First, let me say it is truly a delight to be interacting with you all about this topic. Thank you, Stephen, for this kind invite to chat with everyone about my MythBlast. Let’s get into it, shall we?
Indeed, one does not apply to be a mentor. It is a calling, for sure. However, I believe far more are called than answer the call. I think this is especially true in Western cultures. Numerous indigenous cultures in Africa and South America continue to practice a structured form of mentorship, which we often lack. However, as a society becomes more Westernized, and especially individualized, I believe we see less of it. In the United States, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, our “leisure” time for pursuing activities that are not related to either entertainment or capitalism or both, have dwindled further and further. I believe most people are open to the idea of mentoring someone else, if not for two key reasons. 1) They believe they don’t have the time and don’t want to commit to it. 2) They believe they really don’t have anything to offer. I am suggesting that 1) our willingness to mentor has far greater impact on someone than the content of what we might have to offer and 2) we seem to make time for the things we really believe to be important or desire to do.
I have given a bit of thought to your question about our ability to mentor without knowing it. I think the answer comes down to how we define the term “mentoring” or “mentor.” While we might give someone wise advice or helpful knowledge, which is great, I think the type of mentorship that is most transformational is intentional. It is recognized by both parties. It likely even has some sort of loose structure, even if that is as simple as a monthly coffee date. I know that I have considered individuals a mentor to me without them formally recognizing that role, but I also believe the relationship and thus “mentoring” would have been more powerful had they been able to commit and acknowledge that role. I am not saying that unconscious mentoring can’t or doesn’t happen or that it isn’t valuable. It is just not the ideal that I believe is most powerful and that our culture needs more of. It can easily come down to a question of semantics, but I long for mentors that are intentional about their guidance in my own journey.
The differentiation between a mentor and a teacher can easily become another issue of semantics. However, I would offer a few thoughts to consider. In many ways, I believe being a mentor is more about who you are in someone’s life than what you do for them. There was a process in different historical moments where a “master” would sit before a “class” with his (unfortunately for history, it was usually a “he”) back to the class and paint or sculpt a creative work. The apprentices or students would sit behind the master and create the exact same work, mimicking the master’s actions. There is something inherent to teaching that involves asking someone to either mimic something that has been previously demonstrated or to imitate a method that has been demonstrated. I recognize, as a teacher in higher education myself, this is greatly reductive, as ideally learning is about creating a sense of understanding in the student that goes far beyond mimicry. However, this type of learning is usually, at least initially, based on mimicry (often through the medium of memorization). In my opinion, mentoring is different from teaching, as what is “taught” is not done through activity. It is instead, as I’ve mentioned, more about who someone is — which may involve unspoken issues of character and wisdom. A teacher shows a student how to solve a problem. A mentor may very well only share their experience of how they once incorrectly tried to solve the same problem. This said, I had a number of “mentors” in my years of public schooling that were more effective at preparing me for life than some “teachers.” But I am grateful for the teachers as well. I needed to know the teacher’s lessons as well as the mentors. Again, this can easily become a matter of semantics, but the roles have been quite different in my experience. I think we as a culture have a great number of (both vocational and non-vocational) teachers (who are usually under-appreciated and certainly underpaid) but we don’t have enough mentors.
I look forward to interacting with you all on these ideas and others that you will undoubtedly bring to the table!