“You talked about how mentors can give us space to process and share about ourselves, and can give us feedback and encouragement. I’ve always wanted that, but I’ve never had one.”
The leader who shared this with us had longed for years to find a mentor to help her grow, but instead faced only obstacles. It broke our hearts when she said this:
“Once at work, they said they’d match me with a mentor. But it ended up being really disappointing, even insulting, because they just picked the one other person in the office who looked like me, even though our jobs were nothing alike. I’d love to have a mentor, but I don’t know how to get one.”
We hear stories like this all the time – mentorship desires unfulfilled, mentorship relationships gone wrong. Perhaps there are some misunderstandings, some myths, around mentorship that we need to clear up so we can develop these incredibly helpful, life-giving relationships with realistic expectations.
Myth 1. Mentoring is a general sort of skill – any mentor will do.
Actually, we come to mentoring relationships with very specific needs that not every mentor can meet. One of the first questions we asked our friend is what sorts of things she’d like to talk about with a potential mentor. In her work story, clearly the powers that be had made some incorrect assumptions about how she wanted to develop and where she needed support. “Ah, she’s a woman of color – we need to pair her with another WOC.” Why make assumptions when we can just ask?
Of course sometimes it’s hard for the person seeking a mentor to clarify what they’re looking for. What is it they most need from a mentor in this season? Do they need someone of the same ethnic, gender and/or sexual identity who can relate to their embodied experiences in the world? Perhaps they’re looking for someone in the same life stage (or further beyond them) in terms of career or relationship with partner, parents, or kids, who can listen well and share practical wisdom. Or maybe there are particular skills we want help developing, like how to preach or how to work through spiritual trauma.
This complexity leads us to the second myth…
Myth 2: You have to find that one magical mentor.
One of the most widely read editorials the NY Times has ever published is the 2016 piece “Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person” by psychologist and researcher Alain de Botton. He makes short work of the idea that there’s only one “soulmate” out there for each of us. He also shows the devastating effect of putting too much pressure on our life partner to make us happy. Ironically, he’s a big fan of marriage – he just wants us to enter it with healthy expectations.
The same can be true of mentoring. So many of us look for a mentor who will meet all our mentoring needs, not only providing wisdom for life’s big decisions, but also the emotional support we need when facing family crises, and let’s not forget, the coaching we need around work projects. But those are three very different skill sets. Throw in spiritual maturity and perhaps another expectation or two, and all the sudden we may be looking for something on the order of FIVE (5!) different mentors wrapped up in one limited human being.
If we fall into the myth that one mentor can meet all our mentoring needs, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment – and them for failure. There are at least half a dozen different kinds of mentors that we all need to grow, in different degrees of intensity in different seasons. Next week we’ll dive into a visual, the Constellation of Mentors, that will help us make sense of this. (A new addition to the Free Downloads library!)
Myth 3: Mentors are impossibly hard (or ridiculously easy) to find.
If we believe mentors are too hard to find, we may never try. And if we believe mentors should be really easy to find, we may end up disappointed or frustrated. The reality is that finding a mentor is very doable, but it takes work and time. Kind of like any relationship.
Let’s use the metaphor of dating and looking for a partner. It helps if we come into our search with (like we discussed above) some clarity about what we’re hoping for and some realistic expectations. With those in hand, we start connecting with people. Maybe a friend helps to set us up with someone they think we could click with; that can be an incredible help. Maybe we’re just paying attention (in person or even online) to people around us with the qualities we’re looking for.
Usually we don’t start with a marriage/formal mentorship proposal; it’s better to wade in with a cup of coffee or a relaxed dinner and just get to know each other first. Similar to dating, we might strike up a conversation with a potential mentor over email or DM; we might ask if we could buy them a cup of coffee and ask them some questions about a particular problem we’re facing. Depending on how these things go, eventually we might ask if they’d be willing to mentor us, meeting with more intentionality and on a more regular schedule, weekly, monthly or quarterly.
Bonus Myth: Mentorship I pay for doesn’t really count.
We debated sharing this one, because it could so easily be misconstrued as a sales pitch (hire us, hire us!). But the reality is, there are trained professionals ready to help you grow in a variety of areas, from counselors who can help you process trauma to business coaches who can offer expert advice as you launch new ventures.
From the mentee side, in some cases you need a simple, clear, business-like process to get started with a mentor instead of a gradual, “date and see” timeline. And sometimes you really need more specialized help and the formal support structures found in, for instance, a relationship with a paid therapist.
Then from the mentor side, it’s not always realistic or honoring for people to ask them to offer their time, energy and expertise without compensation. We think here especially of the many BIPOC leaders invited into white majority spaces to share stories and give coaching on diversity, equity and inclusion, work that’s not only specialized and time consuming, but also emotionally taxing. Doesn’t “the laborer deserve their wages”?
Back to Our Friend’s Story…
We went the blind-date route in supporting her, setting her up for coffee with another friend we thought might have the desire and capacity to mentor someone, who’s just a bit further along on the journey in the areas our friend had identified as her priorities. (We’d actually approached a few other people first who very kindly turned down the coffee and potential mentorship – just part of the process!) But from their first meeting, they just clicked; they talked for hours.
It’s still in the early days for that mentoring relationship, and it will take time and intentionality to grow. But it’s a joy to watch the process unfold, to see a deep longing for sage companionship (and on the mentor’s side, the desire to make a difference in someone’s life and to pass on some hard-won wisdom) begin to be met.