The dictionary meaning of the word mentor does a disservice to the act. It is merely described as “advise or training” offered by an experienced practitioner to an inexperienced one.
But mentoring is more — in its cultural meaning as well as its social expectation. Mentoring is generally understood to mean a privileged sharing of experience and insights. These maybe have been culled from a lifetime’s work. Or maybe from a few years’ practice.
A mentor generally sees a mentee as someone they have substantially contributed to. And someone they have at least tried to help in growing and developing further. Most times a mentoring episode will lead to positive results but sometimes it will lead to negative ones too. If a mentor is interested in cultivating a disciple more than actually contributing to a younger practitioner’s ability to be a more effective creator, then the results are not going to be very encouraging.
Originally the concept of mentoring was used more in the arts and in problem solving. But today the concept is applied to a wide range of different areas like business and craft and agriculture. This proliferation of the concept is both good and bad. It is good because the role of mentoring is seen to be practiced in a wide range of disciplinary areas. It is bad because not all instances of what is called mentoring is in fact mentoring.
So that brings us to the main question that this text seeks to answer: what is mentoring?
Mentoring consists of many of the following modes of communication:
- Advise — give suggestions about choices, options and actions.
- Train — impart knowledge to perform specific processes and tasks.
- Challenge — push the mentee towards their next developmental stage.
- Question — ask the mentee to articulate and contextualise their choices.
- Nurture — identify the mentee’s strengths and encourage them to do more.
- Listen — patiently receive all the stories and updates about the mentee’s journey.
- Teach & Learn — mentoring is a two way process. Both teaching & learning take place.
- Seek — mentees as well as mentors are individuals who are seeking things.
- Inform — mentors keep mentees informed about professional formats & standards.
- Correct — mentors correct the communication, projection and planning details of mentees.
But more than a kind of communication, the relationship between a mentor and a mentee is of a very specific kind. A relationship that does not carry many of the risks of a traditional friendship. The roles to be played are pretty specific, there is not much of a scope for the short-circuiting of the relationship and for it to morph into something else.
Some of the reasons for mentor-mentee relationships to go wrong:
- Self-obsession of the Mentor — the mentor might see the mentee as an extension of their own self and expect them to mirror their attitudes and opinions.
- Lapses By the Mentee in Acknowledging the Mentor’s Contributions — a mentee not acknowledging or respecting the mentor’s contributions in their growth and development can become a potential for a serious conflict.
- The Relationship Becoming a Space for Favours Being Exchanged — here ethics seriously start getting compromised. The exchange of sexual favours is plain illegal too.
Why are mentors interested in mentoring?
Learning and sharing are linked. Sharing tells a practitioner what they have learnt. On sharing, practitioners learn to differentiate between the knowledge that they have gained from what others have shared. And the knowledge they have synthesised. Differentiating between the two is important. The former describes the strength of the bonds an individual has with the community at large. And the latter describes the individual authority as a practitioner. Authority can produce megalomania if not counter-balanced by ties to the community.
What do we refer to as the community here?
By the community, we mean to gesture towards the guides, seniors, teachers, family, lovers, peers, students, neighbours and others who support, obstruct, instruct, nudge, challenge, question or motivate us through the long, twisted and full-of-uncertainties creative journey. Our community and how we engage with it decides the degree of our eventual success or failure.
And by starting mentorship networks on our own, we contribute to this critical degree. Hopefully the degree of success.
We seek mentees, examining who fits and deciding which are the relationships we want to commit to and which are the ones not. Mentors of course frequently have desires of their own. They want to connect with practitioners who receive from them. Insights from a creative life need to flow. Ideally, they will to be received by someone who will then blend those insights with their own unique process and synthesise something new.
If I cannot share, I feel an indescribable burden which does not let me be in peace. It is important for a mentor to find a mentee who makes sense of what s/he has to share.
What do mentees get from the entire mentorship process?
For a long time before I had an urge to share, I had an urge to receive. I searched actively for a mentor. The search itself guided me to become who I have become today. The search for a mentor never got completed in my case because the eagerness with which I searched reduced over time. I gradually developed stronger roots in my practice and became self-directed.
The goal of any mentorship process should be this. To walk the mentee towards a point where they can distance themselves from the act of creation enough to be objectively passionate about it. Being objectively passionate means to be able to do what is needed. Even if it feels to be an undesirable thing.
After a successful round of mentorship, a mentee should feel more in control of the multiple threads of their practice. More control means a greater degree of openness to constructive criticism and advise. Such a practitioner then is able to let the world at large be a mentor of sorts. Multiple people play the role of a guide and a mentor for such a practitioner then. They are able to draw inputs and guidance from different sources as needed.
Are their intrinsic qualities inherent the role and the relationship of the mentorship or is it qualitatively defined and it is upto the mentor’s personality, perspective and orientation?
Mentorship is a very structured activity and especially in the context of the creative field, it has very specific format specifications. But not every mentor follows the format or even knows the format while still using the word and the framework of the structured activity. This produces inconsistencies and discrepancies in the understanding of the concept.
Some of us understand mentorship to be a very helpful and transformative experience? Some of us do not.
The Potential of Reliable Mentorship Experiences and Communities
Mentorship is one of the few open cultural interfaces that we have left. It has still not been appropriated by institutions or the market. There have been attempts but they have largely been failures. Maybe intrinsically we realise that to view mentorship through a transactional lens, is to stem an instinct that flows freely in the culture and context that we live in.
The potential of reliable mentorship experiences and communities in our society can mean that self-development will not be a privilege. A greater diversity of practitioners will then be able to realise their personal goals and milestones. If we do not look at larger implications and stay focussed on just mentor networks, we can easily see at least two effects:
- Seasoned practitioners will face a less bleak and isolated mid-life when they find the focus of the field has shifted to the younger practitioners
- Young practitioners will feel a sense of connection and a sense of family & community in their field of practice
One size never fits all. It is time to recognise that the empty and tall promises of educational institutions, that are but an extension of the industrial free market system, are fulfilled partly by mentors who share freely of their experience.
The traditional systems of generational, peer and communal learning have been dismantled under the banner of modernisation and free/democratic access to pedagogy. It is true after all that not everyone is able to find an appropriate mentor. Why is that?
Potential mentors do not meet enough young practitioners.
Potential mentees do not know or get an opportunity to meet enough seasoned practitioners who are open to mentoring.
Everyone who has successfully completed doing something on their own should offer to mentor someone. Every young practitioner who has spent a few years understanding what they do and what they want to get better at doing should seek a mentor. But how?
In an earlier article I had proposed a model of collaboration in which the young and old collaborate together. “Collaboration is a form of mentorship,” is a claim that I am making here. Whereas mentorship is pre-dominantly understood to be what it does for the mentee, collaboration is understood in terms of how both the collaborators gain and learn from the experience.