The other day my boyfriend and I were discussing the importance of mentoring. Even though I work for a mentoring program, this was strangely the first time this topic came up. And even more bizarre—I wasn’t the one that brought it up. He felt he has never had a mentor, never had someone take enough interest in him. All great people have had a person they consider a mentor. More so, I would even believe that mediocre people have had someone help get them there. So the idea that no one has been your mentor…well, that thought alone is depressing.
When I am training high school students to be mentors to elementary school students I always start with the question, “What is a mentor?” Most fumble around with words, twiddling their thumbs, and looking rather nonchalant about this “mentoring business.” But eventually they come up with wonderful answers to what a mentor is—a role model, leader, a friend, someone to talk to, someone to listen, someone to guide you, a teacher, a coach and someone to show you what’s right. When we define mentor like this it’s harder to think of ourselves going it alone. We are not simply trudging our way through life as no one has before. Someone, somewhere has done something similar to us. When my boyfriend asked if I believed my supervisor at work was my mentor, without hesitation I said yes. But had you asked me the same question last year, about the same woman, I would have not been able to say yes. It took me a while to realize what a mentor was. More than that, I had to understand who I was. I had to ignore my screaming ego that shouted, “You are unique! You are special! No one is like you!”
In order to see the mentors I had around me, I had to see that I needed guidance. If you do not admit to yourself that you need an extra hand, then you will not see the resources you have at your fingertips. All throughout high school and college I was a good student. Extremely bright, but terribly stubborn. I was offered help and support from teachers and professors, but my ego told me help was for those who were struggling. And I was not struggling…yet. What I was struggling with was the idea that someone was perfect or ideal, and that I could look up to him or her as a role model. Pessimistically, I found flaws in those that would have been mentors. Perhaps this was a way for me to continue to be the solo adventurer I fantasized I was. Ultimately I could not admit greatness in others. I wanted their greatness, but did not want to share their knowledge. It was self righteous and competitive. The essential problem with my stubbornness and fabulous ego was that when I eventually needed help, I was too guarded and barely knew how to ask.
Luckily for me, I opened my eyes to the wonderful minds around me. It began with asking my parents for more than financial help, enlisting their wisdom in new ways. Then as I began the stage after college, the dreaded “real life,” I began to seek advice from co-workers, program managers, etc. I began soaking up information like a sponge. I went from not wanting to ask a single question to not being able to ask enough. I humbled myself and admitted that I was not yet invincible. There was so much I didn’t know, that I learned from my mentors. Whether or not I am a special and unique person, I am not the only one that experienced a terrible middle school, awkward break-ups, unfortunate wardrobe choices, or a life-changing experience. Thankfully, I am where I am today largely due to the people who have influenced me on my way. I had mentors long before I thought I did. Looking back on my young life, I called upon my mentors (whether they knew it or not!) to guide me through strange and confusing times.
A mentor can be a favorite author, whose words spoke to your heart. Or they can come in the form of a teacher, who helps you see your potential. Mentors are often are own parents, as we learn both what to do and what not to do. What’s important to know about our beloved mentors is that we cannot make them perfect in our minds. Trying to find the perfect mentor will leave us missing out on our best teachers. Just like we hope they accept our faults, we must expect that they will have faults as well. What we can do is take the best parts of our mentors and grow from there.