After a talk I gave recently on leadership, I was asked “How does one go about selecting a mentor?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “whether you pick a fairly young mentor–a human work-in-progress, or an Old Soul–someone who gives off a scent of ancient wisdom. The key to the most worthwhile mentoring relationship is to seek out an individual who understands what compels you to action.”
I recognize that anyone’s mind is a cloudy pond, difficult to fathom. It is a sea of emotions, with currents flowing deep at many levels and in every direction. Since we now understand that decisions are to the greatest extent based on input from our emotional brain–the one that tells us to eat that ice cream cone we probably don’t need, but also the brain that makes us loyal, compassionate, and protective of those we love. Our decisions, it turns out, get relatively little input from our rational circuitry–the part of our noggin that chides us for eating the ice cream cone but also helps us plan our future, figuring out how to save for our kid’s education. So mentors are most effective when they have insights into our particularly characteristic emotional instincts, those that centrally motivate our individual decisions. Those that can in a split-second run us off the tracks.
Having said that, perhaps the greatest mentor of all is “your story”–all the experiences that have been indelibly spray-painted onto your consciousness. We are, after all, designated witnesses to everything we scan–all the competing interests that are played out in the workplace, during years of life with our families, or through the sudden acts of perfect (and imperfect) strangers. In that respect, my advice is simple–pay attention! Take the time to understand what is happening around you and to you.
If you go into a meeting and one person’s position prevails over another’s, you need to understand why. You may learn that lots of things are done before they are done. Was one player’s case better prepared or more persuasive? Did he or she prime the pump by giving the decision makers an advance copy of the presentation so they could become comfortable with the proposal? The interrogatories are endless. But ask those questions of experience; don’t shy away from the expense in time, research, or depth of thought.
My friends, our lives are a mural of tutorials not to be ignored and not to be–sometimes with great self-sacrifice–erased to a greater or lesser degree! Think of the huge expense in labor and time any large city must go to expunge a 15’ x 50’ spray-painted mural in day-glo orange, Caterpillar chartreuse, grape, black, and silver on a cement wall next to the subway tracks. That’s a similar cost to what we have to bear to erase insights-strong messages written on our mind-mural by the ever-generous hand of experience.
One final piece of advice: the value of a mentor is that he or she is directed to your problem from a different angle from yours as they impose “their story” on your predicament. So don’t be surprised if accepting a mentor’s advice reduces the size of the hat that’s been sitting comfortably on your skull. Many years ago I was considering a new position; in most respects it was an exciting opportunity. But I convinced myself that the proposed starting salary was inadequate—“I’m worth more than that,” I knew. I called up one of my mentors, told him all the particulars, and then started to whine about the salary.
My learned friend listened for a few moments more, and then asked me a question I’ve never sought to erase from my mind-mural, my story. “Sandy,” he said, “did you ever consider that that is what you are worth?” I paused, thanked him for his attention to my dilemma, and meekly hung up. The next day I signed the offer letter and accepted one of the best jobs I have ever held!