What Nobody Told You About Being a Mentor

Emotional investment in the ‘learning-life’ of someone can be daunting.

Regardless of how it may be termed, being a ‘mentor’ of any sort, becomes a constantly-engaging, unpaid occupation; but one that everyone should consider.

Why would anyone want to become a mentor? Useful skills should be shared. It likely makes for better humanity, better living, a better world. On many occasions, I often wish I had a definitive answer, but I do not. Because it is ‘the right thing to do’, seems somehow hollow. Call it altruism, maybe.

The altruistic side of me comes partly as a result of parents and grandparents who had a keen sense of Appalachian survival skills: One shares everything useful, because one never knows when one will need the same sort of assistance. Yes, it is rural and old fashioned. It’s out of style in most of the ‘civilized’ world, but it’s as much a part of what constitutes the person I call “me” as bones and sinew.

If I run across something I believe to be useful to someone, I share it. I have no need to debate it or give it much thought at all. I drive my recipients nuts.

The other part of the reward is simple gratification. By earning the better grade, writing the better paper, making a larger impact, your students, learners, interns, or however you term them, make mentors feel better about their own life and work. Simply that. I could be maudlin and wax poetic about the twinkle in the eye of a learner when the “Aha moment” is experienced, but those occasions are rare, and not useful to this writing. I will arbitrarily use the term ‘intern’ for the remainder of this piece.

In many writings — and certainly in educational discussions — it is no secret that ‘higher education’, at least in the U.S., has become a lastingly-expensive process of cumulative student debt, which delivers frankly little reward for the effort and expense of taking the diploma. I have seen much more castigation than praise for our overly-expensive and generally-ineffective teaching institutions. You will note I use the term ‘teaching’ rather than learning, because traditional methods dutifully practiced by colleges and universities show precious little interest in student learning. Mentors can fill a gap, maybe just with life lessons, which most educational systems omit from the course catalog.

I fully believe the buzz line now popular that says, “We are teaching students to take their place in jobs that do not yet exist.” The rest of the statement also needs to be, “And we will continue to use ineffective methods to this end.” I also believe the best thing we can accomplish is encouraging students to learn how to learn, how to read, listen and think critically, how to understand cause and effect and to understand how they may fit into the grand scheme of their world.

Not everything about being a mentor is pleasant. It is routinely expensive, both in emotional and financial ways. Mentors often need to be prepared to receive no strokes — nothing, nada, zero — in return. I have continued to assist interns who have no concept of acknowledgment. “I took time out of my life and my interests to assist you, and I now hear nothing from you. You’re welcome.”

Be prepared to wait, sometimes for months, to receive a set of comments or thoughts, requested while providing important reading material, or an important scientific or field-of-study concept to an intern. Do not expect a complete, much less satisfying reply.

When the resources simply do not otherwise exist, guess who will contribute cash towards the education of your intern? Not just in the U.S., but nearly everywhere, ‘Student’ and ‘Poor’ should always be used in the same sentence. The interns with whom I have worked were not well funded. That optional, extra-cost-but-essential course, that capable laptop, that WI-fi connection, etc., etc. will likely be beyond the means of interns. It may be beyond the means of his or her parents.

Be prepared for the multi-generational nature of this mentor/intern relationship. I am an old, under-educated white guy. I was raised in a world where at least the faintest trappings of regard towards another human were socially expected. Be prepared to work with age groups that do what they want, when they want, with not a thought or concern about the social graces, including any deference to you, Mentor. I do not think the process is necessarily mean or intentional; it is a lack of sensitivity (much less empathy) about the feelings of others. We seem to have a couple of generations who have received no instruction in those skills.

Perhaps we mentors are more attuned somehow to the simple actions that say, “I care about your life, enough to encourage and help you.” The open-ended inquiry, “Tell me about how it went for you today?” “What would have made the learning (or task) easier, if you had had it?” All these questions and more, clearly demonstrate interest. Sometimes, a mentor is the sole source of those sorts of questions.

When I look back at this piece, I see what could be considered several negative aspects of mentorship. But don’t get me wrong. Every bit of it is worth it to me. I am at no time saying that You should avoid becoming a mentor. I am saying that cool detachment may not be possible, because of the deep relationships which can develop in a mentor/intern scenario, especially in longer-term engagements. I deeply care for my former and current interns and students (fortunately or unfortunately), sometimes more than their own parents or immediate family members.

It’s still worth the effort.

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Note: Medium writer, Ryan Holiday, has an excellent essay on the process of ‘acquiring’ a mentor. I recommend a thorough reading of his work, “What Nobody Told You About Finding Mentors.”


Reader, blogger, musician and music promoter/event producer. Community activist and educational advocate.

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