Mentors Don’t Have All the Answers

Taking the step from being a professional to becoming a mentor – proclaiming yourself an expert in your field – can be really intimidating.  Certainly, this has been my experience. As I mentioned in last month’s “Be the Mentor” article, I had a major confrontation with the “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!” bogeyman[i] when I realized that I couldn’t just take a back seat and hope this community would grow itself.

If there has ever been an experience that prepared me to do things for which there is no possible way to prepare, it’s parenthood. And in parenting, as in mentoring, the rewards are commensurate with the risks. In this series, starting with mentoring lessons from being a mom, I hope to provide you with the inspiration and encouragement to take that next step and become a mentor.

You Don’t Have to Have All the Answers

As they grow into teenagers, the children you thought you knew can seem to become near-strangers as they withdraw and individuate themselves in preparation for adulthood. The things they used to love are irrelevant. When you ask what they are most passionate about now, the responses can be, well, less than impassioned…

All of this can conspire to make you feel pretty helpless as a parent.

As my older son Andrew worked his way through of high school, I asked him all the questions a good mom is supposed to ask. Have you started thinking about colleges yet? Do you know what you’d like to study? And so on… His answers – often sounding more preverbal grunts than actual words – left me very anxious. Had I missed some opportunity to help him explore his interests? Had I somehow inadvertently put the kibosh on his heart’s true calling, just as a tender seedling was, unbeknownst to me, beginning to sprout?  Doing my best to keep my freak-out to myself, I decided the best course of action would be simply to stop pushing on the questions that weren’t working, and focus on the things that allowed us to spend more time together instead.

Our conversations during those relaxed times began to reveal who my son was growing up to be. At his suggestion, we made several trips to local museums: what a delight! I would never have thought to propose it. He seemed to be especially talkative in the car, so I took every opportunity to drive with him and our conversations ranged from current events to history to Latin etymologies to deliberately mangled French. He knows I love to write, and sought my editorial advice on many a school project: I was free with the red pen, and he felt free to take or leave my suggestions.

In his last year of high-school, he wrote a 10,000-word novella, volunteered with a friend’s campaign for Select Board in our home town, and got an after school job. In February, he received full tuition scholarship from the University of Massachusetts Boston, and when he was ready he came back to me and his stepdad with questions that led him to a decision to major in Political Science and minor in Creative Writing as a pre-law course of study.

The truth is, Andrew has come to all these answers in his own way and time, and in the 4 years to come, all of those decisions may turn completely around.  My job as his mentor during this time was never to have the answers for him, but just to be available. I provided honest feedback about his plans and ideas based on what I know of him. I offered advice when – and only when – he asked for it. Above all, though, my job was to provide loving support and a dose humor to relieve the pressure of this major transition. Ultimately, my job was to care.

Take this attitude into your own mentoring and you will find that as the pressure comes off, the relationship blossoms. There is no greater joy than seeing your protégé arrive at the solutions and answers they need in their own way in their own time!

You don’t have to have all the answers. Be a good listener and, in due time, your protégé find their own answers.

[i] This is otherwise known as Impostor Syndrome, which Wikipedia defines as “an inability to internalize…accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome)