The Art of Mentoring

This piece was first published on the 2013 Spring print edition of Darling Magazine.

“When I grow up I want to be a _______________!”

We start so young filling in this blank. Who was it that you wanted to be? Who did you look up to and choose to emulate?

At the age of four, I wanted to be a lion. I mean, a lion character in a full body suit costume. I saw a costume designer one morning on Mr. Rogers who walked in with people dressed as different animals. I decided that I would like to be the lion. I used to go around answering this question saying, “I’m going to be a lion. I’ll go to college and learn to roar!”

As I got older my childlike whimsy gave way to more practical aspirations such as author, newscaster, and I toyed for a while with the idea of being a pastor. The reason I wanted to be each one of these things was because I had seen someone else do it well. I wanted to be just like them when I grew up.

As we grow older our need for these role models and mentors doesn’t decrease. The best and healthiest people are teachable in every stage of life. Whose life are you watching? Who is watching you?

The cycle of mentoring and being mentored is one that richly impacts the way our lives are able to grow. Mentoring is a lifestyle of give and take, it is the kind of life that grows in wisdom, maturity, and service.

Be a mentor.

I’ve mentored young women since I was in High School. The first group of girls I invested in were in 5th grade. They were part of an afterschool club that I volunteered for. These relationships continued over the years and as a “trustworthy” teenage driver I took them out to lunch every few months creating everyday adventures with them as we shared our stories and lives together. I’ve often discovered that allowing someone to watch your life is the informal part of mentoring that really sticks. Showing those girls my love of whimsy and adventure has been a lasting part of our relationship because I didn’t just tell them how, I showed them with my life.

Mentoring is a combination of listening, comforting, encouraging, sharing, and reflecting to your mentee what you see in them. Create the kind of environment in your relationship for a safe and secure dialogue to take place. Ask curious questions and listen, it’s only when we feel known and heard that true vulnerability can take place. Here are some examples of good questions to start with:

When do you feel most at home in your skin? What makes you feel excited and alive? If you’re putting together a playlist of songs for a life sound track, which bands and styles of music would be on your list?

Who do you admire? And then there’s always a simple question like…”How are you doing? What are 2 highlights and 2 things that bum you out lately?”

Finding someone to mentor comes as a result of growing relationships. When you see someone struggling or in a time of transition, offer to take them to a meal and listen. You don’t have to have a “I’m a mentor!” name tag to make the relationship official, just go and be a willing companion for someone near you.

Have a mentor.

Having mentors built into your life creates a place to go to when we need help, encouragement, and clearer vision. I don’t believe one mentor or person can meet all of your needs, so it’s alright to look for a few. In my experience having several mentors has added to my experience and allowed the women above me to be human, without heaping a lot of unnecessary expectation onto them.

Looking for a mentor can seem daunting at first. Start by making a list of the women you admire and respect. Choose emotionally healthy, authentic people to guide you. Look for mature, humble, loving, positive, wise women who have the time to be a mentor and understand how to lead others. Look at this person’s other relationships and you’ll get a good sense of their emotional health. Stay away from someone who is seeking to control or boss you around, or someone who is trying to fill a narcissistic wound they might have by hoping younger women will admire and worship them. This is not mentoring, it’s unhealthy.

When you start out in a new mentoring relationship, start small with one meal together. If it goes well do it again and then approach the idea of meeting more regularly when you think you’ve found a good fit for both of you.

Take a leap and tell some of the women you admire that you’re looking for new mentoring relationships in your life and would like to have coffee or lunch with them. Most great people have been mentored and would welcome sharing what they’ve learned by mentoring someone else. A simple invitation to connect on a deeper level, once a month or so, is a flattering request as well as an opportunity for them to give back.

You might seek one mentor who is someone you admire for her character and spiritual maturity. When you watch her life, do you see characteristics you’d like to emulate? Another mentor might provide you with career guidance and help in a particular field or expertise. Having a variety of people guide and mentor you over the years will expand your ability to use your unique gifts and talents in different ways.

As you begin this relationship, set clear expectations. Talk about how often you’ll connect, who will initiate the contact, and the goal of the time you’ll spend together. No two mentoring relationships will look the same, so create a relationship that works for both of you.

I didn’t become a lion or a newscaster, but I have grown in wisdom as I’ve shared my stories and worries with the mentors I’ve collected in my life. I’m grateful to have a group of women who love me, and for whom I can be very honest with. My life has also been enriched by passing along wisdom and care to younger women who I have mentored. Find a mentor, be a mentor and continue the age old tradition of passing wisdom from one generation to the next.