The word “mentor” doesn’t do justice to what a great one does. I’ve thought about mentoring for quite a while, mainly about the reciprocal nature of the relationship. It’s a dance, really, a pas de deux of mutual attraction and recruitment. But until this occasion—my first (cough) blog—I don’t think I’ve adequately acknowledged the generosity of a mentor. They do so much more than share their wisdom. They put their reputations on the line with every good word dropped, with every letter of recommendation. In that sense, mentoring is an act of faith.
Once in a while—rarely, you hope—you get burned by a mentee who didn’t live up to your expectations. When I recommend someone, I make an implicit promise that my student or colleague will perform well. But you can never be 100 percent sure, and you have no real control over how your mentee will perform in the future.
When I look back, I am stunned by the faith Douglas McGregor, then president of Antioch College, had in me, a 22-year-old freshman just back from serving in World War II. So much more faith than I had in myself. Over a half-century later, I still wonder how my life would have turned out had Doug not persuaded me to go to MIT. He also made damned sure I got in.
On my first day, I was warned by the MIT D department chairman: “We didn’t exactly throw our hats in the air over your application. Without Doug’s letter of recommendation …” His voice suddenly trailed off, and he looked vacantly into space before going on. That’s all I remember about my first day as a doctoral candidate, other than noticing banners dangling from the ceilings everywhere I looked, revealing MIT’s “welcoming” motto: “Tech Is Hell!”
Being Doug’s protégé was the next role that would shape my life. I had to become the person Doug vouched for, again and again. And by example he showed me how. I would not be writing this blog today if it weren’t for Doug, which is why I often tell my students, only half in jest: “Stalk mentors!”
A final word about the etymology of “mentor.” The great Greek warrior Odysseus was going off to battle, pained over the prospect of leaving Telemachus, his 11-year-old son, pretty much on his own. It also worried the supreme goddess, Athena. So, being a goddess with supernatural powers, she converted a stem cell of her own—how else?—into a half-man, half-woman residing in one body. She called it Mentor.
Under Mentor’s tutelage, Telemachus was turning into a formidable young man. When he was 15 or so, Mentor told him Odysseus had been captured and was marooned on an island and close to starving to death. The two of them immediately went to work building a sailboat to rescue Odysseus. They reached him on death’s bed. Odysseus continued to live a vigorous life under the care of Mentor and the grown-up Telemachus.
That cycle of rescue expresses the grace of mentoring. All mentors have been saved, one way or another, perhaps only in the memories of those whose lives they’ve touched. So listen up, mentors: Stalk mentees!
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