I’ve done a lot of mentoring in my life and had the benefit of being mentored by some really great human beings – people who took the time and made the efforts to help me slay my demons, learn what I didn’t know, overcome my own limitations, make the best of the opportunities that life was offering me and to be a better and more humane friend to the people I meet along the way. Because I am serious about my contributions to the lives of others, I think about what it means to be a good mentor – and what you should look for in one.
I focus on mentors who have actually been where I want to go – and thrived in the process. The world is full of inexperienced or un-experienced ‘experts’ whose sole claim to fame seems to be that they can talk about things that you ought to do. This kind of ‘do as I say not as I do’ approach is a sure indication that you are talking to a snake-oil salesman rather than a potential mentor. An unsuccessful person is unlikely to make a good mentor because they generally have very little to teach aside from failure.
A good mentor should be proactively involved in a life that you wish to emulate or learn from. A history of accomplishing things that you don’t think you can is always a good indication of a person who has something to teach you. Be wary of those who say to you ‘I’ve discovered how to make a gazillion dollars a week and wanted to share my secrets with you for only $29.95.’
Avoid worship relationships – there are some people whose hubris is so great that they collect worshipers rather than friends and associates. These people don’t give they take – and, even though they have more than you do already, their philosophy of life is ‘too much is never enough’ – you will end up poorer and the experiences you have will not be useful except in a prophylactic way. If you have a need to worship, join a church. If you think that Hollywood celebrities are ‘really neat people’, you need something more to help you separate illusion from reality.
A good mentor will take the time to slow down and teach at the pace you can learn. Patience is an amazing human trait – it indicates a humility and capacity for sympathetic understanding. Good mentors always take their charge’s capacity to learn as the principal guiding light. A friend is fond of say that each person gets to run up against the same problem over and over again until they solve it – then they get to go on to the next one. Good mentors will leave you to solve the problems that you will benefit from having solved – it is called allowing a student to develop a sense of mastery.
In addition to fresh and relevant experience, good mentors will have a wide range of facilitating contacts. An important characteristic of a good one is that they understand the limits of their ability to contribute to your growth – and are willing to ask their friends and other contacts to help with the process. But don’t get the impression that good mentors are ‘open networkers’. My own network of close contacts has been built up over the years – proven relationships, reliable friends, good sources of wisdom and guidance – and I am not likely to unnecessarily burden any of them.
A good mentor is, at least partially, a personal trainer – someone who presses you to up your game and keep up the pace. My experience has been that these abilities – when combined with a consistent and persistent approach – most often make the difference between excellence and ordinary. Your ability to pick up the pace and keep focus will likely be one of the primary reasons that a mentor will be willing to continue to work with you.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II