Why we need more life mentors, and why they’re not what you may think

When I hear working professionals talk about mentors, I worry that we’ve mixed up our priorities.  What we need are more life mentors – people who cultivate a long-term interest in your development across a range of domains of our lives.  Instead, I usually hear folks talking about mentors in terms of people in your field who advise you on a next career move (i.e., a career adviser) or those who give you a leg up for promotions or new job opportunities (i.e., an organizational sponsor).  These two roles are helpful and often necessary for finding a job that you would like.  But considering these roles as “mentors” can obscure the deeper and longer-term value a true mentor can have.

The people who have helped me the most are generally older, longtime friends.  Usually, after our friendship had developed for several years, I asked them if they would become a mentor.  That generally means staying in touch once every few months and speaking as needed when a big issue comes up.  In return, in addition to our friendship, they get to share the energy that many coaches, teachers, and parents enjoy – of sharing kindness and wisdom to someone from a younger generation as they struggle to find their way.  This is what reminded me of the teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams) in the film Dead Poets Society.  In the film, Keating’s priority is to awaken his young students’ minds to alternative and empowering ways of seeing and acting in their world.

To give you a sense of life mentoring, I wanted to share a few examples of how life mentors have helped me.  Nine years ago, when I struggled to make a career leap from my medical and scientific training into other possible fields, one mentor told me, “Look, you can keeping analyzing all these paths.  But I bet, in your heart, you really know what you want to do.”  He encouraged me to have faith in my intuition.  To practice trusting myself in a deeper way than only using my analytical faculties would allow.  This led me to take a big leap and work for a consulting company that exposed me to the business side of health care, as well as giving me the chance to work in other sectors of the economy.  I learned many new skills and knowledge about business that have helped me since.

For years, I have tried to dance between two main working activities:  creating artwork that was meaningful to me (with no clear path of how to make a living from it that would support me and my family) and working in health care and business, which generally pays well and aims to help people, but can easily swallow up all your energy and free time.

So five years ago, I was at another fork in the road.  I had a chance to focus more on business leadership experience (ultimate path = executive at a life sciences company) or on my writing skills while keeping things status quo at my day job (ultimate path = writer, teacher, entrepreneur, who knows?).  I met with a second mentor about career moves I was considering, including for relatively senior positions in a few Bay Area startups.  If I wanted to become CEO of something one day, these were possible breaks for me.  I’d been getting really fired up about these opportunities and what might lay down the road after them for me.  You know – “COO now, CEO in two years” – up, up, and away kind of stuff.  And my friend said, “Look Andrew, these opportunities sound great.  But – if you’re working like a dog for some intense startup, how are you ever going to have time for your music?  Your writing?  Your wife and…maybe a future family?”  These words hit me hard in the good warm spot in my chest, and I couldn’t say much beyond, “Uh, I don’t know.”  Because of his advice, I really had to think in a new way about what was important to me.  To be clear, I’m not criticizing the startup path or a lifestyle that can work some families and employees – that’s just what he said, and pertained to the situation for me then.  Up until then, I had gotten myself worked up too mentally about options or a particular “story” of my career and how it was developing.

Two years ago, with two young kids at home, I was struggling with how to juggle it all, and particularly make sure my wife and I had enough time for each other.  For those of you who don’t have kids, basically the time you used to find so easily for going out or just talking with your spouse or partner gets crowded out by a ton of child-rearing and administrative tasks, at least for the first several years.

I asked a third mentor friend what he had found worked for him.  He has been happily married for over two decades to his wife and together they have raised three kids.  He said, “Look it hasn’t always been hunky-dory.  We’ve had some major disagreements.  We needed counseling at one point.  Then other times, something boiled over and we’d take a weekend trip – leave the kids with the grandparents – and have time just for us.  It wouldn’t be all wine and roses, you know – not all romantic shit – sometimes we had to just talk stuff out.  It’s not always pretty but you have to negotiate these things.  Otherwise nothing changes.”  He helped me see how to embrace the new challenges that parenting had presented for my relationship, and deal with it in a constructive way that prioritized trust, love, communication, and pragmatism.  I also felt relieved to hear a wise older man affirm the stresses of raising a family and share some practical ideas that worked for him.

Advice like the above changed how I made career choices or reframed stressful situations at home.  These mentors are friends who I happened to meet mostly by chance, and have kept in touch with over the years (well mostly, except for when we started our family!).  Their role as mentors has been to cultivate a friendship and give me advice when I need it.  Their scope of advice can include life’s milestones – such as marriage, birth, major illness, injury, or death – as well as finding a fulfilling balance between job, relationships, family, community, and so on.

Unfortunately, that kind of advice doesn’t usually come from a senior person at work.  What got me thinking of this post was when I read Sheryl Sandberg’s discussion of finding a mentor at work in Lean In (2013).  Of course occasionally you may meet someone who happens to work in your organization and who cares deeply about you as a person, and about your development and finding your way in the world.  But it seems like the odds are too low of finding a fit with a life mentor at work.  By looking outside a single organization, you increase your chances of finding a compatible match and avoid the bias that relates to them working where you work.  Without this bias, the mentor won’t tie your development as a human being to achieving a higher rank or supporting their political power in an organization.  Now, you might work for a mentor someday and that could be great.  It would especially work for you if you have already decided on your field and love it.  For instance, if you love computer programming, then by all means go out and find an older mentor who has thrived in computer science.  But you may also benefit from someone who understands more than just your field or line of work.  They can help broaden your perspective – having seen similar problems in other walks of life – or challenge your thinking about your career and problems (“Have you ever thought about field X or job role Y?”, or, “It sounds like you’re too worried about Z; you’re losing the big picture.”).

Many of us need to think about how we can become mentors.  There’s no hard and fast age at which you can start mentoring.  But I would say it’s important to think about it especially if you are thirty or older.  The American poet and culture commentator Robert Bly said in the PBS series by Bill Moyers, A Gathering of Men, “That’s what the young men are missing.  [the idea of a male mentor, but let’s generalize to male and female mentors]” and then, quoting the psychologist Robert Moore, “’If you’re a young man, and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.’” (Watch starting at 0:58).  The whole documentary is fascinating and I strongly recommend checking it out.  Bly suggests that before someone is truly ready for a mentor, he or she has to develop in how they view their parents.  This kicks off a whole range of other ideas that I’ll save for another time.  Watch the video for starters.

If you’re under thirty and have doubts about why you’d need a mentor, there are few reasons to consider.  One is that many aspects of life never get old – challenges like dealing with a rival at work, or a tough boss, or a unfulfilling job, or death of a loved one.  Sure an older person may not be as versed as you in social media or gadgets or sports or youth fashion, but they have been around the block many more times.  In a cultural and living-life sense, they are technologically more advanced than you are, and so you can be humbled and strengthened by accepting their perspectives and kindness.

Readers:  let me hear your thoughts.  Do you agree we need more life mentors?  Can you share a time when your life was changed by a mentor?  (note – anonymize yourself and/or your mentor if you wish).  And if you’re lucky enough to have a life mentor, how did you find him or her?

2 thoughts on “Why we need more life mentors, and why they’re not what you may think

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