Mentor Envy

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom


Don Quixote

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article on the importance of mentoring relationships to the student experience. The article led with a photo and profile of a beaming mentoring pair: an undergraduate student at Denison and a faculty member in anthropology and sociology. The article detailed all the components of this mentoring relationship, ranging from unscheduled office drop-ins to the occasional lunch.

Although my undergraduate days are long past, I confess to feeling a quick pang of envy when I first saw the article. So what’s that all about? I was lucky to have some great mentors as both an undergraduate and grad student, and I continue to rely on mentor figures to this day. But did my primary undergraduate mentor have lunch with me on a regular basis and encourage casual drop-ins? Would our connection have been so magical that a reporter from the Chronicle would have spotted us chatting on campus and said, “Hey, I’ve just got to photograph that!”

I caught myself thinking that I should have had the “perfect” mentoring relationship at some point—a feeling perhaps, not so different from wanting the “perfect” relationship with a parent, a sibling, a best friend or significant other. And before you fault me for being hopelessly idealistic, I’d like to point out that academia totally romanticizes the mentoring relationship. For example, the excellent mentoring workshop at The Graduate School (which I encourage everyone to attend) always kicks off with the legend of Mentor, the Goddess of Wisdom who disguises herself as an old family friend so Telemachus can cope while his father Odysseus is off fighting the Trojan War.

The Goddess of Wisdom …. In addition to being all-knowing, your mentor should have magical powers to boot.

It Takes A Village, or A Board

Alternative models for mentoring speak precisely to the difficulties inherent in relying on a single person for all of your mentoring needs. And although the Graduate School workshop uses Mentor as a starting point, it progresses towards recommending a multifaceted structure, best known as the “Board of Directors.” This notion assumes that everyone benefits from having multiple mentors, and that different “board members” can speak to different stages and components of a professional life. (To see what this model might look for a grad student, see “It’s All About Community,” on the GradLogic blog.)

A “Board of Directors” model de-emphasizes the relational components of mentoring. While you might expect to have occasional lunch with your mentor, the member of the board can be the guy you seek out for an occasional 10-minute phone call or extended email exchange.

——- ♦ ——-

In the real world, our mentors—even the fantastic ones—don’t answer to our beck and call.

——- ♦ ——-

Problem solved, right? Not so much. As relational creatures, we find the legend of Mentor appealing. We all want access to many individuals who can help out in a pinch. But isn’t it better to rely on people who have a stake in your success, who always root for you and help you feel good about yourself?

That attractive-sounding strategy has its shortfalls. In the real world, our mentors—even the fantastic ones—don’t answer to our beck and call. More importantly, sometimes their advice doesn’t take into account all the competing demands and pressures we must navigate. And as professional circumstances change, the mentor who can advise effectively in one situation may struggle to help you figure out another.

At some points during your education and later career, for whatever reason, you will almost certainly feel bereft of a mentor. This problem may be especially pronounced for people who struggle to find others they can easily relate to in a brand-new (or even familiar) setting. This category includes:

  • graduate students from populations underrepresented in academe, including racial/ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, women, and members of the LGBTQ community;
  • junior and mid-career faculty, from all the same categories as above;
  • women and minorities taking on formal leadership positions, whether inside or beyond the academy; and
  • anyone transitioning from one career field to another (such as an academic seeking a life beyond the academy or a move from being a scholar/teacher to full-time administration)

As someone who relates especially well to bullet No. 4, I can testify firsthand to how bewildering and painful it can feel not to have a mentor at a critical time. Trying to figure out the nonacademic job market (while still holding down a 4/4 teaching load), initially felt like walking into a sandstorm. At times like these, one craves the security and comfort of a Fairy Godmother (or Father), a MENTOR.

But sometimes the Board of Directors has to suffice. By seeking out multiple people, each of whom could understand or relate to at least a single small piece of my experience, I discovered that you don’t always have to find your imagined self (10 years into the future) to obtain the guidance you need to move forward.

Access to Wisdom

A few years ago, someone gifted me a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms. One especially profound quote sticks in my memory: “They will envy you for your success, your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks, for your status—but rarely for your wisdom.”

I heartily agreed with that aphorism when I first read it, but now I’m less sure. Or perhaps we at least envy access to wisdom. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in envying other people their sage mentors. And that tells us something. To envy something suggests that you perceive the resource as both valuable and scarce. In a time of both unprecedented information overload and rapid change in intellectual currents and employment patterns (both within and beyond the academy), we thirst for guidance and advice that speak, directly and empathetically, to our unique situations, skillsets, and goals.

At bottom, perhaps what we really need is for someone simply to affirm our value and reassure us that others will, as well. That’s the first step out of the sandstorm.

And whether it takes a MENTOR or a Board, persist in your search for the not-perfect but perfectly adequate people to guide your way. Your future depends upon it.