The Key to Mentorship

Celebrating being left in the dust.

Posted Jan 25, 2019

Deborah Cabaniss
Source: Deborah Cabaniss

This week, I heard from a mentee whose career is skyrocketing. She is traveling the world, getting recognition, and being offered incredible opportunities. “Hey Dr. Cabaniss!” she sang from her e-mail, “Thank you so much!” As a mentor, this is about the best news I could get. Here’s someone I’ve known for years — really since the beginning of her training — who is doing spectacularly well AND letting me know that I had something to do with it. Wow! It made me feel good — very good — and very happy for her. But I also felt something else.

Left in the dust!

One of the complicated things about being a mentor is that when you do the job well, particularly with younger people, you help them learn from your experience. You may help them­ replace you. Or even surpass you. After all, the aim is progress. The younger generation has to go above and beyond. That all sounds well and good until that moment when the person whizzes by, leaving you in the dust. I’m unlikely to ever have the opportunity to do the things that my mentee is getting to do and, as a mentor, that should feel fine. But even professional mentors are human, and it doesn’t always feel so good. Just think of the chaos that ensues in King Lear as people attempt to move power from one generation to the next.

I’m convinced that this is what makes it hard to find a good mentor and to be a good mentor. As a younger person, I had mentors who seemed like they were 100% in my corner until that suddenly changed, leaving me mystified. What happened? Looking back, I think that it was all going well until I started to advance. Then mentors who seemed like avid supporters disappeared, or worse, became frankly adversarial. “They’re envious,” said my friends, as we discussed similar experiences. “They feel you nipping at their heels.” “I’ll never do that,” I told myself. But now that the shoe is on the other foot, I realize what a truly tough job being a mentor really is.

As an academic, I frequently get manuals and instructions on how to be a good mentor. Yes, I should meet regularly with mentees. Yes, I should help them connect with other mentors. Yes, I should help them to outline their goals.  But I think that the most important thing I can do as a mentor is to be aware of my own feelings. In his classic paper, “The 8 ages of man,” Erik Erikson notes that the crisis of middle age is “Generativity vs. Stagnation.” Stagnation isn’t a young person’s problem — beyond physical growth, there is inherent movement in everything about being a teenager and young adult. Everything is new; everything is advancing. But that changes at a certain point. We settle into relationships and work, and, even if they are going well, they aren’t necessarily new or growing. But our mentees are forward motion machines. The very fact that the mentor is established — an initial plus to the mentee — ultimately threatens the relationship as the mentee’s trajectory moves into parts beyond.

Much like parenting, mentoring involves both the thrills and perils of watching someone grow. If done well, we make ourselves obsolete. We are simultaneously proud and diminished, excited and anxious. Will we continue to grow? Who mentors us? Can we continue to cheer as the parade goes by?

So, beyond the usual “how to mentor” guidelines, here are some tips for surviving and thriving as a mentor:

1. Own your feelings. Feeling jealous of a mentee? Wondering why you never had the opportunities they seem to have? Don’t deny the feelings; own them. They are a natural part of the process. Moreover, not allowing yourself to have them may lead you to act out in ways that could be deleterious to your mentee or your relationship.

2. Get support. Talking about these feelings with other mentors is critical to being able to contain them so that they don’t intrude on the good work you are doing with your mentees.

3. Stay generative! Ultimately, the best defense is a good offense. While we want our mentees to grow and surpass us, there’s still plenty for us to do. We might not be doing what they are doing — and that’s fine — but staying excited about our work is essential to being able to mentor someone else.

4. Understand what mentorship is all about. If we mentor for the wrong reasons (for example, because we want to be powerful or adored) we set ourselves up for disappointment and risk the whole enterprise.

So, fellow mentors: Celebrate being left in the dust. It’s evidence of a job well done.

References

Erikson, E. H. (1966). Eight ages of man. International Journal of Psychiatry, 2(3), 281-300.