My friend and former colleague, Rebecca Petzel, wrote a sweet and thoughtful blog post about mentorship, social entrepreneurship, and her experiences at Groupaya. Truthfully, I got a bit teary when I read it. I mean, she called me an “elder.” That’s just wrong. I’m still in my 30s, for pete’s sake!
In her piece, she said something that troubled me (besides calling me old). She wrote, “What breaks my heart is that most in my current town seem to look their noses down on the opportunity to learn from those with more experience.”
I often feel the same way, but I hope it isn’t true. Perhaps it simply doesn’t occur to people to seek mentorship. Or maybe they’ve had bad experiences dealing with people “with more experience.”
A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Advice for (Female) Changemakers.” My second recommendation there was, “Find your people,” and I alluded to a story about forming the advisory board for Blue Oxen Associates back in 2002.
One of the people I approached was Richard Gabriel. I didn’t know him personally at the time, but I had read many of his writings, including his classic essay, “Worse Is Better,” and his book, Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community. It was the latter that made me reach out to him. I was interested in applying Christopher Alexander’s notion of pattern languages to collaboration, and Richard was one of the pioneers who had introduced these concepts to the software engineering community.
So I invited him to coffee. Richard turned out to be brilliant, thoughtful, eclectic, and very kind, exactly the kind of person I wanted to be around and learn from. Toward the end of our conversation, I started drumming up the courage to ask him if he would serve on our advisory board. Despite his gentle demeanor, I was very nervous. Richard was accomplished; I was not. Worse, I had no idea what I was doing, and I could barely explain what the company was supposed to be about. These did not seem to be ingredients for success.
But I was there, and he was there, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever have another opportunity to do this face-to-face. So I asked.
Richard said, “Yes, on one condition.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That you actually reach out to me for advice.”
It turned out that others had asked him to serve in similar capacities, but that they never bothered reaching out to him. And he didn’t see the point of being on an advisory board if no one asked him for advice.
How simple and wonderful is that?
To this day, I have no idea why he was willing to say yes, and I’m not sure he knows how much that and his subsequent advice — which I asked for many times — meant to me. But I had concocted many complicated reasons in my head for why I shouldn’t reach out to him and why he wouldn’t say yes. Fortunately, I ignored those voices in my head.
Unfortunately, those voices still talk to me, even today, and it’s a constant practice for me to ignore them. So if you’re seeking opportunities to learn from others and if you’re hearing similar voices in your head, I hope you’ll ignore them too, and ask. And if you’re wanting to mentor others, don’t assume that others will come to you, and don’t get cranky when they don’t. Invite people to learn with you.
(Here’s my invitation.)
I have been extremely fortunate to have had many mentors in my (still very young) life. It’s something that I continue to seek, because it’s such a valuable and meaningful way to learn. A few years ago, my friend, Katherine Fulton, was observing the many mentors in my life, and she said, “You’re starting to reach the age where people are going to be reaching out to you to mentor them.”
That made me start reflecting on the kind of mentor I wanted to be. I’m still figuring it out, but here’s what I’ve got so far:
Be humble. More specifically, don’t assume that your experience makes you better or smarter or wiser than anyone else. Experience is a great teacher, but you have to be a great student. As much experience as I have, there’s even more that I haven’t experienced. That will always be the case. The best mentors never stop learning… from everyone, young and old.
Be open. Mentorship is not about molding an army of young people into clones of yourself. With experience often comes rigidity. I’m determined to fight it, but I know it’s a losing battle. I’ve shared a lot of my thinking and experiences with Rebecca over the years. Some of it, she’s taken to heart, and some of it, she’s rejected. That’s a great thing. Whatever she chooses to do with her life and her career, it’s going to be great, and if I’ve managed to contribute to that in any positive way, I’ll be grateful. Moreover, I’ll have the opportunity to learn from the things that she chooses to break away from.
Be caring. As much as I’ve learned from all of my mentors, the thing they did for me that meant more than any of that was to care about me. I’m overwhelmed with emotions every time I think about this. I would have failed a thousand times over without their moral support, and I’m not sure I deserved any of it. What I can do is pay it forward, to look after those around me without expecting anything in return.
Understanding the importance of caring has been my greatest lesson so far. But, I’m still learning.