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Alex Lickerman M.D.

How and Why to Find a Mentor

How choosing a teacher changes the student.

Photo: Wonderlane

First, in a true mentor-disciple relationship, the mentor, contrary to what many believe, is not intrinsically superior to the disciple. Human beings have a tendency to conceive of all relationships in terms of power and authority: all of us tend to think of other people as either superior, equal, or inferior to us. A mentor-disciple relationship, on the other hand, functions optimally only when both mentor and disciple consider themselves fundamentally equal. If they don't, the greatest hope they share—that the disciple will surpass the mentor in accomplishment—will almost certainly never come to pass. For a disciple to learn most effectively from a mentor, he must resist the impulse to place the mentor on a pedestal and himself at the mentor's feet, because if he refuses to believe that he can become as great as the mentor, he never will. Though almost by definition a disciple is inferior in knowledge and experience in comparison to the mentor, in their degree of commitment to achieving mastery and creating the most value possible with their skills, and most importantly, in their commitment to accomplishing their shared mission—whatever it may be—a disciple must be, in every way, the mentor's equal. They must fight side by side, never one behind the other, or one for the other. That way lies subservience, ego, and failure. A true disciple shares the dream of the mentor as his or her own.

Interestingly, a disciple need never tell a mentor he considers himself that mentor's disciple for a mentor-disciple relationship to exist. In fact, mentor and disciple never even need meet. The disciple is the one who creates the mentor-disciple relationship simply by observing the mentor, by making the mentor's mission his or her own, and in so doing, learning from the mentor. Nor does the length of the mentor-disciple relationship determine its impact on the disciple. I once observed an attending talk for five minutes with a disgruntled patient in a way that simultaneously made the patient feel heard, blunted the patient's anger, and instilled confidence in the patient that he would be all right. For those five minutes, that attending was my mentor and provided me a lesson I have never forgotten, one that still informs the way I interact with patients to this day. A mentor-disciple relationship, in other words, can come into existence over even a brief glance, or a single, quietly-spoken word. Everyone has something to teach us. Everyone has the power to inspire us. It's the attitude of the disciple that creates the mentor-disciple relationship, not the attitude of the mentor.

Choosing a mentor with whom we establish an active and enduring connection, on the other hand, brings a benefit not seen in momentary mentor-disciple relationships: trust. In feeling trust in a mentor, we open our hearts in a particularly important way: we become willing to listen to him or her in a way we aren't willing to listen to others. When our mentor speaks, we automatically prepare ourselves to receive value. We therefore open ourselves to change. We relax our biases, our attachment to our ego, and tend to absorb even negative feedback in a constructive way, thereby opening the door to the possibility of genuine self-improvement. Thus the greatest benefit, in the end, to choosing a mentor is the way it opens our minds to hearing difficult truths and makes possible our growth in a way no other relationship can. So we should all choose our mentors wisely. For that choice will bias us to believe what we hear from them. So what we hear from them had better be the truth.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.


About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.