Today’s post comes from Alexis Lockwood, CAPS’ Manager, Student Engagement. Alexis runs CAPS’ Career Mentoring Program, which is currently accepting applications (deadline is Thursday, 4 October).
I have friends who argue that we are the total of the ten people we spend the most time with, and thus should choose our company wisely. This idea of people influencing, shaping and directing me, whether or not I am aware of or agreeable to it has been sitting with me lately. In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie writes, “I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I've gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each "I", everyone of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world.”
We all have people in our lives who affect us and contribute to our world, those who push, pull and prod us. We may call them mentors, but we might also call them role models, heroes, ideals, coaches, counsellors, guides and advisors. Or, we might think of them as examples of what not to do or be. Regardless, the people we meet throughout our lives will change us and contribute to our multitudes.
In career services, the push to find an official mentor to guide us can be incredibly intimidating. We are frequently informed of the benefits of having professional mentors: industry connections, insider tips, first-hand information, accelerated skill development, reality checks, encouragement and so on. I often explain to students that mentors provide a combination of challenge, vision and support. Mentoring guru David Clutterbuck says that a good mentor doesn’t even have to be in your career field, as long as they know how to ask BDQs, or Bloody Difficult Questions, that get you thinking, reflecting and questioning.
However, what I want to emphasize is this: identifying and approaching someone with the express intention of recruiting them as your career mentor is not most people’s reality. For those of us pinballing along our career paths, the idea of finding a wizened mentor we can sit at the feet of is very appealing. Luke had Obi-Wan. Wolverine had Professor Xavier. Raphael had Splinter. And yet, this formal teacher-learner dynamic rarely exists in our professional careers. In fact, many of us tend to identify our (informal) mentors in hindsight, once we’ve realized how much impact they had on the development of our knowledge, skills and attitudes.
My friend D is relatively new to the work world. Reflecting on his career path thus far, D shared that he’s always had informal mentors and sources of mentorship. And what I found most interesting is that the majority of his mentors were not professional colleagues, and some weren’t even actual people he knew.
When D was contemplating taking a job in Africa for a year, it was a close friend and roommate who pushed him to make the move. Later on, a member of a listserve emailed him information about a unique out-of-province internship that he ended up pursuing; support from his parents kept up his confidence and drive on this new challenge. Over time, watching online TED talks of his favorite speakers helped him develop his presentation skills, and mimicking admired essayists honed his writing style. And when D struggled for direction and a sense of meaning in his work, it was the pontificator Christopher Hitchens, the blog BrainPickings, and the movie In The Loop that helped him reflect.
So continue to identify the gaps in your workplace knowledge and the skills you can improve; seek out and ask career questions of those you admire and who exemplify positive professional behaviors. Participate in formal mentoring programs and professional mentorship matching. Yet, keep in mind that we don’t need to officially call someone a mentor in order to learn from them. We don’t need to formalize a relationship in order for it to be impactful.
Instead, my experience and the experiences of those around me has been that we can glean inspiration and lessons from multiple people and sources throughout our lives - not just from professional supervisors or formal mentors, but also from neighbors, quotes, politicians, YouTube videos, movies, family members, writers, musicians, friends, books and art. In fact, our various sources of mentorship and inspiration may disagree with or oppose one another, forcing us to sift out and select the learning that fits with our own values and perspectives. Remember that you are the one creating your complex self in your one world, so draw from and spend time with mentors and sources (formal and informal) that make you the student, friend, worker, partner, parent, volunteer, crafter, athlete, gamer, dancer, and person you want to be.