Monday, December 22, 2008

To Mentor or Not to Mentor?

"We hate to have some people give us advice because we know how badly they need it themselves."
-Anon

That truly is the question sometimes, isn't it? We all love to have little proteges and successful mentees who can claim that one of the reasons they rose to greatness is because we helped them. We gave them the advice they needed in order to succeed! We pointed them in the right direction! We provided them with the knowledge! Everybody wants to have a positive impact on the world, and many times that positive impact is made through helping others out who don't have the wealth of information in the countless crevices of their mind that we do. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. We all need people to look up to: parents, teachers, instructors, bosses, older siblings (although that's debatable at times), etc... But where the issue comes up is this: who chooses who is the mentor and who is the mentee?

I was talking with a friend a while back telling them about my aspirations to be a novelist. They asked what I was up to, listened to about two things I said, then proceeded to give me advice on how to succeed.

Whoa. Let's take a step back.

I tuned out almost immediately. This is a person who is not in my field, has no idea about the publishing industry or current trends among readers, and they think they can start giving me advice? They've never even seen my work! (although if they did they would probably want to give me MORE advice!) I was amazed at the audacity of this person. No shame. No self-doubt about their own self-righteousness. Those are dangerous characteristics in any person. Humility...what an underrated quality.

There are times and places when it is appropriate to give advice. I did some thinking and here's what I came up with:
  • When, inherent in the relationship, it is obvious who is the wiser (teacher, parent, instructor, tutor, boss, older sibling...sometimes, etc.)
  • Among close friends who mutually respect one another
  • When someone makes one of the dumbest mistakes you've ever seen - and doesn't realize it
  • When it's asked for
Yeah, that's really all I could think of (add more in the comments section, please!) . Advising someone is a very delicate issue sometimes. I've found that it helps to ask if you can give advice before you give it. Because in situations like the aforementioned unwanted (and unwarranted) advice-giver, people can react very negatively.

I've been a mentor to a few people throughout my short life. But never have I forced my mentoring onto someone. OK, I won't lie, I have once or twice only because it was apparent the person needed some guidance and they didn't know to whom they could turn. They thanked me profusely afterward so I'm pretty sure I wasn't wrong in my judgment. If my advice went in one ear and out the other, so be it. I'm over it.

That's the conundrum of the mentor/mentee relationship, though. The mentor doesn't choose the mentee. The mentee chooses the mentor. Just because we want to mentor someone doesn't mean they want to be mentored by us. It's almost like a process of natural selection. People go for advice to those with whom they feel most comfortable, and will slowly weed out the "mentors" whose traits are not as agreeable. Mentees tend to be a lot pickier than mentors, and there's good reason for that. Because one component above all else is necessary to a successful mentor/mentee relationship: the will to listen. Not just hear, but really listen.

If someone doesn't want to listen to what someone else has to say, they won't. That's their choice, naturally inherent upon their birth, to not listen to someone. Free will is a beautiful thing, isn't it?

I've been in a couple programs where mentors have been assigned to mentees. It rarely works. Once in a great while a great relationship will come out of the woodwork, but that's too rare to say such programs are successful. Because the other 95% of the mentees who get mentors they're not so agreeable with will lose out. Thus, why I've become a staunch opponent of formal mentoring programs, as one of my friends can readily tell you.

There's too much aesthetics involved in mentoring that you can't quantify it into a formal program. Too many variables, too many personality traits that throw the equation off. In order to succeed, people have to rely on their instincts. On their gut. On their intrinsic sense of the natural combination of logos and pathos.

So don't force yourself on someone just because you want to be a mentor. If you come across an appropriate time and place to give advice (i.e. a blog!), offer it sparsely until it's requested that you give more, or you feel it's necessary to that person's, or the organization's, success...or, as stated before, when someone makes one of the dumbest mistakes you've ever seen - and doesn't realize it. You may not be anyone's mentor until you're well on in your years, and that's fine too! We weren't all born to be mentors. Or you could look at this way: maybe we are being mentors much of the time without even realizing it, only because people take lessons from us on what they DON'T want to do or how they don't want to act or who they don't want to be.

Yeah, try quantifying that.