No-one is ever born knowing everything. Like all animal life, we enter the world devoid of knowledge, having only the instincts innate to our species after countless eons of evolution, adaptation, and survival of the fittest. But those instincts can only grant us so much in the act of survival — they do very little for us as higher-intelligence beings. Instincts can only assist survival, in near-epic troglodytic proportions.
We need teachers to help us move past mere instinct towards self-sufficiency, and self-learning. They teach us mathematics, communication, sciences, and art. As intelligence grows, we shift away from teachers, and look more towards peers — people who are similar, but have more experience. They are our mentors, ones who offer their abilities as examples for us to learn from, and models upon which we can hope to improve ourselves.
And anyone who thinks they can survive without a mentor has truly never had one.
Mentorship comes in many forms. As previously mentioned, we have teachers or professors. These are the ones most readily identified, and the ones that we often credit with success. Interestingly enough, they’re also the only "professional" mentors — ones who are trained for that very task. Also consider:
- Your manager, be it the one from your high school days at the local burger joint, or the one sitting in their office across your cubicle at work
- If you work in trades, it could be the one who’s helping you through your journeyman’s ticket
- The clergy of your church, mosque, synagogue, or temple
- Your best friends, who won’t shy away from telling you when you’re wrong
- And lest we forget the most underrated and undervalued mentors of all: our parents
In the industry that I work in — interactive marketing, with a particular focus on technology — there is always the need for mentorship. No business can truly operate without mentorship, at least not without a hope of guidance or improvement. Without mentorship, you might as well be flatlining, in all connotations of the word.
Mentorship, in its simplest form, is guidance. Every human is capable of thought, of decision, of education. But on their own, every human is going to lack the lifeguard that will help them when they start to drown. The mentor is the one who’ll guide them back to shallow water, or offer the hand to pull them to safety.
Note something particular with that analogy, too: mentorship is a two-way street. It only works if there is someone offering, and someone accepting.
Mentorship does not exist if you are looking to someone for help that they’re simply not willing to give, or have enough care to give decently (it can be argued that too little guidance is no guidance at all). Similarly, someone willing to offer guidance has no impact to someone who doesn’t want to listen (there is a blinding effect, usually tied to ego, that can drown out a wise voice). Failed mentorships can lead to breakdown in team structures, loss of confidence in team members’ abilities, and usually poor performance.
A mentor should be someone who offers insights that a person does not have. Since insights can come from virtually anyone, mentors are not bound by age, sex, creed, religion, ethnicity, career direction, relationship, educational background, time zone, or any other possible criteria that could potentially be considered a detriment or block. And there is nothing stopping someone from having more than one mentor — in fact, multiple mentors allow a person to gain multiple insights in different things.
When I moved over to Evans Hunt Group at the beginning of this year, I regained my long-time mentors Dan, Bill, and Allard, as well as one of my more recent mentors, Tori. All of them have been crucial in teaching me not just the hard skills of my job, but also the things that help my day-to-day life: organisation, calmness, focus, direction, caution, daring, courage, and even bravery.
Today, for example, I had particularly good reminder of why I need a mentor. I’m the technical lead for a large project that we’re due to deliver in about a month-and-a-half. As part of my operating procedure, I like to keep Allard in the loop of what’s going on. It’s a good practice for redundancy, but also because it’s good to get a sanity check — if nothing else, make sure that your “solution” is sound, and not going down the wrong road.
Allard (proverbially) whacked me over the nose with a rolled up newspaper and said “bad dog!” for part of an architecture. At the time, naturally, I objected to the accusation, feeling that the direction was sound and would offer the best chance of success. But — and this is where my previous note really applies — I remained open to Allard’s thoughts. It took us a while of discussion (partly because it was Allard’s gut check went off first, and it took a little while for his elocution to catch up), but ultimately I could only see that he was right — I’d made a fundamental flaw in my own logic, and actually introduced risk.
Truly, mentorship need not be a full-time occupation. A competent person will not always need guidance, and not always from the same person. Likewise, a mentor doesn’t always have time to offer. A good relationship will usually balance itself naturally.
And if you don’t have a mentor, or are at least readily able to identify them, don’t worry. Often, all you need to do is merely start talking with someone. Eventually, you’ll talk to the right person, and you’ll find the guidance you need.