Overjoyed to have a few of my adult students hand me Christmas gifts and cards during our last class in December, I set the bootie aside. I like savouring special moments. So after they had all left from that evening class, when all was quiet and serene, I sat down.
Opened a bar of dark organic chocolate I had been given. While the first piece was melting in my mouth, I picked up the first gift bag. Pulling the card out of it first because Mom taught me to always show appreciation by reading cards before opening the gifts attached to them. I slowly opened the envelope.
Upon opening the card, I’ll never forget how I felt after the shock of reading the three words “to my mentor”.
First, I laughed. Assumed the card was meant for someone else. Or that the phrase had been written in my card by mistake…maybe by someone who misunderstood the word “mentor”. Then, feeling like an imposter, I looked over my shoulder to make sure nobody else saw these words.
After having done a mini language assessment in my head of the student who wrote in that card, I was pretty sure she knew what she was writing. Then I just felt overwhelmed with humility…until it gave way into anxiety.
I knew that what I had to do was to somehow unravel the discombobulation of mixed emotion that I felt. Toward that end I knew I had to understand the true meaning of “mentor”.
I mean, I had a general sense of the word. But not an in-depth understanding that I could articulate.
What IS a mentor?
So I dedicated a half a day to Google searching. It became clear after a bit of reading here and there that the meaning of ‘mentor’ is no more clear-cut than the directions to make Mexican tortilla soup. Every region in Mexico has its own version of the soup. To say the taste of tortilla soup is varied is an understatement. The use of ‘mentor’ is similarly varied.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has the most clear, concise definition I’ve seen of ‘mentor’: “A wise and trusted councelor or teacher.” One of the keys to being a mentor is that she must have the needs of the mentee front and centre. Those needs should be a priority. They would inform the conversation mentor and mentee have each time they meet.
A true mentor-mentee relationship must be intentional as it is methodical and strategic.
As legend goes, the word ‘mentor’ comes from Homer’s The Odyssey. Odysseus had a friend who became his son’s mentor (also seen as a friend and counselor) when Odysseus was fighting in the Trojan War.
This kind of relationship is built on trust. The mentee knows at all times that her mentor has her back…and her best interest in mind. The two people don’t just get together and toss around any ideas that come up. Nope.
The conversation is intentional, the topic selected strategically. It then must develop in such a way that the mentee learns valuable lessons. Whether those be life lessons or career-related lessons, they might be delivered according to a plan prepared by the mentor, or according to what we might call intuitive-based plans.
That seems to be how some mentor-mentee relationships naturally flow. Like Oprah and her late dear friend Maya Angelou, who mentored Oprah for many years.
When Oprah says in this SuperSoul Sunday conversation on the Oprah Winfrey Network,“…what a wonderful mentor you’ve been for me, for aging with grace, appreciation, and heart. And…just embracing it,” you can guess it’s unlikely that Maya Angelou had a pre-prepared plan to deliver those lessons.
On second thought, does “role model” fit?
If you are indeed someone’s Yoda but you’re not aware of it, you more than likely fit into the “role model” category. The role of mentor generally means you spend a great deal of one-on-one time with your mentee, in conversation.
If you’re a mentor, you talk at length with your mentee about her goals and aspirations. You give strategies and advice to help her reach her goals.
On the other hand, you can conceivably be a role model without knowing it. Role models are people usually in leadership roles that other people admire and maybe try to emulate. They can be in any subject-area imaginable. Here are examples…
- technology — Madhu Narasimhan, Executive VP, Wells Fargo
- sports — Sloane Stephens, 2017 US Open tennis champion
- science — Jane Goodall, British primatologist + ethologist
- math — Shaffi Goldwasser, American MIT professor and Golden Globe award winner for computation number theory and more.
- acting — Angelina Jolie, humanitarian
- politics — Michelle Obama, U.S. First Lady; Alexandria Octavio-Cortez, U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district.
- law — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The list goes on, but you get the idea. You will have noticed all the above are female. There’s a logical reason for that.
Role models have always played an essential role in the lives of young people trying to find their path in life. Think for a minute, specifically about girls of all ages who aspire to work in fields traditionally dominated by men.
In engineering, where only 9% of the 2015 U.K. workforce were women, female role models are crucial. They demonstrate to girls that they can work in that profession. With good role models and solid support from family and teachers, girls interested in engineering will more likely follow in the footsteps of their role models.
Are you someone’s Yoda?
Even if you know you don’t belong in the same category as any of the role model examples above, you may still be someone’s role model. You may even be a mentor. If you are, though, I’m quite sure you have regular discussions with your mentee, as you build your trust-based relationship.
You might be in a position to secretly serve as someone’s role model. If you’re a teacher, instructor, trainer, or manager, for example — what might you do differently if you know you’re someone’s role model?
That day my student handed me the card with those three words “To my mentor” opened my eyes. I now try to be more mindful of my words and actions when planning and teaching lessons for my adult students.