Musings

5 Not-So-Common Tips on Finding and Cultivating a Mentorship

  When pursuing excellence in a particular discipline - athletics, business, academics, music, “life” in general, you name it - finding and procuring a mentor to guide and sharpen you is not a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have.

I’m not going to delve into the why of the matter, however, as I believe you already know the why.

Besides, if the one and only Gandalf had mentors during his time on Middle-earth, then you and I both need them during our time on Regular-earth. The equation is simple.

Now, while the why may be simple, the how is a different matter entirely.

Many individuals recognize the supreme value of mentorship, but often feel stymied in their attempts to actually make it happen. This could be due to a variety of factors: lack of direction (“where do I even begin?”), fear of being turned down, or, quite frankly, laziness.

In my own life, while walking down the path of attempting to identify suitable mentors and enter into fruitful relationships with them, I’ve made no small number of mistakes. Fortunately, these mistakes have birthed many valuable lessons and insights which have enabled me to, eventually, experience some pretty amazing and invaluable mentorships that I am forever grateful for.

Here are a few fundamental principles and essential ground rules that I’ve picked up during my own personal journey.

1. It’s not necessary to find the highest-level expert in the field

Say what?

This statement may catch you by surprise. After all, why wouldn’t you want an unrivaled expert in your field of interest to be the very one who personally teaches you, nurtures you, guides you, challenges you during the process of honing a specific skill set or discipline?

There are many answers to that question, but one of the most important is this: they may not be the best teacher.

[As an aside: while mentor and teacher are not synonymous, all mentors are teachers to some degree, which is why I raise this point.]

The interesting thing about true masters of a specific domain, is that they’ve been so deeply intertwined with the subject for so long that the fundamentals, the critical information that a beginner must learn during the early stages of skill acquisition, have become so deeply internalized that these basic principles are now seamlessly integrated into their actions without even having to think about them.

As Josh Waitzkin aptly put it, the foundational steps are no longer consciously considered, but lived.

“Very strong chess players will rarely speak of the fundamentals, but these beacons are the building blocks of their mastery. Similarly, a great pianist or violinist does not think about individual notes, but hits them all perfectly in a virtuoso performance. In fact, thinking about a “C” while playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony could be a real hitch because the flow might be lost.”

~Josh Waitzkin (8-time national chess champion and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt)

What’s the point to all that? Well, this can make it very difficult for a well-seasoned maven to dig back down into the depths of their mind, in order to extricate, section out, and then teach the basal yet essential principles they learned long ago but now employ unconsciously.

It’s not that they can’t teach or mentor a student in the ways of their craft, but they may not be able to do so as well as others in the field. There’s a large difference knowing and teaching. For example, I’m sure many of you can recall a prior physics or math teacher, or sport instructor, who may have been brilliant within their craft but yet you had a difficult time learning while under their tutelage.

This concept even carries over to reading books. As I’ve sought to improve my chess game, I’ve actually found it quite helpful to not exclusively buy books written by Grandmasters (the highest achievable title in chess). You would think that a Grandmaster would be the best person to learn chess from, but, for reasons mentioned above, this isn’t always the case. For example, I have found treasure troves of insight within the works of Jeremy Silman, an International Master (one step below Grandmaster) who has built a strong reputation for his ability to teach beginners, despite the very fact that he is not a Grandmaster. It’s his knowledge of the game, in concert with his gift of teaching, that makes him shine, not the standalone fact that he’s a highly ranked chess player.

Ergo, when you seek mentorship from someone: they don’t have to be the absolute best; in fact, it may very well be optimal if they are not. You don’t need to head straight to the tip-top of the skill pyramid. Often you can find someone who is still extremely proficient (way more so than you), who will be able to instruct you and augment your learning process in a manner much more effective than even the “best” within that discipline.

Find a great teacher. Not necessarily the unparalleled expert.

2. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a formal, official arrangement

Probably one of the worst things you could do upon discovering a prospective mentor is to call them up and ask, “Hey, do you want to mentor me?” This is tantamount to you calling and saying, “Hey, do you want to take on an unpaid, part-time job?”

While I’d be remiss to assert that no successful mentorship has ever been started this way, this doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an odd way of asking. Even if they do say yes, it puts them in the awkward position of feeling like they need to plan out regimented meetings and send out a syllabus or something.

Here’s one of the most important things to know about mentors: a mentor is anyone you can learn from, who can impart wisdom upon you, who can directly or indirectly help to guide the decisions you make and actions you take. He or she can be a family member, a coworker, someone you already interact with quite regularly, or perhaps someone you only speak to on a quarterly basis. It also helps to ensure this individual is not a fool.

Some of my best and most fruitful experiences with mentors have risen out of informal relationships. From time to time, usually without it being planned in advance, they’ll provide me with a gem of seminal insight, or a particularly profound nugget of wisdom, which permanently alters my course for the better.

Should some mentorships be formal? Absolutely. But more often than not - at least during the beginning stages - it’s best to just let mentorship “happen.”

Don’t be the weirdo who comes right out and asks for it. That would be like my clumsy, ill-fated attempts to date a few women I fancied back in high school and college; rather than allowing our relationship to nurture and grow for a bit, and giving them subtle yet clear context clues of my interest, I just came straight out and asked, “Hey, would you like to be my girlfriend?”

Yeah, that rarely ended well.

3. Take a break and do something else together

Talk about things and do random crap that don’t at all pertain to your usual subject of study. Enjoy sarcastic banter and making fun of one another; grab a beer together; play a video game or chess; go on a bike ride; travel or go cliff jumping; play a sport; go see a movie or simply take a walk around town.

This accomplishes a couple things. First, it will help you connect to one another as human beings. It’s not rocket science: the more you get to know them, laugh together, and share a broad spectrum of experiences, the more you’ll be able to dismantle any personal barriers that you - often unintentionally - assemble and put up between you and other people. Within the context of mentorship, these personal barriers serve nothing other than to ultimately impede the learning process that could otherwise flourish unhindered between the two of you.

Second, and I can’t overstate this enough: it will nurture your creative processes in a profound way. Oddly enough, remaining singularly fixated on only the subject of study is not the optimal approach, even if your only goal is to learn that specific subject!

Steve Jobs knew this very fact, and summed it up well in an interview with Wired back in 1996:

“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. They don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have.”

~Steve Jobs

Broaden your experiences, not just as an individual but also with your mentor. It may seem like a waste of time, especially if you’re someone who becomes intensely obsessive with that one thing you’re trying to master or accomplish, but it will be more than worth it.

4. Remember they are not infallible beings

When you highly esteem someone, heavily admire their work, and love receiving advice from them, it can be easy to arrive at the subconscious conclusion that this person is without error or character flaws, to elevate them to something of a deity and hang on every word they speak or write as if it were inerrent ideology.

Then, when they inevitably crack (or shatter) the standard of perfection you’ve set for them - say, by making a mistake, or by slighting you in some way - it’s as if the ground crumbles beneath your very feet as the world comes crashing down around you. You either become pissed off at them and write off anything they ever said as fraudulent and worthless, or stew in despair and disbelief because the person who you believed would never mess up or upset you, just did.

Like anything in this world, when you make a good thing into an ultimate thing, it becomes an idol that will eventually enslave you, let you down, or both.

Nobody is perfect, and the privilege of being mentored by someone you highly respect is always an extremely delicate balance of trusting their wisdom and yet continually remembering they are nothing more than human; at the end of the day, they are prone to the very same pitfalls and character flaws as you. If they screw up, or irritate you in some way, just relax. Take a few deep breaths, forgive them, get over it, and get back on course.

5. Your personal network: don’t ignore the power of it, and don’t neglect to broaden it

While the maxim “it’s not what you know, but who you know” may be a cliche, that doesn’t make it untrue.

Everything from crucial internships, to the job I currently hold and love, to incredible opportunities I’ve experienced, to being connected with some crazy awesome and widely-respected mentors, have all been fruit I was able to pluck and enjoy as a result of seeds planted long ago in the form of interpersonal relationships.

This is one of the many reasons it’s imperative not only to refrain from burning bridges, but also to form as many as possible. You just never know how a friend, a prior coworker, or even an acquaintance, may be able to help connect you with a reputable individual who would otherwise be all but inaccessible. You can never have a network that is broad enough.

In fact - and I’m sure I speak for my fellow introverts when I say this - keeping in mind the above sentence is one of the primary tonics that keeps me going during formal social gatherings and conventions. You know, those dreaded events which require one to endure that insufferable affliction otherwise known as small talk. I would rather swallow a live hand grenade than spend a few hours small talking with strangers who I’ll probably never see again. But again, you really never know what may come as a result of it - they may be able to help you, or you may be able to assist them, in remarkable ways.

While by no means exhaustive, I hope the above points provide a small window of clarity into the often cloudy and undefined realm of mentorships.

Agree? Disagree? I’d be curious to hear anything you’ve found helpful, be it with the actual finding of mentors, or nurturing the relationship once it’s already formed.

Percolation of Lies: Why I Hate Nutritionally "Sensational" Headlines

This is why America has no idea what to eat. This is why our collective relationship with food is so darn complicated. The following is akin to the constant stream of media articles that claim a food is horrible one week and a wonder food the next. (We all know how  frustrating and confusing that is!)

Time ran an article about an Iowan science teacher, John Cisna, who ate nothing but McDonald's for three meals a day for 90 days and lost weight. It's also HERE entitled: "Man Loses Nearly 40lbs Eating Only McDonald's."

That's an extremely misleading title! While I can't blame the new sites for wanting catchy titles to reel in readers, the articles don't expound too much on Cisna's diet (or what the nutritional composition of those meals were) and they down play the plethora of other factors within his self-experiment.

A quick run-down on the facts expressed in the articles (in case you don't want to ready them). With the help of his class, John Cisna:

1. Constructed 3 meals based on a 2,000 calorie diet and the recommended intakes for protein, carbohydrates, and fat by the USDA (which I think are bunk, but that's a whole 'nother ball game).

2. Walked 45 minutes per day (when previously, he was doing no extra physical activity)

3. Resulted in a 37 lb weight loss and a drop in cholesterol from 249 (dangerously high) to 170 (decent level). His LDL dropped from 173 to 113. (also insanely high to an ok-level).

I'll state the glaringly obvious that, any a man who was quite overweight to begin with (280lbs) performing NO extra physical activity, and was probably over-eating anyway, WILL lose weight with calorie reduction and added physical activity. That's just physiology. At this point, ANYTHING he does towards reducing his calories and increasing his exercise will produce weight loss. Also, the cholesterol reduction is a result in the weight loss, not necessarily the food he ate. Can you start to see why this title is misleading?

To quote the man himself, "The point behind this documentary is, Hey, it's (a) choice. We all have choices. It's our choices that make us fat, not McDonald's." source

On one hand, I agree with Cisna; we are not victims of our environment, we do have the option to choose healthier foods when out to eat. No one forces us to purchase a Big Mac over a salad. It is imperative that we be wary consumers when fast food is involved (the food companies strive to make their food palatable, cheap, and addictive) and Cisna proved that when one digs a bit and is aware of the caloric values of food, that empowers us to make smarter food choices.

On the other hand, the real message is convoluted and lost amid that headline. It presents the situation as a justification for choosing McDonald's instead of  a home cooked meal. Or instead of a meal composed of WHOLE, minimally-processed foods ('cause I guarantee that McDonald's has very few whole foods on the menu.). Conveniently, you can read along with this handy ingredient guide. You'll want to refer to this as we move on.

Cisna admitted to having double cheeseburgers and a Big Macs throughout the experiment. Hmmm... Big Macs have roughly  29 grams of fat (and not the good kind check out the "Big Mac sauce"), 46 g of carbohydrates (definitely not the minimally processed kinds, look at the guide under "regular bun"), and 25 g of protein (but, really, where does that meat COME FROM?)

"Yeah Kelsey," you say, " we already KNOW that's not a 'healthy' choice." Fair enough, let's take a gander, shall we, at the yogurt parfait he ate regularly:

2 g of fat, 30 g carbohydrates, and 4 g of protein. Once again, I question the quality of the source of the fat and protein (from the milk). I can't imagine that the milk used in that is really that great. However, that is overshadowed by that 30 grams of carbs, that is, SUGAR. Highly processed, sugar (though there's a smidge of natural sugar in the milk and fruits, but it's NOT 30 grams worth). Don't believe me? Look up yogurt and granola in that handy guide. Ick. Sugar has, time and time again, been shown to be a culprit in increasing inflammation in the body and creating insulin resistance (to keep the list short), both of which are risk factors for Type 2 diabetes. The same criticism rings true for the maple oatmeal he ate, except that little bugger has some light cream in it... yum!

At first glance, the Eggwhite Delights that Cisna consumed seem like a good idea, only 250 calories each, oh but wait, check out the "whole" grain muffin and egg white and margarine ingredients. Super appealing right?

I could continue in this vein for a while, but I'll cease my tirade and allow my point to actually surface: 240 calories of crap is still crap. The composition of food absolutely matters. The message, as it stands on the surface, is still, "reach for processed foods over whole foods." How much BETTER do you think Cisna would feel if he had chosen whole, minimally processed foods?

I applaud Cisna for sticking with his endeavor, to keep walking even when he didn't want to, and to making conscientious food choices. I'm so glad he lost weight, is healthier than before, and has learned the value in monitoring caloric intake. This is a great stepping stone on his path to a healthier lifestyle. I hope very much that he will be able to continue without the help of McDonald's.

I think the true message of this experiment is food quantity and quality matter, along with regular exercise. Unfortunately, the second half, food quality, is buried under the lie that choosing "healthy" options at McDonald's is a viable way to improve health. Again, crap is still crap. Don't let the media's sensationalism divert you from the truth of eating real foods.