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Earl R. Smith II. PhD

(Read More From My Blog)

We are not who we say we are. Rather we are who others say we are. Your reflection in the eyes of those who have come to know you is always more accurate than the image you strive to put there.


This is a tale of three clients. The details are an accurate reflection of each. The names and some of the circumstances have been changed to protect their identity. Or, better said, to keep others from realizing who they are. We are, after all, more than occasionally each of these characters. Sometimes to our benefit and, at other times, to our loss. This journey is better made less wondering who these people are and more thinking about how we can learn from their examples.

Forgetful Freda

Sisyphus, a king of Corinth, conspired to escape from the underworld. He failed and was punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.


I’m sure you’ve all heard what they say about Chinese food. “You eat until you are full then, an hour later, you are hungry.” In the first article in this series, I described a coaching client whose tendencies prevented him from engaging in a learning relationship. A combination of aversions and hubris kept him from engaging in any relationship which involved learning or change. This person’s efforts to change were doomed from the start. Now I would like to turn to a different type of client. One who can engage in such relationships but cannot seem to derive cumulative benefits from them.

Freda was such a mentoring client. During the initial interview I asked her about experiences with mentoring and mentors. What followed was an extended description of almost a decade of engagements. Some lasted just a few months but two went for over a year each.

This kind of tale is one that immediately raises a red flag for two reasons. The first is that the potential client has likely become inured to the mentoring process in a way that will make progress much more difficult. The second is that, unless I assume that prior mentors have been completely ineffective, the person that I am talking to is the result of intensive and repetitive coaching.

Freda fell into this pattern. She had begun to seek out and engage mentors shortly after she graduated with an MBA from a first-line business school. I suspected almost immediately that her interest in being mentored by me had something to do with my MMS from the Sloan School at MIT and PhD in political and social theory. As she described the series of mentoring engagements and mentors, a pattern began to emerge. Freda’s side of the story was that she stayed with a mentor as long as she felt she had something to learn from them. Then, having harvested what there was to harvest, she moved on in search of a “greater guru”.

The interview brought up three interesting questions. One, how much did Freda really get out of each mentoring engagement? Two, what was the difference between her vision of each engagement and that of the mentor involved? And three, how did Freda measure up to someone who had had so much mentoring support? With those questions in mind, I ended the interview with a promise to get back to her in a couple of days.

Because Freda was local and I knew two of her prior mentors, I decided to start with the second question. I contacted the two mentors and arranged to have a confidential chat with each. A pattern quickly emerged. Here is what one of them said:

Freda’s problem is that almost her entire life is between her ears. Everything we worked on was turned into an intellectual exercise. I had trouble getting her to focus on the fact that we were talking about Freda, the real person facing real challenges.”

A second part of the puzzle came out when one of them observed:

“Freda is addicted to being mentored. Her social life is fairly sparse. Most of it revolves around going to networking meetings. She likes to disclose that she is being mentored. It makes her feel special.”

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