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As we begin, let me set the stage. It's our first session. We've dispensed with the preliminaries and I've decided to take you on as a mentoring client. You've thought through things on your end and decided that working with me is a good way to begin to change the direction of your life. We are ready to take the first step on your transformational journey.
Let's say we’ve decided to have our first working session at a comfortable coffeehouse that I know. We’ve settled in with the wonderful aroma of well-made cappuccinos wafting up from the table. After the initial pleasantries, I ask the following question. "How many people are at this table?"
You pause and look confused. Clearly the answer’s two. There’s just you and me. Perhaps you think that it’s a trick question. But, upon quick reflection, you see no point in the question at all beyond the trivial. So you smile, look back at me and say "Clearly there are two people".
"Is that so", I ask? "It would seem to me that there are many more than two. In fact, I count five or six."
What I've just described occurs fairly often during my initial mentoring sessions. As I continue describing the conversation, I think you’ll come to see that the question is far from trivial and that the answer I offered is quite profound. Indeed, the answer to this seemingly innocuous question is the gateway through which we must necessarily pass so that mentoring can begin in earnest.
So now let's go back to our initial session. If you’ve decided that working with me as a mentor is worth the time and expense involved, you've also probably come to the conclusion that I've been down roads that you need to travel and understand things in ways that could help you on your journey. A mentor is, after all and if nothing else, an experienced guide. So you give me the benefit of the doubt and accept that I am not sending us on some trivial journey. "Okay," you say "tell me about the five or six."
"Well," I offer "there's the person that you are and who is sitting in front of me. When you came to me, you said that you were feeling that the life you are living was not the one that you were meant to live. As we talked about it, you said that you were concerned that you had become someone other than who you should be. You wanted to find that authentic person and build the life that you were meant to live. So the first person is that authentic person who you are and are trying to get in touch with."
"Then there’s the vision that you have of yourself which you use as a mask to display to the world. This is the person which you have manufactured and the one that concerned you enough that you sought out my help. Your feeling of inauthenticity rises from the concern that this vision - which I will call your "self" - does not represent the person that you are. Further, you suspect that this virtual representation of you is damaging your ability to live a fulfilling life."
"This virtual representation - this “self “- is a mitigating buffer that you have constructed between the person you are and the world out there. It serves multiple purposes. The first, and most obvious, is that it’s a representation of who you want the world to understand you are. It’s encrusted with clichés and positively value loaded descriptions. It contains the illusion of the ‘good’ and masks the suspicion of the ‘bad’. In that sense, it’s a mask. Later on we'll deal with the 'why' and 'how' you constructed that mask but, for now, it’s enough to understand that this virtual representation - this “self” - is a creation of your perceived necessity to insulate your authentic self from the world."
"But this “self” serves other purposes. Or, at least, has other effects. For one thing, it acts as a lens which affects your perception of the world around you. In fact, it’s a distorting lens. Your experience of the world around you and the people in it is distorted by having to pass through this artificial reality. In a fundamental way, you have distorted your own natural experience of the world. The people you interact with are actually interacting with your virtual representation - with your mask. The world at large comes to you through that distorting filter. And, through all of this, you have relegated yourself to the role of spectator. It's almost as if you're in the audience watching a play. To be sure, you are the author of this play. The two characters on the stage are your creations. But they are not real. You are watching two insubstantial manifestations engaged in a distorted dance without music."
"So now we have two at the table. The third is your perception of the person I am. Based on the time we’ve spent together and my reputation, you’ve built a vision of who you take me to be. In many ways, that vision is overly simplistic and mostly wrong. Such misunderstandings are unavoidable. You simply don't have enough experience of me and you're strongly felt need to refocus your life led you to construct this virtual representation using more positive terms that are sometimes warranted and at others unwarranted."
"We are now up to three and we haven't even gotten to me. Number four is the person that I actually am. It’s my equivalent of your authentic persona. So far, what you know about me is represented in your manufactured virtual representation of who I am. But, as I’ve said, that representation is inauthentic. There’s a real person vastly different from your virtual representation."
“You might guess who the fifth person is. It’s the virtual representation of you that I have created based upon my current understanding of who you are.”
By now you are probably beginning to see what I’m talking about. You might say something like, “okay, I accept that things are more complicated than I had first thought. But all these really separate people?”
It doesn’t take me long to respond. “For our purposes, it’s going to be very useful to consider them as individuals. You have to remember that the whole purpose of these sessions is to reduce the number of people at the table to two. Before we can begin the serious work of discovering the way forward to the life you should be leading, we need to establish a link that eliminates these virtual distractions. Each of these virtual individuals will do their level best to impede our progress. Progress, after all, represents a death sentence for them.”
For now, the cappuccinos have been consumed and an hour has passed. It’s time for you to begin processing what we’ve talked about. The intellectual understanding of the presence of these virtual representations is insufficient to allow us to progress. You must internalize the awareness. You must feel their presence and directly experience the corrosive effect they have. That’s going to take some time and a bit of heavy lifting. As you are getting ready to leave, you say “you said five or six and only identified five. Is there a sixth?” I hand you a sheet of paper which contains the following poem. Your assignment for the next session is to tell me what William Stafford is getting at and who the sixth person is.
A Ritual To Read To Each Other
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
© Dr Earl R Smith II
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,