Speed Up Your Learning Curve: Get a Mentor
BY PETER URS BENDER
o you're looking for a mentor. One of the very few things you won't find listed in the Yellow Pages. What is a mentor, anyway? A trusted counsellor or guide-and you may already have one or more, although you might not realize it. The name comes straight out of Greek mythology. Mentor, a friend of Odysseus, was entrusted with the education of Odysseus' son Telemachus. So each time you call someone Mentor, you are, in effect, referring to Odysseus' friend. There are three kinds of mentors, and not all of them may involve finding an individual to become your personal guide. There is mentoring through: 1. Birth, 2. Association, 3. Self-discipline. Before we get into details, why should there be a need for a mentor at all?
Formal education is important but it is only the tip of the iceberg we call "experience". It should supply you with the fundamentals to face life. But the basics-reading, writing, and arithmetic-simply give you skills to cope. They don't tell you when, where, and how to use those skills. Your education also won't take into account any of the complex social situations in which you're likely to find yourself. Hence the need for mentors.
Your guide or guides may have held your hand through the difficult steps of your first assignments. In business it could be anything from your first cold call to your first report to senior managers. In your private life, you need mentors, too. When your first child arrives you're looking for a lot of help, whether you're a man or a woman.
But the assistance likely won't end there. If you have selected your mentor carefully, he or she will always be on hand to consult when difficult tasks fall on your desk. Your mentor will help you step neatly through the minefields of corporate politics so you can avoid becoming entangled in the difficulties that befall beginners everywhere. Your skills may be tops, but your reading of the situations in which they are to be employed may be something less than perfect.
That's one of the major roles of a mentor, in fact-to help you avoid the pitfalls you probably won't see due to lack of experience. It's no shame to make a mistake. But it's humiliating to fall into a trap when you simply didn't see it. All of us have to learn, and making mistakes is part of the process. But a mentor can ease the way for you. I believe one of a mentor's greatest roles is to help you see where the traps are. You may still fall into them, but at least you were forewarned. And the experience will help with your "What Happened?" analysis later. It will hopefully sharpen your vision for the future. And it will also save you from making the same mistake twice.
The result of mentoring will speed up your learning curve. It also helps to enrich learning. You will acquire a much wider range of experiences than you likely would achieve otherwise. So how do you find this magical person, your personal mentor?
Mentoring by birth
Remember, when you were conceived you were already the lucky sperm-9,999,999,999 didn't make it! But if you are a very, very lucky one, and a member of the privileged class, you'll find your mentors in your family. Let's take a concrete example.
Bill Gates, today the richest man in the world, was skinny, shy, and awkward as a child. But his parents were dynamos in the Seattle world of the 50's and 60's.
Described as "overachieving," Gates' father powerfully built, and 6'6" tall, was a prominent Seattle attorney. His mother served on charitable boards and ran the United Way. While he showed enormous talent for math and logic, young Bill, a middle child, was no one's idea of a natural leader, let alone a future billionaire who would reinvent American business. Yet think what influence Gates' parents must have had on him.
We don't have the intimate personal details, but there is no question that Gates' parents would have been role models and mentors. While still in high school, for instance, Gates and a friend wrote a scheduling program for the private school that they attended. It also, coincidentally, placed them in the same class with the prettiest girls in school. This was at the time when computer programming was the province of scientists in white coats tending building sized machines. At the same time, the pair founded a traffic-analysis company for Seattle. Gates must have taken advice from his father about such a venture at such a young age. Today, Gates' fortune is estimated at $54 billion. And his mother's influence is still strongly at work.
He has earmarked $1 billion over 20 years to establish the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. He has promised another $750 million over five years to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which includes the World Health Organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, UNICEF, pharmaceutical companies, and the World Bank.
There are dozens of other examples where families played an important role in the mentoring of their children, particularly in politics. One has only to think of the Kennedy's, the Churchill's, and Margaret Thatcher. In our own country, Paul Martin, the Minister of Finance, has a strong family tradition of mentoring, and Martin has no doubt learned much about the art from his equally famous politician father.
Even when money and power are not major factors in the mentoring process, the encouragement is there. Michelle Kwan, the remarkable, young US figure skater, did not come from a wealthy background. Her family is typical middle class. But it has always backed, encouraged, and guided her in figure skating activities, including the selection of mentoring coaches. She is the first to say that she could not have done it without their support.
Comedian Jim Carey, today one of the highest-priced actors in the world at $20 million per project, had very humble beginnings here in Toronto. His parents were janitors, but fostered the talent in their son over and over again.
Teachers also often act as mentors. There is a certain validi-
© Peter Urs Bender
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