Mentor Shmentor

You’re working at a new job and you’ve been assigned a mentor. You’ve never had a mentor before so you honestly have no idea what to expect. In your first meeting, the mentor asks you about your goals and general questions to get know you, which you found somewhat intrusive for someone you never met. As the months go buy, you all continued to schedule regular meetings and do get closer over time, but don’t really talk about much work. You don’t feel the need to ask for advice very often and when you do, it’s more to just make small talk. You’ve always heard that you need a mentor to be successful, but is it really necessary? What is a mentor supposed to do really and are we sure they aren’t overrated?

First Some Definitions

We implicitly get that mentors are supposed to guide us, give us direction in some way, but how is that any different than the various similar roles like “teacher”, “coach”, “advisor”,  “counselor” or “role model”? If we ask the professionals, these are all completely different roles. Let’s take a look at them and decide for ourselves.

“Teachers” help someone to learn / understand by example or experience. Anyone who teaches others holds an important role of passing on knowledge and experience. Generally however when we speak of teachers, we don’t expect them to be a confidant or figure out what a student needs outside of the subject in question. Yet, if we reference ancient Greek texts, we’ll find that Socrates, taught Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander the Great. All of whom had a significant impact on philosophy and various subjects today. The significance of Socrates to Plato and the rest was likely much more than what we call a “teacher” today, for better or worse. Were they really “mentors”?

“Coach” as it relates to someone who trains others to accomplish certain tasks or goals, is a more modern term that didn’t exist until around the 1800s. According to R. Hendrickson, in his book “Word and Phrase Origins”, coach was used as a slang term by students to refer to a tutor who carried others through the exams. Even in the various contexts today, coach is a very hands on term that infers they must have a very detailed perspective and involvement to help others meet certain goals or tasks. Yet if we look at the best coaches, Phil Jackson, John Wooden, the players often considered them more than a coach, a leader, a teacher, a mentor.

When we think about “Advisor”, it usually is in the context of someone highly specialized in a particular topic. The King’s advisor, the PhD advisor, the advisor to the president on policy, etc. The point of the advisor is to help with specialized issues, to provide input on a particular topic. An advisor we wouldn’t necessarily think of as someone to teach or coach us; we’d just expect assistance and feedback as it relates to a topic that they are well versed in. Warren Buffett as a “financial advisor” because of his expertise in financial investments for example. It’s likely however that some advisor’s could easily end up in a more broad trusted role, like a mentor. The only catch is that it would seem out of place to use the term for a president, King or CEO; instead we say “advisor”.

A “Counselor”, we usually think of someone who is providing advice on a personal level. In general, it’s used to describe someone who is trained specifically to give advice and help others with social or personal issues. While their advice could also act as a form of teaching or coaching, it’s usually used in more on the personal side. Yet as with the rest of the terms, the best counselor’s could easily fall into the mentor category again. For example Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet is called a counselor or advisor, but considering he was a “Friar”, that is much more down the personal, moral confidant side of the fence. When used in other context like a King’s Counselor, it ends up being pretty synonymous with “Advisor” however.

“Role model” is more of a term describing someone’s outlook more so than a relationship or interaction. If we see another as a role model, we mirror or take the actions they make and incorporate them into our own life. The role model themselves wouldn’t necessarily have anything to do with us or even know us. The main point is that something about the role model is appealing and drives others to want to take after them and do what they do. “Influencers” for better or worse are ultimately being role models because they capture the attention of everyone and implicitly influence others to be like them.

Definition of Mentor

Finally let’s get back to what a mentor is, as we’ve seen Teachers, Coaches, Advisors, Counselors all can be considered a mentor. But their job alone isn’t necessarily enough to be one. “Mentor” traces back to at least ancient Greek in Homer’s Odyssey where Mentor was actually the name of one of Odysseus’s friends. Mentor’s key role in the text was Odysseus’s son Telemachus’s guardian and tutor. Mentor’s role lines up pretty well to the generally accepted definition, which is someone experienced and trusted to train or counsel those less experienced.

If we look at all the other definitions we went over, mentor arguably takes on more of a personally invested role than the rest and has more experience, which are the most distinctive factors. The fact that Mentor in the Odyssey was Telemachus’s guardian says it all. A mentor in the Odyssey perspective takes a deep interest in the protege for a reason that is generally beyond money, fame and business networking. Maybe they see potential, maybe they care because some other common bond, but in all cases there is supposed to be a trusted and dedicated connection.

Success and Mentorship

The problem is, there are plenty of people who we trust and are more experienced that may not actually be a good mentor. Just because they have more experience and want the best for someone doesn’t make them a good mentor. Our parents for better or worse may act as our mentors and can easily steer us astray not because they don’t have our best interest at heart, but possibly because they just don’t know what’s best for us despite their experience.

Mentors aren’t required to be successful. Yet, if we plan on opening a restaurant, how nice would it be to have someone who has done it already to talk to? We could fill the gap with an advisor, but will they know us enough to tell us we should open a shoe store instead?

The fact is, having the right mentor could sky rocket success. So could advice from anyone who knows a lot more in a particular field. However, having someone who is dedicated to us in our corner that has that ability isn’t easy to come by. Would we really know a good mentor from a bad one if we aren’t experienced? Not really, that’s why “grooming” or being negatively influenced by those with more experience can happen so easily.

The Bottom Line

Most people won’t be willing to dedicate themselves to someone else without really getting to know them. Just like deep friendship doesn’t usually happen overnight, neither should a mentorship. In fact many notable mentorships seem like friendships that happen to be with someone more experienced in a particular area. The friendship view, is only one perspective and there are plenty of professionals that can go much more deep in the psychology and different types of mentors, just as we can with teachers, coaches and the other roles discussed.

However, to answer our initial question at the start, no we don’t need mentor’s to be successful. We do however need to learn from other’s experiences in a way that we understand and resonate with. That can be with books, videos, teachers, coaches, advisors, friends and the host of other people and experiences along the way.

Of course life would be much easier if we had a billionaire mentor us in their field. But most of us don’t have that luxury and doing everything to network, hunt and find one is likely not the answer. Instead, simply have patience, chase your passion, enjoy improving and find others to talk to about it and the rest will fall into place in due time. If it doesn’t, at least we would enjoy the journey along the way.



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