The Value of Mentors

I am of the mind that nobody does anything for free. Everything that humans do is motivated by something. True altruism, in my eyes, does not exist. This is not a cynical point of view (I promise), but a realistic one. From seemingly altruistic tasks like volunteering, assisting the elderly, and donating money, we get positive emotions, feelings of pride, and tax breaks.

When Odysseus left for the Trojan war, he left his son, Telemachus, in the hands of his long-time friend, Mentor. Odysseus also left his palace to good ole’ Mentor, so free rent was part of the deal. Mortgage payments aside, Mentor had an enormous, selfless and largely altruistic task: training and caring for Odysseus’ son. This task came to define a relationship that we now understand as Mentorship: an experienced colleague passing knowledge to a less experience colleague free of shackles, judgment, and removed of personal gain.

If there is anything purely altruistic in this world, my experience with many amazing people has taught me that mentorship might be it.

From my third grade teacher, to my piano instructor, to my football coaches, to the physician lead on our psychiatry team, to the business mentors that believe in headversity, I am always blown away at the generosity of time and spirit that mentors lend. My constant worry is then that I would somehow unknowingly take advantage of or over-extend my welcome with a mentor. To prevent this, I have come up with three general rules that have served me well, and kept my mentor relationships healthy.

It can’t be forced

There is a large movement in the workplace to have assigned mentorship, which is something I just don’t believe in. Mentorship can’t be forced, and you typically know it is a good fit or not within the first two minutes of sitting down for a coffee. The main questions that you need to ask yourself when seeking mentorship are:

1) Do we like each-other?

2) Can we comfortably share our knowledge, insecurities, and new ideas with each-other? 

3) Is this person somebody I look up to in my space?

If it is a firm yes to all three of these questions, then you are off to the races.

Don’t exploit, be explicit

My continually worry is that I am ‘using’ my mentor for my personal gain. Well, I have come to realize that this is exactly what a true mentor wants. They want you to be good, thrive, and dominate your space. My tool to allay my worry of exploitation is to state explicitly what I can get out of the relationship and what is out of bounds: e.g. “My goal is to extract as much knowledge from you in this field as possible…is that ok with you?” or “I would love to have access to your entire rolodex, knowing that isn’t possible, please let me know what connections you can lend me, and what is off limits”.

Multiple mentors is not cheating, but don’t be a mentor collector

Invariably, I have found that my mentor relationships turn into very close friendships. This brings up an interesting quandary: Do mentors who are in a competing space become competitive through you? Would they be jealous? A true mentor is never jealous of any networking or connecting that you do. However, I think it pays to be loyal to your loyal mentors. You’ll be better off in the long run. Also, it pays to tell your mentor who, and for what reason, you are connecting with others. It never hurts to say, “I had coffee with so and so the other day to ask her about this and that”.

Where would be in this world without our mentors? Our world is one of new knowledge, new ideas, and new processes. New, new, and new. I think, however, that success is built on ideas that have been around for a thousand years: Knowledge transfer, loyalty, connection, and trust. These ideals aren’t going anywhere and they are most beautifully exemplified in a true mentor relationship.


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