Mentorship by Sharon Melnick, MD

sharon melnick, md

 “You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.”

Galileo Galilei

Mentoring occurs when someone teaches by example. Beyond experience and knowledge, the mentor has established their personal credibility. A mentor may have a great deal to offer a mentee, but why is the learning so hard? I think it is more common than not that after about age 10, people hate being beginners or learners. We experience shame in saying we don’t know something and humiliation at not being very good right away. Providing mentorship requires humility. A good mentor shares their humiliations, disappointments, and regrets, as well as their successes, with humor and grace.

Mentoring requires a willingness to teach on the part of the mentor, and a willingness to learn on the part of the mentee. Teaching is much more than imparting information. The art of mentoring is helping the mentee become ready to learn. The mentor looks for “teachable moments” within the context of their personal relationship. Common mentoring techniques include accompanying, sowing, catalyzing, showing, harvesting. Harvesting bears a moment’s reflection. It requires the skill of mindfulness. We ask the mentee, we ask ourselves, what have we learned from an experience? How will we remember it? How did it change us? The value of appreciating one’s own process and progress, the value of our individual journey, cannot be over stated.

In Age-ing to Sage-ing, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi reminds us that eldership is the work of the last third of life. The first third of life is dedicated to learning and training. The task of the middle third is generativity – growing families, businesses, friendships and commitments.  Reb Zalman teaches  “harvesting” when we reflect on what  50, 60, 70 years of living has made us and can put that awareness into words that have purpose and meaning for one who might ask.

Elders should never stop being learners. Working with young adults, I am shown a world of social connectedness and electronic ease and I am their student. I appreciate students sharing with me what they are reading, why they like the music they do, what is the new video game. Their youth enlivens and informs me. Dragonfly students in turn have been highly appreciated mentors at the After School Mentoring Program in Klamath Falls. Young people learn mentoring when the new 7th grade students at junior high get 8th graders as guides. When young people are encouraged to mentor, mentoring becomes woven into their personhood, who they are in the world. At its core, mentoring is being truly helpful, at the right time, in the right way. And without expectation of appreciation or remuneration.

I ask people from whom will they seek and accept counsel. And I find that seeking, valuing, accepting, using counsel does not happen naturally or easily for many.  We have secrets; we have been betrayed; we don’t want to bother anyone. Childhood issues with parents and authority figures interfere with adult learning relationships. We don’t know whom to trust. A natural consequence of the nuclear family is we may not have many deep relationships with people whom we know and trust and who are committed to our success and happiness.

Mentorship has become a field in human resource management and leadership development replete with textbooks and trainings, and is not effortless. For each generation since the industrial age, our lives are very different from our parents. Much of their skills and experiences don’t help the next generation, faced with new problems and supplied with different tools, and living in new places in a world that is very technological and complex.

I may romanticize human’s tribal and agrarian past, but I think in prior epochs, children learned from their parents and community effortlessly. In the ideal, we would live in a clan of about 40 people, none of whom are strangers to us. And without effort, we learn from their successes and failures. Traveling in the upper Amazon, I see children working side by side with their parents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, learning from them all, as naturally as breathing. For most of human history, we lived lives not much different than our parent’s and grandparent’s. And not much further from where we were born.

Modern life has not given us more leisure time; we are busier than ever. We have to slow down and make time for giving or seeking mentorship. Mentoring requires a generosity of self. The best mentors know very well that ultimately, we each have to learn certain lessons for ourselves, no matter what anyone else can tell us.

Should those who are wiser than I wish to improve and instruct me,

let my soul gratefully follow their guidance;

for vast is the extent of our art”.   

-Daily Prayer of a Physician  Maimonides


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