Don’t be surprised, but our sense of independence could lead to the ‘death knell’ on society as you know it.
We retreat to separate bedrooms for separate binge sessions of streaming TV services. Our joy can be found in the quiet of our solitude and our day or week is sometimes carved into slices of “me time”. In the most connected world to ever see the sands of time, we seem to crave loneliness or its single bedmate, the wolf in sheep’s clothing of personal independence.
Our isolation from those around us can be a breeding ground for decay in learning about life and being adequately able to deal with each stumbling block we may find along the way. Human Society has often found the solution for generations of advancement and security in the pivotal role of mentors. In fact, it would appear resilience is a learned commodity and there is no great a teacher than the man or woman who has walked through the darkness in order to teach others that the path still exists.
So why are most mentors unemployed or dwindling in supply?
In this dichotomy of chasing the quiet in amongst the phone notifications falling like raindrops around our brain, we actually are risking the loss of the key value we can gain from community. For eons, the origins of many forms of learning were found in the fellowship of humanity. The Harvest Horn or Cornucopia of education, learning and shared experience came from the connection between the Rabbi and the Disciples, the Teacher and the Pupil, Mother and Daughter, Storyteller and Listener, people sharing life together.
Like some superhero movie that goes back and forth in time, resolving the problems of the now, our ability to learn from each other’s failure as well as success is what enables society to grow and breathe.
Wilbur and Orville Wright’s success with flight at Kitty Hawk was not based on their reading or some academic degree achieved by magic. No, the bicycle salesmen learned through the observation of others and their attempts from hot-air balloons to winged craft. Legends of science like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie learned not just from the absorption of textbooks but from classrooms of engagement, personal tutelage and in some cases even family members and experience. The Inklings was a group of beer-drinking, pipe-smoking academics in Oxford, England with names like C. S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien who shaped worlds of fantasy as well as inspired authorship and dreaming.
So while we live in a world of incredible access to pathways of learning combined with the immense distribution of knowledge, we still will fall on our swords if experience and community learning isn’t a way for information and methods and experience to be passed on, person to person, generation to generation.
Whether you recognise terms like Master or Rabbi, Guru or simply Teacher, they embody the ability to pass on wisdom, not just knowledge or information. Put simply wisdom is the incredible “X-Factor” to the academia of intelligence. Wisdom comes from understanding, the context, relevance and application of an idea or applying the information to a particular problem or situation.
Wisdom helps us see the why, the when, the how and the where based on the myriad of experiences that our collective community has ‘experimented’ in through ages and generations. Wisdom is learning for the ‘Who’.
So how does one collect wisdom?
In one context, simply absorbing the dogma or biographies of the past, makes for engaging learning. Read Winston Churchill’s biography and see yourself prepared for the next World War or your stint in politics. Watch an inspirational sports movie and be empowered to take some life risks to chase your dream and catch a rainbow.
While these ideas aren’t without merit, like the rainbow, they can be a little out of reach.
One of the labels left off my list of teachers was that of a mentor. The mentor is not the fount of all wisdom, exuding knowledge and understanding in a mystic framework and a 10-step journey of challenges that lead to Nirvana. They don’t reside on an inaccessible mountain or in caves too dark to see. A mentor is a form of a friend who like you was where you are last week, or just a few years ago. They can be close to you and relatable because they are living in the same paradigm of your current existence.
Mentors take all shapes and sizes. From Grandparents providing love, comfort, protection and life’s learnings to a friend who has been through the battles of addiction and conquered but humbly walks forward, though ever so slightly a limp is still evident in their step. One mentor has been running their business for 12 years sharing their startup year learnings with a young entrepreneur. Another mentor inspires the fresh out of high-school musicians or artists to never let the practice of art be gone from their fingertips.
A favourite of mine is the mentoring of Mothers. Many have walked a road of ‘fast-tracked’ learning when the baby arrives and the application of Baby 101 needs to be applied each hour of the day. More than anyone else a Mother remembers, cares and is willing to share the ideas that worked or didn’t in order that the next generation doesn’t need to falter on the same mistakes or slips that were part of their experience.
There is certainly generosity in mentoring, something that is an enigma to a society where we hold our personal world closely to our own chest. It can be the antithesis of our thinking for us to give away generously of both our time and knowledge. In the news, we hear of international espionage betraying the security of a country’s borders. Corporations and shareholders hope they are first to market with an idea never seen or shared with anyone else. Blueprints and Trademarks are protected under IP (Intellectual Property) agreements and we lock the door on our lives to neighbours and friends.
Yes, in a world where we need our Instagram profile to be more real to our friends than the state of our bank balance we are not coy, but afraid of sharing our humble lack of ability to face any given situation.
So why do we have a societal problem with unemployed mentors? Why is this valuable resource dwindling from our communities, workplaces, churches and families? As you will have deduced, this is a figure of speech for a very real epidemic. There is a vacuum and one I have experienced several times in my life.
As a young man from my mid-teens to early adulthood, I recognised my own failings. It’s fair to say we all have different levels of self-awareness and mine were sometimes off the scale. Ignorance would have been bliss but I had a sense I could do with a ‘helping hand’. I reached out to an older friend but the cry went nowhere. Later I was involved in a youth movement and admired the passion, logic and application of the leader so again I reached out only to have the silence weightier than my own guilt.
In my early 30s, I moved countries with a young family to take up a responsible position with a media charity I was part of. Dealing with many changes at that time opened my heart to both my pride and my weaknesses. I was good at many skills but needed significant work on my character, faith and emotional quotient. Recognising my situation I reached out to three men within the church I was attending to ask if they would be willing to mentor me. All were good men, leaders and around 12-15 years older than I. I was both excited and anxious about the opportunity to grow, to learn and to add substance to my character. Sadly all turned me down or didn’t respond. Was it me, was it them, did I not say “Please?”
In retrospect, I think it was a clear highlight of our society that hasn’t actively cultivated our crops of mentors over the years. Did you know that at this time scientists are actively creating seed banks for the future in case we lose our wheat and corn seed through some tragedy and it affects world food crops? In the same way, we have a dwindling supply of mentors on the planet.
Recently I saw a video showing graphically that the average age through to 1905 was below 50. Through lack of modern healthcare, war, famine and ‘for lack of knowledge’ our time on the planet wasn’t the Biblical three score and ten or Lincoln’s four score and seven. We had a short time to learn, experience, survive and thrive and that was our lot. Now with the average ages of Men and Women across western society in their early 80s, we have more time despite the busyness to enable and prepare the next generation.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius bids farewell to his son and says; “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. This famous line seems to leave a person in no-mans land with no action except that of self-sufficiency or selfishness, but it forms part of a series of pieces of good advice given to a son travelling to foreign lands. We may have been better off if two alternate lines from the same piece of Act 1, Scene 3 had made their way into modern language. At the start of his delivery Polonius says; “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.” A superb way to say listen and absorb, cogitate, meditate and apply to your own life what is relevant and helpful.
But where is the mentor you ask? From whom should I listen and observe?
It starts in the mirror and takes firstly a spirit of both humility and generosity.
On his death bed, Martin Luther is said to have scribbled on a piece of paper, “Wir sind bettler. Das ist wahr.” “We are all beggars. This is true.” He also once said, “We are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.” In his book, When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough, Steve Brown picks up on Luther’s thought and writes that in his role as pastor “he is just a beggar telling others where [he] found bread… and this beggar is still sometimes hungry but he, at least, knows where the bread is.”
In considering the idea of seeking a mentor, I believe we should first be willing to be a mentor. The journey into learning has to start from a position of being willing to give away what we have. If our little can’t be shared with other ‘hungry’ people, what hope, in fact, what space do we have to absorb new and often bigger teachings for our own growth?
Your greatest battle is likely to be nothing to do with knowledge or even wisdom. It’s not what you know but the pride that will hold you back from learning. The irony will be that it is not the pride of being seen to be one who needs to learn but rather the pride that comes from the false fear that you may be caught out, seen to still be learning, seen to be a little more hollow than the confident exterior you may have been presenting for a number of years. In fact, this slide into mentorship may bring with it a healthy side of character ‘greens’ on your plate to ensure that when learning we deal with the whole person.
Be the Mentor
Take some inspiration from those magical words from the great golfer Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) from the movie Caddyshack. Be the Ball!
In simple terms, it starts with you. Keep your eyes open for opportunities and be willing to share your own journey with the other beggars along the road.
What is a mentor?
First and foremost, learn what isn’t a mentor. You are not the fount of all knowledge. No one is a single source of all wisdom and a never-ending reservoir to meet a never-ending demand. A mentor is really just someone willing to pass on what they have received.
A great picture to hold is that you are a leaky pitcher of water that can only hold so much knowledge, wisdom and experience. Now run fast so that your leaking can refresh as many as possible.
How do I recognise an opportunity?
Mentoring opportunities tend to take three forms. The most obvious is from someone who asks. It may be in the form of a single question or seeking an opinion or a more structured request for coaching, mentoring or guidance.
Secondly, a mentoring opportunity may come simply from conversations. Having an open heart and ears to the message behind the words may help you see the real need. Some people you speak with are ‘asking for a friend’ when the friend is sitting in front of you. Our small talk may be cover or a foreign language for the real heart issues of life.
Thirdly, you may find within your circles of influence that being generous with your time can be attractive and offering to be a mentor ‘anyone interested’, to lead a group or to meet with those who are seeking to grow may be the door opening needed within a community group, work context or connections with other people you associate with. In this style it can be beneficial to share how you are also being mentored as part of any offer or introduction.
What does being a mentor mean look like?
Think of what you are seeking and start to bring that to the opportunity you have. It’s always good to start by asking a mentee what they wish to get out of mentoring but be aware most of us really don’t know at the start. We recognise gaps in ourselves but we’re not sure what to fill them with.
It’s important to be willing to provide silence as well as input. Listen more than we talk and fill the talk with humility and actual learned experience and recollection, not regurgitated knowledge that makes you just an amplifier for the book you read or the podcast you’ve recently listened to. While we don’t dismiss these resources, they are simply aids to the relationship building of a shared life experience as Mentor and Mentee.
When do I take action?
The old Chinese proverb says the best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. And the next best time to plant a tree is now.
I would love to hear about your experiences as both a Mentor and as a Mentee. What made the initial connection with someone work, for both of you? How did you navigate the early days of the mentorship relationship and how long did it last? Did you find it worked for a time in your life?