The “lone creative genius” - the lone wolf who innovated on her own out of her sheer talent and grit. It’s still a portrait that biographies, biopics, and media attention perpetuate. Those legends have an air of truth, but it’s never the whole story. Some legendary geniuses - O’Keeffe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald - had mentors along the way.
I’ve studied mentors in different fields, have been mentored in different fields, and have been a mentor in different fields. What I find fascinating about mentors is when they show up in people’s lives and what they do psychologically at their best.
A conventional definition of “mentor” is a wise counselor or teacher or a senior supporter. Not all counselors, teachers, or supporters are mentors, but most mentors likely counsel, teach, and support.
Mentors know the path ahead from experience, possess field-specific knowledge, and have accrued guiding life principles. Mentors hold a vision ahead for you, walk beside you, nudge you from behind, and get out of your way.
A mentor offers both explicit and implicit guidance. Explicit in field-specific craft, field-specific strategy, career or life path guidance. By implicit guidance I mean the wise mentoree picks up on signals about how to think and thrive, to create and relate, and live and love among other things. Many influential mentors are not only accomplished experts or innovators in one or more fields. They also are models for how to live (or not) within and outside of those fields.
Mentors tend to show up at two critical junctures.
When Georgia O’Keeffe was 25, she almost quit the idea of becoming an artist. With her father’s death, she vacillated on whether or not she should stay at home and find a more conventional, well-paying job. Yet, one mentor after another showed up. She audited a summer course in art and design at the University of Virginia - the first time women were permitted to take courses there. Her professor exposed her to the philosophy of painter and educator Arthur Wesley Dow, whom she later studied with in New York.
The professor saw in O'Keeffe great unrealized potential within and encouraged her to take teaching positions in the outreaches of West Texas - a landscape that so inspired her vision as an artist that she would return on the other side of the state border in New Mexico years later to find her home. Just as she was shaping her distinct vision, Alfred Stieglitz entered her life. Stieglitz became one of Georgia O'Keeffe's first influential champions and then her confidante, lover, husband. He was her mentor. He showed up - or, rather, her paintings showed up in his hands “mysteriously” - at just the right time in O’Keeffe’s life.
A young Hemingway had Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, and especially Gertrude Stein as mentors. Each of them offered the inquisitive and unknown writer clear guidance, philosophy, and connections. And then his new friend F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced him to Max Perkins, senior editor at Scribner’s.
Perkins once wrote that an editor is little more than a humble handmaiden to the author, but he was much more. Perkins played to his clients marriage counselor, career advisor, confidante, even money lender. He was their quiet mentor. Perkins is sometimes credited with having innovated and elevated the field of literary editorship to this degree of mentorship.
These examples show that mentors typically show up when a person is new to a field or endeavor. They’re curious. They’re ready. They’re receptive. They’re willing to work, to test things out, to fail, and to keep working.
This is the emergent stage. This is the first stage where we need mentors to show up.
But our climate is different in the early-21st century. With seismic shifts in the global economy and with rampant innovations in digital technology, four fundamental things have shifted:
All of which contribute to other big cultural shifts:
All of which means this: Mentors also show up at a second stage, a pivotal transition stage. This stage sometimes requires a similar yet modified way of mentoring than the emergent stage.
At both stages, mentors can contribute in many important ways to a creatives’ or entrepreneurs’ growth and mastery.
Since I started writing about The Apprenticeship Gap a few years ago, I have seen evidence of a resurged interest in mentorship in business, education, and the arts. Further studies in effective mentorship and mentorship programs could help us adjust to a very different climate of learning, mastery, and flourishing than the 20th century legends faced.