The Beauty of Mentorship

From May 9th through May 23rd of 2010 I worked on Unschool Adventures‘ inaugural Leadership Program, led by Zero Tuition College founder and author of Better Than College, Blake Boles. It went splendidly. We had 7 students total – 4 girls and 3 boys ages 14-18. They spent the two weeks getting to know Ashland, Oregon; they created internships, audited college classes, conducted interviews, attained certifications, and many other wonderful things, all on their own. We also took them to a ropes course, on PCT hikes, to plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a surprise tango lesson, etc. In the evenings, Blake taught workshops on many aspects of self-directed learning and creating opportunities for oneself in the world.

In the end, I was able to see the campers (and, looking back, myself) walk away with copious amounts of confidence, direction, and tools to go out and achieve their dreams. It was a great experience, both for campers and staff. I will certainly never forget it. Here’s a photo album of some of the highlights of the retreat: HLR Spring Retreat Photos.

During the retreat, a friend contacted me and asked if I could write up something on Unschool Adventures and my thoughts on the goodness and importance of mentorship (especially in the context of the program) for a speech she was planning to give at the LIFE is Good unschooling conference that year.  Here is what I wrote for her:

Oftentimes when I think of the word “mentorship,” I see some old zen master walking through a huge garden of Eden with his little grasshopper, philosophizing about the universe and speaking in proverbs. However, these past few months I have come to realize that the word, in this day and age, has a completely different meaning, that is simply all too wonderful.

Mentors lead and challenge; but they also listen and understand. A mentorship can consist of two people of any age difference. It can be intentional or accidental, or anything in between.

When I was first asked to be on staff for Unschool Adventures, I was excited solely that I would get to “learn to work with ‘kids’ more, and people in general,” as that, besides “working on camps,” was one of my many vague, ill-defined goals. As the spring retreat approached, this intention got rather lost in the hubbub of getting ready to leave and the traveling I did beforehand, but that was good to sort of clear my mind and give me a fresh, realistic outlook once the retreat started.

It was the first night the campers got there that I more fully realized why I was there. These kids – really not much younger than I was – needed and wanted direction and confidence. And I was in the position to both show and give those things to them in the course of the retreat. Suddenly – click! – there was my purpose, there was my reason for being in Ashland, Oregon on May 9th, 2010. To give of myself in these areas in the same way others have given of themselves to guide me before (and who continue to do so).

For good measure I will throw in a dictionary definition:  Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines a mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide” (italics mine). I see mentorship as something which centers on trust; it can’t function without it. I can say “oh, I want to be this great leader-person who sets good examples all the time and gives a crap ton of good advice”; or, as someone being mentored, I can say, “I want to be shown the ways of the world through this wise persons’ eyes and have a strong leader with good guidance.” Well, those are great and all, but they really mean nothing if a trusting relationship between the two people in the mentorship has not been established.

However, trust isn’t something that really consciously happens; and forcing it is not really a good idea.

Trust is a two-way street. Not only does the person I am mentoring need to trust me, but I need to trust them as well. For me, trust is built from being personable; being real, being true, etc. A mentor can admit to making mistakes. I used to think that was a bad thing to do – after all, I am supposed to set a good example, right? Therefore, admitting I screwed up somehow or another is simply out of the question, correct? No; I’ve found it to be the opposite. I can trust the person with the good and the bad. When I first discovered this, I was telling a younger friend about a huge mistake I had made – afraid I would lose her respect forever. But a big grin grew on her face when I was done telling what had happened, and she said “Wow… I just want you to know, Jessica, that I look up to you so, so much!” I was shocked – how in the world did I merit such praise in the midst of my mistakes?  But she helped me feel respect for myself again, and we grew closer with this new dimension of trust.

Mentorship starts with friendship. Basically, mentorship is more of something that grows rather than something that just jumps right in, just like any healthy relationship. Not to say that jumping-in doesn’t happen; and if it does, friendship then grows out of mentorship. It’s really more of a cycle. It can begin with a single conversation, or an activity done together. Those sorts of things are inextricably conducive to building that essential trust – because trust is built from sharing.  Sharing on both ends, not just the mentor extracting a bunch of information from the mentee so he can give advice, and not just the mentor pouring out copious wise words and quoting adages while the mentee sits soaking it up like a sponge. Like I said, mentorship is essentially friendship, and friendships are developed with exchange of stories, thoughts, advice, musings, and shared activity.

Mentorship is such a wonderful gift for both the mentor and the one being mentored. They trust each other; they help each other along; there is a mutual respect; encouragement is exchanged. It is special, it is important, it is a lovely and beautiful thing. And being on Blake’s leadership retreat as a mentor/participant/dishwasher has really taught me so much about it that I do not think I would be able to understand before now.

I think mentorship is hugely important for those of us in our late teens and early 20s – both having a mentor, as well as being a mentor. It’s like teaching; when you teach something to someone else, you learn it better yourself. I’ve found it is the same with mentorship. Leading and guiding another person, whether you are doing so consciously and intentionally or not, helps you guide yourself and understand yourself better, which, in turn, helps you be a better mentor.

What are your thoughts on mentorship? Have you ever mentored someone, or been mentored? What sorts of experiences have you had?