Me to Sage: “The university is a cancer patient.”

Without hesitation, Sage to me: “And you’re the cancer.”

Me: suddenly realizes this was part of the plan all along.

The classic tale of the sage, or old wise man, on top of the mountain was written by a sage, just not one on top of a mountain.

Why create such a tale? Why send people off alone on such an arduous journey in search of enlightenment? Because most expect to be enlightened by an authority. Authoritarians are always on top of something somewhere (See Yertle the Turtle). It’s what they do.

Why do true sage’s send seekers to the mountain top first? It’s part of both the filtering and the development process.

When the seekers come down from high and back to the true sage, frustrated by the authoritarian telling them what to do and filled with the realization that it was the journey and not the sage that mattered, it’s time to start.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a definitive mentor at every stage of my life and could probably define each stage by the mentor. A football coach here, honors english teacher there, IT technician here, outcast colleague there, former university chancellor… Now I’m a mentor for many students. None of the mentor systems I’ve found explain my experiences, many seem outright short sighted. Funny thing is, mentors are never on top of a mountain — quite the contrary, more likely outcast in a cave at the base. It’s more comfortable and easier to quietly get work done there.

Conditions Conducive to Coaching

The mentee needs to initiate the relationship. Since the value/knowledge gradient already exists, the mentee should voluntarily initiate the relationship to initiate a balance of power and individuality that will become important later. Usually, a prospective mentee seeks out a mentor because of some stressful problem, situation, or coming opportunity, something they are having a hard time understanding. Usually it’s not just one issue, it’s actually a host of issues that are difficult to pin down, but for some reason the mentor doesn’t have the same problem.  The mentee usually aspires towards values and abilities possessed by the mentor. But much like with relationships, the mentee’s value sets shouldn’t be more than two v-Meme levels removed from the mentor’s, else the mentee simply can’t understand where the mentor is coming from. The mentor also likely has key experiences that the mentee can relate to. The strongest mentee-mentor relationships are formed independent of money or influence, because it’s about empathy. The mentor knows this. It’s always best when resources result from the relationship independent of either participant. In the end the mentee needs to know what’s in it for the mentor.

Mentors are not out recruiting disciples for a reason or necessarily about a facade of mentoring excellence — that’s the age old con or a Ponzi scheme. It’s generally not about the money or influence, although having enough matters. The mentor’s key resource is time, because bestowing values on a mentee takes work, often in many ways, at a pace the mentee ultimately controls. But it isn’t all about the mentee. Every mentee is different. The mentor sees a challenge, opportunity for both and community, and ultimately is open to the empathy of the exchange.

The Mentoring Process

I’ve watched and coached enough teams to see the following classic phases of change repeatedly in many environments: forming, storming, norming, performing. Sure it’s possible to make it through a project with all of these, but the most real and genuine change usually includes all of the elements. The empathy levels espoused by the mentee and mentor throughout the process differ. The mentee mirrors a bunch — the old saying applies “fake it ’til you make it”. The mentor is conscientiously empathic to both broadcast appropriate values in the moment while setting up a longer-term process to lead to a positive outcome for the mentee. At some point the mentee will become aware of the process and how formulated. Usually the mentor is unable to complete the task on their own and must rely on the mentee — another old saying, “those who can’t, coach instead”.

Forming: At first the exchange is a bit of a leap of faith for both mentee and mentor. At the onset of the exchange empathy for eachother is limited. The mentee really doesn’t know if the mentor is a con, much less aware of such individuals, and the mentor doesn’t really know that the mentee will complete the process, or waste the time and leave. A shared goal, objective, or task is beneficial to guide the process as it provides natural bounds for both in the exchange. Stories from eachother’s experiences, and shared activity is important at the onset as these develop the minimum required empathy for efficient exchange. A minimum amount of work/credibility must be established between the participants.

Storming: Is practically an essential part of the process. The mentee wouldn’t need the mentor if it wasn’t a challenge to change. This is usually the phase when the mentee is given a task to be performed independent of the mentor. Without the mentor, the mentee cannot mimic to the same extent and begins to revert to traditional, un-effective ways. Stress is almost essential. The mentee needs to experience why the old ways are inadequate and change is a necessity. Sometimes sparks fly. It’s ok if people know it’s part of the process.

Norming: When the mentee really realizes why they need the mentor and that the mentor has subtle tricks and heuristics that aid performance. The mentor and mentee come back together again and again. The mentee has really good questions this round and the mentor really explains how they are doing something on another level. It’s much more than going through the motions and mere mimicry. It’s subtle, but at some point the mentee now realizes the change and new way of being, yet the process still isn’t complete. The mentor must keep reinforcing.

Performing: At some point, “a case of the student outdoing the teacher” occurs. The metrics usually back it up, the mentee now can perform with the new ability. While success is fickle and the knowledge fragile, the mentor needs to send the mentee off to perform on their own. Time for the mentee’s “spirit journey” or “coming of age” moment. Sink or swim. Fish or cut bait….. This last part is essential. The mentor must get out of the way and allow the mentee to perform on their own, else it was never truly a mentor-mentee synergy. Ideally, a few connections the mentor has could aid in initiating the journey with resources and addition contacts through other networks. “When you love something, set it free.”

If successful, the transformation was complete. The mentee is now out seeking new mentors and continuously improving. Though a period of separation is generally beneficial, this does not mean the relationship between the original mentor and mentee is necessarily over. A shared story of experience, empathy, and change is now there. The mentor maintains an incredible insight and understanding of the mentee good for periodic wake-up-calls now and again.

Common Pitfalls

Trying to be something you’re not. If you’re fit to be a mentor, just be yourself. Many, many mentoring relationships sour from the beginning because the mentor tries to “act like a mentor”. Creating a contrived exchange or environment because they had a mentor once help them that way. Mentees can immediately tell if it’s not a natural exchange. The best exchanges likely occur when the mentor doesn’t realize they are the mentor, and the mentee proceeds in blissful ignorance.

Where things go awry is when the mentee is never truly separated from the mentor, as in the case of the ponsi scheme or with authoritarian mentors. Having a mentee stick around when new mentees arrive with the mentor casts credibility shades. If the mentor really is a sage, and the goal is independent mastery, why is this prior mentee still around? The mentee struggles to become the mentor while still in the shadow of the original sage. Minions are born.

Where things get awkward, and these are warning signs, is when the mentor starts telling the mentee demeaning statements “you’re like the daughter/son I never had.” While viewed by the mentor as a compliment, these tribal/familial tendencies show that the mentor in the position of authority is not ready to allow the mentee independence irrespective of the mentor. In these cases it’s common for the mentor to vicariously live off of the success of the mentee. “I taught him/her everything he/she knows.” Clearly not the case. There needs to be a mutual independence and respect. The mentor should never emasculate the mentee by taking away the opportunity for respect and admiration. Judgement should only be used when required. If the mentor setup the environment/process appropriately the conditions will naturally provide feedback to the mentee.

I’ve also engaged mentors that friends and other mentors have questioned — for good reason. The old saying goes, “you become more alike the people you spend time with.” But you have to be careful about judging people by there mentors. Primarily because they are ultimately NOT there mentors. They see something in the mentor they need, which may not be at all apparent to others.

This leads to the final pitfall, this one by mentors — you must not burden yourself with responsibility for the future success of your mentees. There is a difference between a mentor and a life coach. It is their future. They must succeed independent of you.

In the End

The social thermodynamics equation for change shows how the process of seeking a mentor is inherently a phase change problem:

g = u + Pv -Ts

When we realize a single importance of a value/skill and decide to develop it, mentors help simplify and focus (u). Stress (P) is a part of the process and it’s uncommon for mentors to work through a distance. The end result though is likely increased resources (T), connections, and understanding (s).

Throughout nature there are examples of templating — providing a framework or scaffold to grow in virtuous ways otherwise unlikely. In some cases a seed is even required.

I’m to the point now where I realize that the mentees know how and when to find me, and not forcing that exchange is part of the filtering process. I also know that I don’t know everything. I need to work on skills all the time, whether it be a new instrument, program, or cooking technique. The challenge now is finding mentors and systems that can work me through the change process as efficiently as possible. And with everyone so busy in society these days, it’s getting harder and harder to find those good mentors.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )