Mentorship: A Human Condition

Mentorship is an alchemy: When it is done well it changes both parties.

I have been a mentor for 20 years, but I have been mentored my entire life. As a child and as a young man I always sought out people that had something to teach me. I have known my entire life that I am a vessel that will need some input from the outside to be effective. Most children and young adults I work with know this as well. It is the adults who do not see the immediate value of mentorship. It is true to say all humans require and rely on Mentorship. It has also been my experience that most adults do not understand that mentorship is active and transitive; Mentors can quickly become mentees whether the “Traditional Mentor” is willing to acknowledge that or not. Mentorship is an alchemy: When it is done well it changes both parties.

Mentorship is inherently underutilized and misunderstood. There are two kinds of mentorship: “passive” and “active”. In active mentorship we assume that the individual we are trying to connect with has as much interest in the data and knowledge as we possess. We may assume that they will see that data or knowledge the same way we do. What we will not see is growth or personal connection. People do not or very rarely see things the same way we do. This is why I cite the alchemy, the artistry, and the science of human connection in mentorship. Humans crave connection as deeply as they crave confidence. Effective mentorship builds both. It is magical that way. You cannot know what your mentees know. This is a bit of logic that is often left out of discussions on mentorship. Mentorship is often a passive, emergent property. Whether this new self-aware thought is good or bad, the successful mentor will acknowledge it and choose to grow alongside their mentee.

Over the years I am constantly surprised by the reaction from my professional peers when I reveal my thoughts on mentorship. I will tell a colleague, friend, or even someone I have mentored myself that I am grateful for their mentorship. They look at me surprised. Invariably, they refute my claim. Then I explain how and why in that moment I consider them a mentor and how I see the connection and growth that I experienced. It is then that they see that mentorship is really an opportunity to grow and expand our skills and attitudes together. No one waits for permission to grow, but a great deal of people expect to wait for permission to grow together?

Why is Mentorship Overlooked?

Why is mentorship so valuable, but yet so underrated? I believe it is because mentorship represents the best and the worst aspects of the human condition. We desire mentorship when we feel like we cannot do what we need. We hold mentorship suspect when we feel vulnerable or tragically proud. Mentorship is a form of play and play is a form of learning and growing creatively. When we play we describe how the rules apply to us like we do when we learn a new game or sport. The same is true as we develop new skills and character. Mentorship develops skill and character. This is important and it is a critical #HumanSkill. It is also easier for kids to adapt to than adults. The reason that mentorship is easier between children (peer-to-peer mentorship) and people closer in age (near-peer mentorship) is because children or young adults tend to think of themselves as forming or not yet complete. But adults often have a fantasy that mentorship is an “active asset” that they can add at will. Something they seek only “When they need it” or “choose to share it”. They fail to see that mentorship is happening all around us every day. It is not a closed system. Additionally many adults think there is a one-way transaction in traditional or “active” mentorship. They think of mentorship as something they choose to engage in or accept. That’s the “active” “asset” model I described above. The truth is, every time we interact with another human in a meaningful way, both will grow. That is mentorship. It’s happening for me right now as I am writing this. I am learning new things and you (the reader) will eventually expand my understanding of that.

Over the years I am constantly surprised by the reaction from my professional peers when I reveal my thoughts on mentorship. I will tell a colleague, friend, or even someone I have mentored myself that I am grateful for their mentorship. They look at me surprised. Invariably, they refute my claim. Then I explain how and why in that moment I consider them a mentor and how I see the connection and growth that I experienced. It is then that they see that mentorship is really an opportunity to grow and expand our skills and attitudes. No one waits for permission to grow, but a great deal of people expect to wait for permission to grow together?

Mentorship vs Training

Mentorship is also built from self-awareness and personal realization, not tasks. Mentorship is not training. Often times it can feel like a task. That is one way you KNOW there is not a real connection taking place. Explaining HOW to do something is NOT mentorship; that is TRAINING. Training is practice to do a specific task. Mentorship is sharing a worldview that works for you with a new person who might see what you see differently and then allowing grace for them to see how what you have described relates to them. Again we do not all think alike. That is an indisputable truth. That is why I refer to mentorship is a form of alchemy; It is transformative when it’s done well. It is done well when you do not have a set of goals or tasks in mind, but an open mind and heart and the willingness to walk your mentee through their journey. There is a very real chance that at the end you will have grown as well.

I have interviewed and interacted with mentors from business and industry, education, religion, and family. All good mentors share this reality: Mentorship is about helping some other person become better at being themselves.

Connection 101:

The myth that there will be some obvious common thread between you and your mentee is naive and prevalent. You can not know why that person you are mentoring is there. You can make assumptions, but data is better. Often, I start out training in the art of mentorship by asking my mentees to tell me a simple story. I share something and ask if they have a similar story. Often they do have one. When they do not then I ask them to tell me one and I will find that path back to them. Knowing how to recognize empathy, vulnerability, and context is really a very import set of “Human Skills” that are key to self-awareness and growth and to valid connection. These are the hallmarks of good mentorship on both sides of the relationship. I have interviewed mentors from around the nation on a personal mission and as part of the PAST Foundation. I have interviewed and interacted with mentors from business and industry, education, religion, and family. All good mentors share this reality: Mentorship is about helping some other person become better at being themselves.

Connection requires truth, vulnerability, and patience. I hate failure or feeling like I might fail. However I share my failure when and if it happens. I say, “I was wrong, or I underestimated you.” It is honest and relevant and it creates a bond of trust and dignity. It also gives both the mentor and the mentee a graceful way to grow. In that moment I am being mentored and I accept that. Full stop. No human can know everything and no human is without fault or (very rarely) lacks their own unique genius. Remember to respect and honor humility and genius in everyone. Just because someone needs mentorship does not mean they do not possess genius. It just means they may not yet realize it. Mentorship is really about allowing each party to see what they do and do not know and what that means to them. Then once they feel seen or heard and maybe even understood the alchemy happens. This magic requires two things: an open heart and mind and the honest belief that all people have something to teach us by allowing us to teach and guide them. I have been a mentor for 20 years and I have been mentored for a lifetime. Not once has this basic principle changed. Mentorship is the human condition.