. Particularly the first two or three breakthroughs, and the euphoria that they generate, are short-lived. The session after the breakthrough can involve bewilderment and confusion. “I remember understanding this so clearly. Where did it go?” There is a natural resistance to change that needs to be overcome. I often think of mentoring as stretching a rubber band. I can help pull the rubber band but it is up to the individual to decide whether the end rooted in the past or the one pointing to the future will be released when I stop pulling. I recognize that’s a somewhat difficult metaphor but, if you play with it for a while, you may understand what I’m getting at. The resistance I’m talking about is relieved by either letting go of the past in favor of the future or insisting on maintaining the past and sacrificing the future.
For those individuals who stay the course and are persistent in their efforts – who do not slack off or turn back – progress begins to happen. In every successful mentoring effort there is a time when the individual realizes what the real questions are that they should be asking. It’s at that time that the sun begins to come up. It’s at that time that they stop asking the old questions that have resulted in rising desperation and begin asking the new ones that point to the path that their life should be on. When that happens, real progress is possible and my participation as a mentor becomes far more enjoyable and fulfilling.
Real change requires real change
There’s no way around it and there is no four-week super course but you can take that will get you there. It’s not a question of technique. It’s not a matter of adopting the right attitude. There are few usable answers on the outside to the fundamental questions that reside inside. Finding the path that your life should be on his hard work and requires an incredible amount of dedication and persistence. But what is the alternative? To live inauthentically until your time is up? To forgo the potential that is your life because you haven’t the courage to go out there and realize that potential?
The first step upon the path that your life was meant to take is a truly thunderous achievement. You now know where you are going and why. You now know what you were made for and why. The uncertainty falls away. The stress subsides. You know what you thought for decades you would never know. To get there is an easy but being there is far easier and more fulfilling than spending the rest of your life where you have been.
© Earl R Smith II, PhD