Where is personal mentoring going?

“Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant. Because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”
Randy Pausch, quoting the first advice his mentor gave him

If there is one — external — thing that I would say everyone needs at the beginning of his or her career to be professionally successful, then I would say it’s a very good personal mentor.

Someone with experience in the domain and the field, who knows which topics are gold mines and which provide only lead, and who can introduce you to the important players. Someone who does not see the beginner as competition or is threatened by great ideas, because this person is self-confident and is on a vastly different point of his or her career, yet who remembers enough to know where the traps and opportunities are. Who can deal with different kinds of people, can give honest and helpful feedback, because he takes time to get to know the person. Someone who shows the personal commitment to invest in you, your work and your future career.

There is nothing as helpful in a professional setting and nothing as difficult to find. Most people simply can’t do it. I couldn’t do it (ask me again in ten or twenty years). Some lack the years of experience in the domain and field, some lack the interpersonal skills, some lack empathy, some lack the motivation, some simply lack the time.

I think that’s the reason some institutions try to … well, institutionalize this function. They offer programs to teach all the things a good mentor (or advisor) should take care of: They provide workshops on career management and professional skills, arrange peer support and peer knowledge exchange, and so forth. But working professionally in a field is not like taking a class at a university — and it cannot replace an experienced person who takes interest and commits him- or herself personally.

In a way, official programs make matters worse. They might look good on a brochure, but knowing that an official program is offered might suggest to supervisors, advisers and top level management that the needs of the newbies are taken care of. They can say: “Here, we (i.e., the course teachers) do something for our newbies”, but in practice, in the one aspect that a newbie really needs, they fail.

Instead of showing the beginners the ropes, telling them where the trapdoors and jumping platforms are and where they must treat carefully because of the thorns, they are leaving them mostly to themselves. Either you make it or you don’t — live or die, your choice.

It’s not impossible to start a career this way, but it’s damn hard and you get a lot of scars from the thorns.

2 Comments

  1. Loved this article! It’s so true – nothing can improve your work as much as someone with the vision of what you can achieve. It’s hard to find, and I think part of the story is to find not only someone who cares about you and your work, but more generally, to find (or create) a work environment that suits you. I count myself among the lucky few who love what they are doing, who have the greatest boss in the world who does everything to foster my talents (without neglecting her own career, thus serving as a real role model), and who have colleagues they are happy with. My only worry is that I may be too spoilt now for anything else 😉

  2. Reading the blog entry again I think another danger of outsourcing the mentor function to courses and workshops is that the uniqueness of the future contributor will not develop properly. Each person has the potential to contribute something unique to a domain. There are usually too many people in a course for individual diagnostic and feedback, instead, often one-size-kinda-fits-all solutions are dealt out. But in scientific research and art progress is not made by an army of people working with similar methods and thoughts, but by people who — well — think for themselves. This often has to be developed and protected in early stages — a mentor can do this, a course or official program can’t.

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