Monday, February 22, 2016

Mentoring is All Around Us

From our earliest age we have been taught by our parents, family, and others older and wiser than we.  Teaching comes naturally to parents, and children absorb it all.  They take in the technical content like language, behavior, socialization, and cultural norms with Mother’s Milk, and we grow up “just knowing” so many things we learn at this very young age.  And how I am enjoying the process from the perspective of being a grandparent with the little ones around all the time. 

Something happens in our adolescent years, however.  Somewhere in that morass of hormones and intellectual development their creeps in a sense of self, an awareness of Life As A Journey and our place within that journey.  And the idea that decisions made today may and probably will have consequences for a lifetime. 

The “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Question takes on added significance.  How do we know what we want to be?  How do we know whom we want to be?  What does it mean to be a Something, a named stereotypic category of a person that may liberate or stigmatize us the rest of our lives?  Will that Something fit with our self-perception and personal expectations?  Will picking that Something make me happy?  Questions like this make Teens a bit anxious, even a bit crazy.

The Existentialists have a phrase that I like in this context: Become Who You Are.  Combining the ideas of Becoming as the imperfect physical world and Being as the perfection of Plato’s Forms, it speaks to the idea that, at our core, we are each someone with unique qualities of Soul, of an essential and personal Self.  Perhaps this is the Personal Truth that underlies our search for the divine.   A life spent in awareness of the world of Becoming is a life spent seeking the perfection of Being.

The “What do you want to be” question seems to be asking, “Who will you become”, or more fundamentally,  “Who are you, really?”  Asking a person who is still figuring things out about just who they are in their core, to make a decision about a life direction is quite unfair.  People spend a lifetime trying to answer that one!  Many people here in this room right now might count themselves among those who are still seeking to know who they are at their core!

We look to our parents as the first Role Models after whom we can fashion our lives, if the situation is right.  Nature vs. Nurture comes into play here, of course, and there is certainly a strong pull of genetics in any decision we may make, but our Mother’s and Father’s personalities, sense of themselves, and lifestyles complete with challenges and successes will have a strong and profound effect.  It can be positive, and it can be negative.  Who hasn’t said, even if privately to themselves, “I’m never going to do what my Father did.” Or something similar?  Still, there is no denying the genetics of family, and the powerful effects they have on our lives.

But let’s consider the idea of Role Models.  Language, speech, dress, daily life, etiquette, empathy, compassion, responsibility, boundaries both personal and social, and a host of other explicit and implied behavioral characteristics are learned by example, by watching others and mimicking them as Role Models.  It can’t be helped, and it is a part of all of us.  This can be what we call Normative Behavior, or seeking the Norm.  You might also think of this as being our process of Fitting In, and it may comprise some large percentage of our concepts of Self.  Maybe not so much the unique parts, but the basic, how do I get along with others parts.

Aside:  I recently read about studies made of the way people interact in social settings.  The studies were by university sociologists who were trying to understand why we do some of the odd things we do.  Have you ever noticed that people who stand around talking will tend to all stand the same way?  If one crosses their arms, others will, too.  Or put your hands in your pockets?   If you happen to think of this while you are standing around during coffee today, try it. It works!  You can get others to follow your example. 

Another example cited in the report was the tendency for a parent to open their own mouths when feeding a baby.  The baby opens its mouth to receive the spoon of creamed carrots, and then the parent closes their mouth to encourage the baby to do the same thing, and it works.  This is the same mental process in another context.  (Now you don’t have to feel embarrassed when it happens to you!)

Well, the researchers were looking at brain activity and found something they called Mirror Neurons in the brain that are the unconscious source of this parroting activity.  You mirror others without thinking about what you are doing.  It is an innate, universal characteristic of the human brain.  What does that say about our evolutionary development, or about Crowd Think?

Are Role Models Mentors?  Not necessarily, if you consider the perspective of the mentee.  A mentor is a valued and trusted advisor, not necessarily a teacher or role model, but someone who specifically looks out for the mentee and to whom the mentee turns for help and support, especially in the realm of Life Coach sorts of areas.  It is this intentional sense of participation in the advising role by both that makes the Mentor-Mentee relationship special. 

As adults we may find ourselves assigned as a Mentor or Mentee by our organization as a way to help a younger person advance through the company structure more effectively. 

In the recent movie The Intern, an older retired executive is brought into a Dot.Com company where the average age of the workforce might be in their 20’s.  These bright and motivated younger adults find the perspectives and experiences of the older Intern to be life changing, and very helpful in issues ranging from finding an apartment to finding love. While the movie is clearly a nod to the wisdom of older people, which of course I applaud, it was also a great look at a nurturing Mentor-Mentee relationship in action.

In adolescence a person’s circle of friends has a huge impact on our self-esteem, our sense of place, and to some degree, the trajectory we expect our life to take.  What you expect of yourself is, to a large degree, informed by the Group Think expectation of the social structure around you.  Motivated and ambitious people motivate the people around them.  Negative and disruptive people affect people around them adversely.  We pick our groups perhaps subconsciously, but perhaps intentionally.  With whom are you most comfortable?

Kids negotiating High School pick friends of similar interests in education and school activities.  Cliques of high achievers occur.  Others are more interested in specific activities like athletics, or band, or debate, or skipping class and driving cars.  We can all remember the day, right?  Which group were you a part of?  And perhaps of more lasting importance, did your choice of friends then affect how you have lived your life since?

In my day there was something called Tracking, where, on the basis of a student’s performance on tests, their GPA, and their teacher’s general impression of the potential of the student, kids were tracked into “College Bound” or, for boys, what might be called “Vocational” areas.  For girls the alternative might have been called Home Ec, or some variant.  – Not very politically correct these days, right? -  Once the track was set, then a defined school curriculum was expected of the student, with little room for variation.  I hope the track chosen for you was the one you felt was right for you.  It was hard to change, and it set in place a set of expectations for you, and it told others around you something about who you were. 

But my point here is aptitude and attitude.  This is a difficult time for many kids at ages 14 to 18 or so, and knowing what you want for yourself at that stage is really challenging, but we all had a sense of ability, and where we fit in the overall Big Picture.  Like lining up from tallest to shortest, we had a sense where we would end up in line if we used smartest to dumbest as the criterion, or maybe fastest to slowest on the cross country track.  Everything was a competition, a 1-on-1 comparison, and ranking.  This helped us know where we stood, informed our self-expectation, and helped us set our personal bar.

Layered on top of this is what I will call Raging Hormones.  I don’t think I need to say much about this, other than hormones come in their own sweet time, and can be a blessing or a curse.  It is all a matter of your perspective, and how you handle it.

My favorite metaphor for kids in this age is that they are in the Pupae Stage.  You can see it through dress, the way they wear their hair, language, interaction with peers and parents, interests, and angst.  On the other side of the growing up process lays Adulthood, responsibility, commitment to some sort of Path or other, and Getting on the Treadmill of life.  For the young adults at this cross-road of life this Adult Stuff is all in the future, a bit out of sight, and something not to be welcomed, but rather to be delayed as long as possible.  At least for most.

So let’s get back to the idea of a Mentor, and how this might all fit together.  Accepting that some sort of life path will require at least a minimal commitment to an activity that will allow a person to live, such as to make money and have a cool cell phone, how is a person to choose

Adults with some sense of the journey of life have learned that the best thing we can choose to do is something that we love.  Follow your passion.  While this might be easy to say, it can be bewildering.  What if the thing you love isn’t something you know how to make money doing?  How is that supposed to work?  This is where a Mentor can help out.  Mentors know things.  Mentors have that Long View of Life where they can help advise you on how best to take your talents to the market and make something positive out of them.  And often what they suggest is not something you might have thought of yourself.

One of the most non-intuitive things a Mentor might tell you is, You will make exactly as much money in life as you expect to make.  Since making money is at the root of a great deal of the angst we all feel about our place in life, this statement might sound a bit crazy.  What if I want to make a bazillion dollars?  You mean I can do that?  Yes, a Mentor will tell you, but you must dedicate yourself to the task, chart a path to your destination, work diligently at the task without hesitation, and follow that path without fail.  Forget anything else. 

I like the story about the guy who used Craig’s List and started with almost nothing - a paper clip – and by trading and negotiating over a period of months ended up with a house worth many thousands of dollars.  You can take a very meager beginning and make it into anything you want.  You just need to want it bad enough to give up everything else to get it.  – Sounds like the American Dream, doesn’t it?

Most of us have an Aristotelian Golden Mean sort of goal for money in our lives.  This means we desire a certain amount of money where we have enough to do what we need to do without working all the time to earn it.    But if you want it all, that path is open.  There are plenty of examples in modern culture: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, Jeff Bezos.

The complimentary view is the Work or Play paradox.  Do you work to live, or live to work?  I think the answer to that conundrum changes depending on the stage you are in life.  Certainly sacrifices for work are more common for younger workers trying to find their place or to make their mark, and less common for established workers who don’t need the aggravation or upset a sacrifice might entail.

Life is a journey, not a destination.  We all live day to day.  We make plans for the future and certainly save for that eventual rainy day, but we have to make ends meet today, too.  Keeping that sense of balance takes years of trial and error for all of us.  Mentoring can help guide expectations, keep steps from being missed, and make the process of selection much more assured.

And remember, no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy.  We all have to be flexible and roll with life’s punches.  Mentoring can really help when things seem to be falling apart!

In the context of the Fellowship we see informal mentoring occurring as we support one another in our independent searches for Truth and Meaning.  Our spiritual paths are an innate part of who we are, and our need to search for our personal place in the grand scheme of life.  A minister acts as a teacher and role model for most, and can become a personal mentor for people who seek out that more personal, specific relationship.  

Informal and formal mentorship may also occur in the special groups we participate in here, like the Men’s and Women’s Groups, Circle Suppers, Big Questions and Food for Thought.  There are many ways in which we can meet and interact with each other in ways that are more than just conversations, but also avenues to personal growth and development.    What would happen if you asked someone you trusted and respected to help you with an issue that concerns you?  Would the act of asking for help put you in a Mentor-Mentee relationship?

We live in this intentional community in part to associate with others that share our values and aspirations, our perspectives on life, and what it means to be spiritual.  But I think in another sense we seek associations with people to whom we can look up and admire, to learn from, and who may be able to learn something from each of us.  We all have our gifts that we can share, and when we share them with people in our community we add our presence and a quality of life that enriches us all. 


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