One of the most surprising things about being a mentor is that it turns our weaknesses into strengths. It’s not that our weaknesses are magically transformed simply by donning the mantle of “mentor”, but rather that our struggles become our areas of expertise. In addition, the teaching process itself embeds the lessons more deeply within us, often leading to new insights and allowing us to further refine our own work as a result. In the words of Yogi Bhajan, “If you want to master something, teach it.”
The reasons our weaknesses serve us so well in mentoring others are two-fold. First, the struggle itself breaks down barriers and establishes a common ground with our protege. Second, the struggle to learn forces us to articulate knowledge in a way that being gifted does not.
Establish a Common Ground
In her TED Talk “On Being Wrong”, self-styled wrongologist Kathryn Schultz says, “Most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong, or at least to avoid thinking about the possibility that we ourselves are wrong.” Our need to “be right”, she proposes, robs us of tremendous creative, intellectual and moral potential. Certainly the fear of being wrong and its corollary, the insistence on being right, rob us of many opportunities for meaningful connection. We may feel safer on our “Pedestal of Rightness”, but it comes at the cost of remaining remote.
As parents, we often see our teaching discussions with our children as very black and white, wrong and right. Being more experienced in the harsh realities of life, we can try to drill lessons into them by sheer force of will. It is, however, when we admit to having the same struggles that they begin to open up to us, and become open to our guidance.
In the cartoon above, for example, ”Mister Man” is teaching a very important lesson to his son, but the lesson backfires when it starts a mental feedback loop in which the boy sees no way to succeed. Mister Man has provided the “what” without providing the “how”. Mom breaks the mental loop by admitting she shares the trait of forgetfulness; moreover, she is a credible teacher because she’s learned ways of coping with forgetfulness. Mom embodies the possibility that things can get better.
When we as mentors share our struggles with our proteges, we do the same for them. We step down off of the pedestal of perfection and ask them to see us in a new light, right there with them struggling with the very same problems. We can show them the path, instead of shouting at them from a high distance.
Embrace the Struggle to Learn
In the cartoon scenario, the breakdown of Mister Man’s lesson comes because he provides the what without explaining the how. This leads us to the second benefit of getting comfortable with our weaknesses: the struggle to learn forces us to articulate knowledge in a way that being gifted does not. As a reasonably gifted painter, I have rarely been challenged to articulate my technique: I just ”get in the zone” and “let it happen”. When I am asked to explain what I do and how I do it, I sense there is often no expectation that I will communicate something my listener can imitate; rather, I am explaining the mysteries of something “other” and “special”. Since I am guided by intuition rather than discipline, I often find myself at a loss for words.
Not so with my maestra Shiloh Sophia. For Shiloh, the process of earning her skill as a painter impressed upon her a clear knowledge of what she does and why. She articulated her knowledge as part of the process of acquiring it, and as a result she can teach what she discovered to others who face the same struggle.
When she was younger, “experts” told Shiloh that she had no talent as a painter; she enrolled in art school, then dropped out and eventually settled for a corporate job. Shiloh’s calling was to create art, however, and it would not be denied. When she finally found her style, it came in the form of a simple visual language, combined with layering and design techniques that were extremely teachable. Ultimately, Shiloh not only developed an extremely successful career as a fine artist, but founded the Color of Woman school of painting and established the Intentional Creativity Foundation and Power Creatives TV to help others learn to become creators in their own right. Today she is a mentor to thousands of women who, like her, had been told they “have no talent”.
While most of us will not go on to create an entire teaching methodology or business from our struggles, we can still learn to use our weaknesses as an asset in our mentoring. When in doubt, as yourself this question: would I rather be right or helpful? In truth, it’s not an either/or proposition, but a question of starting with the right priority. If you start with the desire to be helpful, you will find the way to the “right” place for yourself and your protege. Your heart can show you how to be both.
“If you want to master something, teach it.” Yogi Bhajan https://www.harisingh.com/newsYogiBhajan.htm
“On Being Wrong”, TED Talk by Kathryn Schultz https://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong#t-132401
About This Series
“Be the Mentor” is a series in which I explore the joys and benefits of stepping up to be a mentor, and offer my insights on how to do it well. “Where Do Mentors Come From?” is the first article in this series.
Be the Mentor is published on the first Wednesday of every month at www.mentorsandmasterminds.com.