The word “mentor” comes to us from “mentes,” which is the name of a character in Homer’s The Odyssey. It is the Greek goddess Athena who appears to Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) and Odysseus in the guise of an old man. His job is to push Telemachus to go forth and find his father, who has been away for almost two decades, and to convince Odysseus that the time is right to reclaim his wife, his palace, and his kingdom.
Telemachus was a baby when he left and the palace has been left in jeopardy and chaos in the years since. The real Mentes had been an old family friend, one who represented loyalty and trust. And it is with this persona, she inspires courage and gives him the tools to go forth on his dangerous journey.
All of this, of course, suggests that there is a divine presence in mentors. Other examples abound in myth, sacred texts, and literature. Krishna and Arjuna comes to mind from The Bhagavad Gita section of The Mahabharata as well. Are all human mentors gods or goddesses in disguise? Maybe the answer is not so direct. But there is a divine spark to the ways in which humans connect sometimes; the bonds that they make, and the intertwined destinies that push them together at certain times in their lives. Perhaps there is a deeper element working there, guiding us through the guise of another person, one who has the temperament, experience, and willingness to encourage and empower us to go on our own journeys, and the wisdom to learn what we didn’t know and to grow.
Some of the best mentors I’ve had have been humble. They rarely boasted about what they’ve accomplished, instead simply and quietly doing what calls them; working hard on their own craft, setting examples for how to handle situations and challenges. As each one came into my life, they may have been professors, employers, supervisors, friends, or passing acquaintances, none of whom charged me for the opportunity to learn from them. None of them had a “program” they wanted me to buy from them. They simply cared about me and wanted to help guide me on my path, a sort of truth-telling cheerleader as I found my way. They didn’t try to make me do things their way, they offered suggestions and clarity, but they saw me as me, and they empowered me to be more true to myself. That’s probably the biggest trait these mentors have in common. They could really see me and cared about how my life unfolded. It was never a business transaction. In fact, just about all of these mentors became friends I am still in touch with. Not all of them are on LinkedIn (But the ones that are – you know who you are!) We connected, and from their depth of being, kindness, wisdom, experience, and friendship, I grew. The other interesting thing about these mentors… if I told them that they were a mentor of mine, they would, each one, deflect the heady compliment. They were my friend, they would say. And they just wanted to help me if they could.
It is their example that I tried to carry through into my later working life. Whether working in the publicist’s chair of a book store or as a teacher in a school, if I was given the opportunity to offer wisdom and encouragement, I would. The times that I was given an assistant in my earlier career in marketing, I would train them to one day take over my job (which they often did). Others would say that this was foolish, as they’ll be vying for my job. Yes, that’s the point. I didn’t want to stay there forever either. I had my own path unfolding. I wasn’t afraid to teach and support (often) younger or less experienced people some of my wisdom and guidance to do the job well and be the best they could be. And, to always encourage them to follow their own hearts. Let their lives unfold. Dream big. I was their cheerleader. Was I screwed over sometimes? Yes, of course. Some never understood what was being offered to them. They simply saw my kindness as an opportunity to conquer. But, most of the time, I went on to watch them thrive and develop, and trust themselves more and more. Will everyone you meet be your mentor? No. You can’t force it. It is a trust relationship that develops.
I’ve spent the last two years searching for new mentors. Most have been kind, many have asked me to spend a lot of money I didn’t have for the privilege. Some have been generous beyond bounds in relation to finances and time. Some spent the whole time talking about themselves and their accomplishments, not really seeing me for me (though they really thought they had) and some saw me only as a potential client, which is very different than being their mentee. I began to realize that approaching people who charge for what they do (as I do myself for my own work) and expecting free mentoring was not fair to them. They didn’t know me, they didn’t know if I was simply trying to get coaching from them without paying for it. There was no prior relationship. It was not the best route. I thought about how I would feel if someone randomly contacted me out of the blue and asked me to mentor them. (Which has happened on occasion.) I might offer them some advice and then, do the same and ask them to sign up for a session.* But then I realized the truth of what I had experienced. Mentors often appear organically, and often through relationships you already have, and through that relationship, you notice that they care, have your best interest in mind, and see you for who you are. Mentors appear in your life when you are at that Call to Adventure and open to guidance. We have often heard the phrase attributed to, variably, Lao Tsu, the Buddha, or other wise teachers, “The Teacher will appear when the student is ready. When the student is truly ready, the Teacher disappears.”
And this leads me to my next point. Ultimately, we are our own best mentors, when we can be clear enough to listen to that inner wisdom and not the bleating mind, offering up fear stories and reactive advice based on ego. When we are quiet enough to hear that inner Mentor, we can gain wisdom, hear the guidance and the cheerleader, and grow. That’s not to say that mentors don’t also continue to appear as people… I have recently met some wonderful people through LinkedIn. That’s not a phrase I would have thought I’d say, as for most who know me, I am not a big advocate of social media… for MANY reasons. But, I’ve learned a lot from some of my newest connections. All of whom have shown up as authentic, kind, and willing to be mutual cheerleaders. This is not to say that I don’t still hire coaches or experts in their fields when I need specific insights and help. I do. People need to get paid for the work they do. But that doesn’t necessarily make them mentors. Perhaps, in time they could become mentors, or I to them. Even if we seek someone out (which we can do by looking for people who’ve walked this journey before us) and ask them to be our mentor, they may not ultimately be the right mentor for us. The right mentor will appear when the time is right. And, when they do, it feels like there is a divine presence guiding you through the guise of an ordinary human being. A being who cares about you. Who wants to see you thrive and flourish. Who helps to set you on that path to being all of who you are. A Mentes. Until one day, you realize that the ultimate mentor lives in you.
*One caveat to this is the amazing mentoring program of SCORE, which I highly recommend to people starting new businesses, and my wonderful SCORE mentors who, though having never met me before working together, have tirelessly offered their time and expertise and put up with my “different” way of doing things! It’s a free program, and I’m still in awe of their generosity.