Great mentors

We talk a lot about finding mentors. If you find a great mentor, it opens new horizons. If you are a great mentor, you change lives and make a difference. Yet we seldom discuss the qualities of a great mentor. This article is partially inspired by what you can read here, here, here, here, here and here.

Where do we find great mentors?

Great mentors are all around us. We do not have to do anything particular to find one.

We will have many teachers at school. Some will be stupid, evil, worthless or simply average. Yet some will be great in what they do. These teachers not only explain their subject but prepare their student for the challenges of the adult life.

If we are lucky, our first boss will be our most important mentor. He will explain to us what needs to be done and how to do it, will open before us our first real opportunities, will follow up on our progress, and eventually will take us with him as he gets promoted. Such sort of luck is not rare when we consider top level talents, but very uncommon otherwise. Maybe one of the reasons some people achieve more than others with similar or better skills is this presence of a great mentor.

Occasionally, we will find mentors in unexpected positions. Someone who is very young or very old and holds unimportant position may have the unusual knowledge, experience, and intuition that make him a great mentor.

The scope of mentorship

Our parents are the first mentors we get. When we are children we learn from our parents everything about life. We fully depend on our parents for our survival, well-being and initial attitude towards life. Occasionally, we try to copy one of our parents to the extreme of Oedipus complex. The intensity of the relationship increases the psychological rink and complexity of the bond.

When we go to school we often have two sorts of mentors. There are those exceptional teachers with whom we connect, and then there are our classmates whom we find fascinating. While teachers may have the knowledge, ability to channel our curiosity and life experience, the classmates have something very different: attitude. We learn from our teachers, but we model our behavior after our classmate.

Later in our life, we often find yet another sort of mentors. Being human, we are very good at some things, but not so good in other things. Fortunately, we can always find someone very successful in things we do poorly and learn from him. Being fully developed individuals, we carefully select which approaches, attitudes and behaviors we want to copy and why. However, we are imperfect and copy more: sometimes the good things, and sometimes the bad.

The antimentor

When we really dislike someone or fiercely compete with someone, some strange mentorship often takes place. Taunting can be accepted as teaching, and we do copy behaviors that can improve our competitive position.

Mentoring is not always guided by love. Probably intense focus is a better definition of the required condition. We do not have to learn under mentor’s guidance or copy mentor’s attitude.

One of my friends hated his authoritarian father. In fact, he has done everything to be unlike his father, working very hard to achieve this. He went to a therapist and said that his father has no influence on him. “On the contrary”, the therapist said, “look how deep the influence is: you changed tour entire life to become different”.

Typical mentor qualities

While there are many sorts of mentors, a typical example of a mentor is a good boss.

  • Experience. A good boss often has more experience both in life and in the specific job you are doing. He always has tips that you cannot find in any book. If you get stuck and do not know what to do, he will be able to solve it: by listening, telling an inspirational story, or by his personal example.
  • Empathy. The concern about your needs is a part of deeper connection a mentor and a protegee often share. A good mentor is capable of motivating and guiding you through personal conflicts.
  • Value system. We unintentionally copy the values of our role models. When these values are aligned with the system where we need to function, we are better adapted to our role. If our mentor is negative, confused, opportunistic or rebellious, it can confuse us and make our life much harder.
  • Growth mindset. A great mentor challenges us to take hard tasks, learn new things and become greater. He also is eager to learn himself.  The growth mindset has many manifestations. Sometimes we will be coached into a leadership position. Often there will be a common creative brainstorming and planning session. Daydreaming and strategizing are very common. And sometimes we will get a hard challenge worth our efforts.
  • Good communication. The connection between a mentor and protegee is often a very deep one. Some of it is very professional, polite and focused on the subjects being discussed. Another part is very open and personal, focused on the way we feel about different things. And there is also non-verbal communication of caring and support.

Complex experience

Great mentors are rarely simple figures. Some of the things that generate deep understanding and unique experience are hard and controversial. The best mentors combine different forms of experience, which is rare and valuable.

Have they struggled before?

Quite often our most important experience comes from our struggles. Someone who was always lucky and successful is not as interesting as someone who faced adversity and survived to tell a tale. Humility and wisdom are welcome results of multiple failures. If you fail, and struggle and rebound, who will understand you better than someone who faced similar challenges? If you suffer, who will help you better than someone who suffered from similar issues, and then used them to grow?

What kind of success they had?

Some sorts of success are consistent. They result from a deep understanding of the universe and ability to work with it. Accurate planning and execution, multiple small successes that culminate in a large success are very good signs.

Other sorts of success have to do with great risk and luck. Some people try many things and fail constantly until one of the things tried works like a magic. This thing that works then becomes a success formula and is preached to everyone. In this scenario, we see a lot of belief and excitement, but very little understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

Hands-on experience or theoretic knowledge?

Some people have years of hands-on experience and can show how to face new challenges. They can adapt their tools to our need. We can learn to copy their attitude. Quite often they will be unable to explain what they do that works, but we can usually learn without such explanations.

Others have a buzz: theoretic knowledge, experiences of working with other very successful people, connections, influence. People with theoretic understanding can send links, listen to our issues and tell their associations, brainstorm with us.

Are they interested to invest and learn?

Great mentors are eager to learn. We do not follow them just for their past experiences. Their current struggles and the face they face them are equally interesting. People who stop learning quickly become irrelevant. Deep motivation and commitment to growth are contagious, and we want to be near people with these qualities.

Grit, interpersonal strength and growth mindset

When asked what makes people successful, these are the most important core qualities. Other things are easier to acquire. We can learn new things or get expert help. Alternatively, we can try different things until something works. If we believe that determination and hard work will solve our challenges, we will continue trying. And we do need friends and advisors, otherwise, we may find ourselves looping through imaginary challenges.

Training vs evaluation

Some people think that constantly measuring our performance is the key to improvement.

Evaluation is important, and it can show us some aspects of the situation. It does not always fix our problems. This is like complaining to a therapist about a problem, only to hear the therapist say “Stop it!”.

Training often involves complex issues: like root analysis of motivations and failures, step by step analysis of our actions, and focused improvement of various aspects of our performance.

Knowing the key performance indicators may focus on the direction of the investigation, but will rarely allow accurate troubleshooting. Very different problems may have similar indicators. Moreover, if we know a problem this does not mean that we understand how to solve it.

Competition with a mentor

Top performers are better than their trainers. The top athletes easily outperform each of their trainers, yet they listen to their trainers much more than the beginners.

The mentor does not have to outperform us, he needs to see things we do not see and guide us to success.

Occasionally mentors have inferior motives, as they compete with us. Consider working with someone in a team. You learn from the teammate, and you help each other. Yet, if someone is promoted, you compete with your teammate for the positions.

We trust our mentors, but this trust should not be unconditional. Mentors are people too. They have weaknesses, they may get jealous. Their interests may be different from the interests of their protege.

There is a special pride of a student overcoming the teacher. This pride is definitely not the only emotion the mentor experiences.

Should you look for a mentor?

We do not really have to look for mentors. This relationship is very natural and very basic. It usually happens without us looking for it. We work with bosses and experts and coaches. Our peers always have something we can learn from. There are mentors everywhere.

Not all mentors are equally good. Once we find a mentor that is great for us, it is our responsibility to make this relationship work. It is a pity to lose a great mentor due to pride and neglect.

We should also be infinitely grateful for the mentors we had, and try to become equally good mentors for others.

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