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.

Sturdy Wings from Role Models
Spoiler: they are terrible role models and Sue Silvester runs Sturdy Wings. Hilarity and terrible things happen.

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:

mentor visual diagram
Note: men can also be mentors

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.

facebook grandma
My grandma went cray-cray once I helped her get set up on facebook.

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.

  1. Listen- people, especially young ones, just want to be heard
  2. Observe- get to know your “charge,” find out what s/he dis/likes, look for red flags
  3. 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!
  4. Be real – people know when you’re being fake, and we all want more authenticity in our relationships
  5. 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.

mentoring youth
This is what a +2 Cloak of Mentoring can look like.

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. ;)

By Dormouse

Bilingual (and a half) white girl who spent thirteen of her formative years in Africa. She is a writer, mentor, coffee drinker, wife, cat owner, language lover, photography dabbler, aspiring speaker, and a lifetime student. She keeps her writing going over at

13 replies on “Mentoring”

A year or so ago, I found myself wondering if we outgrow mentors. Do we just reach an age where mentors cannot be found and are not really needed? After a year or so of reflection, I think that we never outgrow the need for mentors because life is just too damn complicated and filled with too many varieties of experience.

I really appreciate your candid discussion of mentoring. It inspires me to look for ways to become that person, the one who gives back.

I started working my first ‘adult’ job at 19 and consider myself to have been incredibly lucky to have had a great first boss. He was a good mentor and a great friend — he gave me away at my courthouse wedding, that’s how close we became. I still measure all bosses to him.

I’ve felt that I could use some mentoring at this point in my life, where I feel sort of at professional/personal crossroads. This was a great post to read, because it articulated (in reverse) what I should be looking for in a good mentor. Thank you!

One of the other great things about  having a mentor is the transitive property of belief. I’ve been in lots of situations where I wasn’t sure I could do something, but my mentor believed I could. Since I believed in my mentors, I ended up taking it on faith that I could do what they said I could do. In almost every case, I ended up doing what I didn’t think I could do.


I experienced the reverse of this at one point. A mentor of mine lost belief in me, and I was startled to discover that I lost belief in me, too. The silver lining was that I learned to create a self that was somewhat confident beyond the opinions of others, but that experience impressed upon me the weight that we give these mentors in our lives, sometimes without even realizing it.

Yes! I’m currently preparing for a performance with several other women. For most of us, this will the our first time on stage, especially doing what were doing. One of the interesting things Ive noticed is that my mentor (who leads the class and who I’ve taken classes from before) is all about openly saying ” this is going to happen. it will be fabulous. i believe in you”  is that I’m starting to believe it (SCIENCE!) even though it as taken me a very long time to build that sort of confidence.

But a good mentor will also bust your ass when you need it – its half positive reinforcement and half challenging you to move beyond  what you expect of yourself.

Mentors = manna from heaven.

I have a fantastic mentor (*cough*Selena*cough*) for a really big project that I have no experience in and was ill-equipped for. If not for having someone to walk me through the tough parts, and assure me that what I was doing was, indeed, a possible thing, I know for a fact I would have given up and never followed through.

I’ve mentored a few people in various things I’m good at, and it’s a really satisfying process.

This is great! I’ve been lucky enough to mentor a handful of great people, and I’ve benefited from the wisdom of many of my own mentors.

Part of my 2012 plan for this blog is to find myself a mentor, and it’s proven to be more challenging than I thought it would be. Do you have any advice for reaching out to potential mentors? Everything I try to write sounds either pretentious or kiss-ass, and I can’t rock either of those looks.

The way I usually go about it is, I find someone I really admire, and I try to go out of my way to talk to them. It’s a lot easier for me in-person, which you probably can’t do with this…but I’d probably sent an e-mail that says something like:

Hello, I run this blog, it posts on X topics, and it’s relatively new. I really enjoy reading your blog, and you have a strong community. I was wondering if you could give me tips on X.


Obviously you don’t have to say the things I do concretely mention, but that’s the sort of thing I try to do.

For instance, earlier today I sent an e-mail to someone who I’m trying to network with at a university I’ll probably apply to when I’m ready to go to a PhD program in a couple years. The e-mail was basically, I’m such and such, we met at this conference, I was wondering if you could give me references for this thing you talked about in your talk because it’s highly relevant to a paper I have. I also ended up explaining briefly why it was relevant and what I’m trying to do.

That situation is a little different since I already went out of my way to talk to this person when she was at my university (and I am far more comfortable networking with someone I’ve already met in person and thought they were cool), but it has the same basic ideas. You mention who you are, why you’re contacting them, why you think they can help you out, and what you’re trying to do.

You don’t necessarily have to self-aggrandize too hard, especially since, in the blog’s case, if they’re curious about it, they can come look for themselves and see what it’s like!

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