Trigger warning: some discussion of depression, suicidal ideation, and child abuse.
You may be familiar with a comedy that came out November 2008 called Role Models. If you are unfamiliar, know that it was Jane Lynch being hilarious before she immortalized Coach Sue Silvester on Glee. In the film, two energy drink salesmen (played by Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott) end up going off the deep end and earning themselves community service. They opt to be paired with two troubled boys in a sort of Big Brother/Big Sister type of program called Sturdy Wings.
I’m not here to recommend this film, although it made me laugh so hard that I cried, but I think it’s worth noting that when we think of being role models or we think of these types of programs, we end up with cheesy stereotypes. For myself, I’ve seen many different sides of mentoring relationships and the pros and cons that can go along with it. I’ve worked in leadership from the age of 19 until now, working with children, adolescents, peers, and those older than me. In this, I have had the opportunity to see how others lead, to learn how to lead, and to see how I like being led and how I don’t.
So what is mentoring? The Visual Thesaurus breaks it down like this:
You have a wise wo/man who becomes a mentor to another person or group of people with the intention to teach and instruct and possibly to learn something as well. Often, that learning develops from the interactions between mentor and mentoree. (OK, that isn’t a word, but I’m not sure how else to say it.) That is, many people learn how to be better leaders by being, well, leaders. However, I know that when I have acted as a mentor, I have learned from those who I am mentoring as well. I don’t know everything; thus, mentoring can be a very humbling experience.
There are many kinds of mentors. They can be personal or professional. At my last job, my mentor was the manager of my department. She had been in management positions for her entire post-collegiate career, so much of what I learned as a supervisor under her came from her past experience.
Mentoring can be directed from old to young, from peer to peer, and even from young to old. Have you ever coached your grandmother how to use facebook? Congratulations, you became a mini-mentor!
In my life, I have had many different mentors, some intentionally so and others not. For example, my mother has had a huge impact on my life, and even though we have nearly opposing political views today, everything I know about hospitality, keeping a home, and being a mother* comes from her influence. I had a best friend in my high school — a boarding school in Kenya — who often reasoned me down from my emotional highs and whose voice I still hear in my head when I’m losing my temper or getting butt-hurt over something small. In college, I had several professors who cared about me on a personal level. When my choir director found out that I had been abused as a child, he sought me out after class to ask if I was OK and if I had seen a counselor to deal with it, referring me to someone locally and following up with my overall mental health throughout the rest of my time in college. That mattered immensely.
There are many reasons to take up this cloak of mentoring (+2), but allow me to break it down on a spectrum of selfish reasons to selfless reasons. Reason 1 (selfish): you will grow — a lot — as an individual. Reason 2 (somewhat selfish, but leaning towards selfless): you will be investing in the future of your society, wherever that may be. Reason 3 (selfless): you can change or even save someone’s life. Without the various influences on my life during my last two years at university, I would most likely not be writing this article for you. I struggled with horrible depression and suicidal ideation, and if people had not come alongside me to encourage me and support me while pushing me to really sort things out, I would have given in to my dark thoughts. For those people, I am forever indebted and inspired to “pay it forward” and help others.
Now that we’ve discussed what mentoring is, who should mentor, and why one should mentor, we reach the final points of how to mentor. I’ll list these briefly as they are fairly self-explanatory.
- Listen- people, especially young ones, just want to be heard
- Observe- get to know your “charge,” find out what s/he dis/likes, look for red flags
- Never condescend- people know when others are speaking down to them and children/youth pick up on this quickly. If you don’t respect them, they won’t respect you!
- Be real – people know when you’re being fake, and we all want more authenticity in our relationships
- Encourage and mold- encourage good behaviors and challenge your mentorees
That’s not too complicated, right? See, it’s my firm belief that anyone can be a mentor and that everyone should contribute to society after this fashion. I used to think that I couldn’t be the kind of person that I am today, that I didn’t know enough about leadership or that I wasn’t strong enough to hold up another’s burdens, but then one of my mentors — yes, I have been blessed with many! — told me that in order to be a leader, you only need to be one step ahead of those you are leading. You don’t need to be perfect or have everything figured out in order to lead someone else, you just need to have walked ahead of them.
I will end with this, Persephoneers: if you are already mentoring someone, I commend you wholeheartedly! If you haven’t mentored someone yet, please consider putting on that +2 Cloak of Mentoring and making a difference in someone else’s life. You don’t need to make it your full-time job, but consider joining a program that allows you to meet with someone who needs a role model. Maybe your friends have young daughters that need someone to look up to. The need is all around us, I ask you to look around and to make a difference.
*Note: I am not yet a mother, so we’ll see how much I really picked up from her at that point. ;)