Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mentorship Musts


Scott Greenfield, an interesting lawyer, has some words of advice for new lawyers. Among other things (including a dispute with a new lawyer marketing practice), he discusses mentorship. Potential and current mentees in general - but especially Aspies and autists - should pay very close attention to what he says here:

The first failing of mentoring is that you need continuous and reliable supervision. Mentors are there to help you out when they can, meaning that they have their own lives and work, and you only get as much of their busy day as they are willing to give you. Trust me, you do not come before their children. Maybe not even close acquaintances. You may be the center of the universe to yourselves, but you may not be to the mentor, and they are not prepared to sacrifice their lives and times to convenience you.

The [mentee] has a million questions. Answering a million questions takes up a lot of time. This is time that could otherwise be spent by the mentor earning money and representing clients. Something has to give. Guess who that something will be.

Second, the mentor may be supportive, but supportive isn't necessarily honest. Someone has to tell you when you screw up. Someone has to tell you that you blew it . Someone has to tell you if you don't have what it takes. But whoever that someone is, you're not going to like it (even if you think now that you will appreciate it) and you will turn on them. The mentor has no reason to invite your angst. The mentor is doing you a favor, and while she may be happy to help, she isn't happy to argue the point.

Similarly, when there are too many questions, demands, issues, DRAMA, the mentor may quietly slip away, appeasing you by agreement while dying to get off the phone or avoid that cup of coffee. You may need answers. The mentor doesn't need headaches. Your needs and the mentor's needs are not coterminous, but you won't see it until the mentor refuses to take your calls anymore.

So if mentoring is so fraught with issues, why do I recommend it? Because there aren't any other options, and as much as it may be flawed, it's better than nothing. If the [mentee] bears these failings in mind, and conducts themselves within appropriate limits, it will facilitate the benefits of mentoring without invoking the problems. Of course, it's not easy for a [mentee] to perform such a metacognitive assessment, or to recognize other people's limits until it's too late.

Also, a mentor who is not very busy is the equivalent of the proverbial cobbler whose children go barefoot and the proverbial chef who's out to lunch. There are many more people who would love to run their mouths and tell other people how to run their lives than there are people who actually know what they are talking about. And the latter is not even a subset of the former - at most there's some overlap.

I'll just share a bit of my experience; keeping in mind the distinction I just made, if you've had good results doing something else - congratulations!

  • Good mentors need significant life experience. They don't need to be much older than you. But people who haven't had serious crises in their lives yet (a bad breakup or two, parents or other close relatives divorcing, recovery from an emotional or physical disorder or violent crime, the need to support oneself or at least have a job on which one has had conflicts and learned something, rethinking one's major or career choice, that kind of thing) simply don't have the perspective to help you.

  • Humility is essential. On the one hand, the mentor, by definition is not your equal. On the other hand, a mentor with ego problems and no sense of the limits to one's competence is a frightening thing indeed. Look for a mentor who's willing to occasionally say things like "As far as I know...but I could be mistaken since I haven't done that much," "A better person to ask would be...," - and especially "I made just that mistake, back when...." That last also shows the mentor takes responsibility for one's own life. Don't take on a mentor who always explains one's own conflicts and problems in terms of what the other person did.

  • Along these lines, the value of a given piece of advice is not necessarily related, and sometimes may be inversely related, to the eagerness with which it's offered. Truly humble people hesitate to tell others what to do, recalling their own errors and misjudgments. Everyone wants to influence others to some extent, and a good mentor wants to make a difference in your life for the better. But you need a good competence:will to power ratio in your mentor.

  • Perhaps mentors can be friends, but they should be people with at least a bit of detachment. For one thing, someone who likes you too much (or senses the reverse) is going to be reluctant to tell you the hard stuff, like Mr. Greenfield said above. For another thing, people who feel that close to you can more easily turn on you if you've offended them - or their friends or associates - enough. A more detached person will be more likely to give you a heads-up in time since one doesn't emotionally turn on the proverbial dime.

  • You don't need to tell your mentor everything, but do be absolutely honest in what you do say. That's less of a problem for us, but it bears noting. For one thing, trust lost is likely lost forever. For another thing, the mentor should know if you're an Aspie or autist. That way, one will know to turn up the honesty meter on you - and thus not to assume that a hint missed was a hint deliberately ignored. One can interpret many of your behaviors better, too.

  • If the mentor suggests doing something that you have difficulty with, respond that you'll give it careful consideration. And do just that. If you've seriously thought it over and still can't or won't do it, explain the situation. And such situations should be few and far between. Otherwise, there's a problem of one sort or another. And that problem may very well be your self-overestimation.

  • Last but not least, mentors need to be reasonable successes in their own lives. This goes back to the cobbler and the chef. They don't need to have been class valedictorian, Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard grads at the age of 20 with their own multi-million-dollar businesses whose names are household words and who have different dates every night. But people who can't help themselves are in no position to help others. Someone who can't hold down a job (and who isn't too old or disabled to work), whose schedule outside (or even inside) of class is as wide open as the Grand Canyon, who has no close friends or family, and/or is a nonrecovering alcoholic or drug abuser, likely is worth one thing to you - an excellent example of how not to live your life. At arm's length and preferably beyond.

Meanwhile, here's a mentor-in-a-book: Ben Stein's How to Ruin Your Life. His views on evolution and other things may be controversial - his life credentials are not. Also check out this commentary. (After I finished the book, I wondered if Mr. Stein had researched it by examining my life - a feeling which no doubt many readers have shared.)

What do you think?


Tanya @ Teenautism said...

Hi Jeff,

This is a good discussion on mentors. I've had the same one for eleven years (my boss) and have really benefitted from the relationship.

Best wishes,

StatMama said...

I think you make a lot of good points here, Jeff. For a mentorship to work, it definitely needs to have at least the majority of points you've outlined. Good post!

SavedAspie said...

Great points! The point you made about mentors not necessarily being friends is essential- because too often we reject what could be a powerful mentoring relationship because of personal dislike. The man who taught me some of the most essential lessons to success in my "day job" is someone I still can't stand. Yet I thank God for placing him in my path, and for the wisdom to realize this man had something to teach me.

Would also like to note that you can have more than one mentor- one for each aspect of your life in which you are tring to improve.