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One of the most common challenges that my mentoring clients face is coming to terms with lost opportunities and broken connections. Many times the focus of our early conversations is on the number of years or decades that have been lived and the relatively meager accumulation of experience, lasting contacts and reputation that has resulted. Again and again I have begun work with someone only to find that one of their deepest fears are that the cumulative results of their life amounts to far less than they had hoped it would.
There are two avenues that have to be investigated and experienced in any such mentoring engagement. Both relate to behaviors – mostly self-sabotaging – and to the self-image that a person has developed and carries through life. Both are very difficult to address – particularly if a person tries to do so on their own. A good life mentor can help overcome these difficulties and achieve breakthroughs that are truly life changing.
The Habit That Prohibits
In traditional societies individuals typically grew up within a matrix of relationships that fostered long-term relationships with people who knew them, their history, family and personality. This matrix of relationships developed over the years into a network of long-standing connections which ‘matured’ into facilitating and supportive ones. One of the major values of these relationships was that they were inherently cumulative. By that I mean that they were a consistent and extended part of a person’s history and insinuated themselves into the vision of self that comes to define a person – not only within their life context but within their own self-image.
But the breakdown of traditional society has produced an environment which does not provide such support. In fact, it has done quite the opposite – it facilitates a particularly difficult type of self-sabotaging behavior. At base humans are still very social animals – by that I mean that they have deeply felt needs for these long term connections. In an important way such relationships are the keel and rudder of the boat which is the person’s self. The keel – that long spine that runs the length of most boats – provides directionality – keeps the boat on track – heading in a direction. The rudder both keeps the boat on course and allows it to change direction.
To see what I mean, consider the role of mentor in a person’s life. Good mentoring relationships are about keels and rudders. A young person may have ideas and expectations about the world that are unrealistic – they may be expending lots of energy attempting to drive their craft in a direction which is damaging to their own self interests. The pressures of unfamiliar waters and poorly defined destinations may cause them to behave erratically and against their own interests. A good mentor helps to calm those waters, define directions, refine goals and adjust expectations.
But mentoring relationships are neither casual nor ephemeral. Faux mentoring relationships – ones that are called mentoring relationships but really aren’t –are poor substitutes for the real thing. I have worked with clients who have spent years moving from one ‘mentor’ for another only to find that nothing much has changed – nothing has accumulated – other than the name of their current ‘mentor’.
For me the issue regularly comes into sharp relief as a result of another habit that I have. I journal and keep my calendars from past years – then once a year I spend time going back through them. One thing stands out every time – the number of broken threads – broken connections – missed opportunities and stagnant or attenuated relationships always seems much greater than I would have hoped for.
I call this behavior the 'habit that prohibits'. Whether it arises from anti-humanism, a fear of intimacy, addiction to being anonymous, lack of patience or understanding of how such relationships arise, the net result always seems to be the same. People look back over their lives and realize that there is not as much there as they would have wanted or hoped for.
There is good news – as there always is when there is life yet to live. Individuals who find that their life is non-cumulative can change the behaviors which have produced the result. What has gone before is not necessarily the definition of what will occur from now on. It is a difficult journey that requires dedication and persistence – particularly at first – but it can be made.
Breaking the habit that prohibits means narrowing your focus to a smaller group of carefully selected contacts – no more ‘open networking’ with one surge of new contacts after another – no more non-cumulative behavior. You see it is your own behavior which generates a series of disposable relationships and overturns any possibilities that you might construct a context for your self which supports and empowers it. It that sense, successfully breaking the habit that prohibits takes the same kind of effort and support as breaking any habit – like smoking or drinking or over eating.
The Vision That Clouds
A second issue is that many people simply don’t know much about their lives and the relationships that they have built. Socrates said “a life unreflected on is not worth living”. I would turn that quote around – “a life unreflected on is often under-appreciated”.
Most of my life mentoring engagements begin with a detailed assessment of the client’s life, current situation and broader context. After many such engagements, I have discovered that most people can produce a fairly detailed description of the first two but have only a vague and unfocused grasp of the last. To put it another way, people seem to have a better grasp on the immediate context of their lives than the extended one.
Quite often we will focus early efforts on discovering whether the boat really does have a rudder and keel. People who feel like they are drifting or that their life is out of control tend to assume that neither exist – and sometimes that is actually the case. But more often than not we discover that they really do – that there are foundational beliefs, long-term relationships and a more extended context which supports them.
This discovery – or, more properly, its rediscovery – is often a major step forward in the engagement. No longer alone in the dark night, the client realizes that there are others – and other communities – which are supportive and empowering. At the core of the epiphany, there is the discovery – the realization - that their life is much more than they have been thinking it was. I remember one client who came to me believing to her core that she was alone in the world – that only echoes within the darkness were her companions. Over the course of three months she discovered and re-connected with a wide range of people and groups. She came to feel buoyed up – supported – by them. Her discovery was that her life was far more ‘cumulative’ that she was allowing herself to accept.
Working Both Sides Toward the Middle
These are two ‘habits’ which sabotage life. Both relate to behaviors – one which sabotages future potential and the other which diminishes the past. The secret is to bring both of them into the present – to come to term with their implications in the ‘now’. Until that happens nothing much will change.
Breaking the addiction to the habit that prohibits means overcoming the habit of prohibiting – a habit that is embedded within your own vision of what is possible and desirable. That means revising the values which seems to make the habit more desirable than what it is prohibiting. Overcoming the ‘vision that clouds’ means discarding the casual retelling of your life story – the avatar which you have created – and replacing it with a more accurate version. This means insisting on knowing yourself and being true to the truth telling of it all.
I have helped many people along this journey. In almost every case the results were a closer and more human relationship between a person and their life. Lives which were non-cumulative suddenly become cumulative. But it is only possible when you work both sides towards the middle.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,