Here’s a question: who has changed your life? Would you describe any of those people as mentors? In the last blog, I talked about role models (my list includes Maya Angelou), those exemplars who teach us lessons about how to live good lives. This week, I have been thinking more about mentors – the people who, in big ways and small, help us decide what course our lives will take. It has been an interesting exercise to think about who these people have been in my life – I am a sucker for a story and when reflecting on my personal narrative, the transition points revolve around particular people, many of whom I would now describe as mentors. I say ‘now’ because at the time, I often did not realise the significance of these relationships, it is only in the act of reflection that they have taken on this pivotal role.
This feeling was articulated by an academic registrar who was speaking to our university’s medical research society about her career. She described her academic journey in terms of her qualifications and personal milestones, but also with quotes from the people whose advice had changed the course of her life. As we listened, I think at least a few of us started to feel what I can only describe as ‘mentor anxiety’, fraught with questions like, ‘how do we find these people!?’, ‘how do you tell a good mentor from a bad one!?’, and maybe worst of all: ‘what if we never find the right mentors and our careers are stymied forever as a result!?’. I believe the answer is that we should stop worrying and learn to love the process, and that the truth is if we are open to embracing opportunities, the people who we will look back on as mentors will inevitably present themselves to us. Often, they will not have the official title of ‘mentor’ when we meet and work with them, but when you look back, we will realise the important roles they played in our stories.
This brings me back to thinking about our own roles as mentors – we might not realise it, but we might currently be fulfilling that role for other people. I currently work as a peer mentor at my university – and let’s be real here, I am not under any illusion that anyone will be citing me or quoting my advice in future presentations about their stellar careers (!). But as much as I have learned about the process of engaging in a professional mentoring relationship, I have enjoyed the experience of simply listening to my mentees as they start out on a road that I have travelled a bit further down. I know for sure that I have learned more from my mentees than anything they might have learned from me. And while I think there’s a lot of value for both mentors and mentees in organised schemes, I also think that there most of our mentor–mentee relationships are the informal encounters that happen day-to-day, the relationships that both parties may only fully realise the significance of when they each look back at the story of their life as a whole.