Who is a mentor? It is someone who is your guide, confidant, coach. The term originated from the ancient Greek epic Odyssey by Homer. Mentor was Telemachus’ teacher and guide in this story of quest and self discovery. Over time, the word ‘mentor’ has come to represent a trusted advisor who guides younger and less experienced individuals.
Where do we meet these guiding souls? As with Telemachus, our immediate environments— family, education, work contexts– provide us with opportunities to find mentors. Remember the grade 3 teacher who encouraged you to participate in elocution contests and nurtured your confidence? Or the family friend who regaled you with stories from her profession and opened your eyes to the world of work?
I still remember meeting Henry in my MA thesis advisor’s office. Henry was her newborn, who accompanied her to university as she balanced professorship with the demands of parenthood. Going through my own balancing act between work and family many years later, I reached out and benefitted from my professor’s wise counsel. In a way, mentors are our own “personal board of directors” who provide a sounding board through twists and turns in our life.
The Merriam Webster dictionary provides an interesting alternative definition for “mentor”: a neutral person who holds up a mirror to us because of being detached. With the benefit of hindsight, I appreciate the many mentors who have done just that for me. And they belong to diverse groups in terms of age, gender, geographies, beliefs. Sometimes they might not even fit the classical definition of a mentor.
Take my peers from school and college, for example. We have scattered in different directions, and are living in different parts of the world with different lifestyles. In that sense, we are detached- and can hold up the mirror to each other without bias. Some have reached their professional goal as a straight path; others have taken detours, breaks, and yet others are engaged in self discovery all anew. Some married young and have kids who have started college; others have toddlers or kids in primary school. We have questioned each other’s priorities and argued about the merits and demerits of various decisions. And now, looking back, I realize how we held a mirror to each other, tested our convictions, and grew together.
As we weave the strands of our personal and professional journeys, let us be open to mentors from all walks of life. Let them guide and counsel us, hold up a mirror to our successes and imperfections, and above all, let them provide the tools– sometimes the yarn, sometimes the seam, sometimes even the loom– and lend strength to the fabric of our unique stories.