By Karen Roter Davis – San Francisco
The word “mentor,” given its origin story, has grown to hold so much weight.
Brief background – and my excuse to talk about mythology
“Mentor” was the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey, or nowadays what we’d call The Iliad II: The Return of Odysseus. When Odysseus left for the Trojan War in The Iliad, he asked Mentor, and old friend, to look after his household and his son, Telemachus.
Because it took so long for King Odysseus to get back, the townsfolk assumed he was dead, and moved to split up his large estate. Telemachus, his rightful heir, was too young to defend his property. So it was up to Mentor to protect their interests. The goddess Athena decided to intervene, and disguised herself as Mentor, helping to guide Telemachus on his journey to find his father — or, at minimum, news of him — while Mentor stayed back home to protect the proverbial ranch. Odysseus finally returned, disguised as a beggar, only recognized by Penelope, his wife, who agreed to grant the kingdom to the winner of an archery contest using Odysseus’ bow. Guess who won? A battle ensued for control, and unsurprisingly, Odysseus, with Athena’s and Mentor’s help, emerged victorious. At the end of the story, Athena advised Odysseus — in the form of Mentor — to end the civil war.
What does this story tell us, apart from the fact that I enjoy mythology?
- You have many unofficial mentors, most of whom aren’t assigned to you or defined as such outright. Mentor was Telemachus’ “Official Mentor.” But Odysseus and Athena were instrumental in his protection and education as well. And Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, was critical in enabling her husband to recapture his crown, for himself and Telemachus.
- These mentors have different skill sets and weaknesses. Like Mentor, one may be a really good teacher. Another may help you navigate politically, like Athena did with Telemachus. And another may pave the way for your promotion like Penelope. Each would have been less effective in her counterparts’ roles. So have a portfolio approach. It’s not likely that all the disparate skills you need can be found in one person. Also, people (and even Greek gods) aren’t perfect. With a portfolio approach, you can learn a huge amount by observing where, when, why, and how those unofficial, or even “stealth” mentors are successful or unsuccessful in various situations. So mentors can be instructive in what not to do as well.
- To achieve your calling, your mentors may change, but their messages remain. Practically speaking, it can be hard to remain a mentee forever — or at least a mentee to your current set of mentors — and accomplish your objectives. Author and comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell calls this the “hero’s journey,” upon which a huge amount of our books and movies, like Star Wars, Big Hero 6, and Harry Potter are based. The mentor (spoiler alert!) dies in each of these stories, but it doesn’t need to be that extreme. Mentorship wasn’t originally and shouldn’t be an occupational hazard.
Your mentors inevitably evolve alongside your career growth. Athena had advised Odysseus directly during his journey, but took the form of Mentor to assist in the kingdom’s reconciliation. And Zeus helped Odysseus during his travels; but when it came time for him to regain his kingdom, it was Penelope who facilitated his victory. Even when you and your mentors part, their valuable lessons stay with you, giving you guidance and strength to achieve your goals. (“Luke, trust your feelings!”)
Some learnings from my mentor portfolio
So with all of that, here is just a small sampling of things I’ve learned over the years from my portfolio of mentors — a heartfelt thank you to each of them:
- I learned how too much thought and not enough action eventually catches up with you. And vice versa.
- I learned how communication and expectation-setting leads to happier and more successful teams, customers, and relationships.
- I learned to know when to hold ’em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to run.
- I learned it’s not good for you or anyone else to poop where you eat.
- I learned that taking time to focus on good form, presentation, and timing leads to better outcomes.
- I learned that command and control leads to frustration and stagnation.
- I learned how to say more with less, and when and why people do the opposite.
- I learned that before you’re the first person to talk about the elephant in the room, you should make sure you know why said elephant is grazing there.
- I learned what kind of person I am, and where it’s best to for me to be that person.
- I learned how to graciously enter a room, stand in a circle, take a seat at a table, and exit.
- I learned that sometimes, when you need that extra push over the cliff, you put it up to eleven.