I’ve had more than one conversation on the topic of mentoring in the past couple of weeks, starting with the Lisa Eggerton talk they had at work. The general consensus is that “mentor” is rather off-putting for lots of people. When someone asks to be your mentor, you start to imagine having to have regular meetings on top of your already busy day, think of ways to build up this other person, and scariest of all, be wise at all costs! After all, you’re a mentor!
No one’s ever asked me to be a mentor, which makes sense, because I’m not a high-powered executive and haven’t been for a long time. In fact, my career path is headed in a pretty downward direction right now. But, does that mean I don’t mentor people? Nope, not at all.
The consensus among the women I’ve been talking to about mentoring is that it actually works better on an informal basis. When someone comes to you and tells you they’ve got a thorny problem to deal with and asks your advice, you’re mentoring them. And when a colleague gives you an insight into how you can do something better, that was being mentored. Not so scary. No one was under any (imagined) pressure to be wise and pithy, just to be helpful.
Thinking back, most of my mentors didn’t set out to mentor me at all; they just lived their lives ethically, kindly, and insightfully. I just watched, listened, learned, and asked a few questions. I didn’t formally ask, “Will you be my mentor?” like we were going to go steady (or however they put it now). (Thanks to Doc, Georgia, Steve, Roberta, Hedy, Mike, and Craig, to name a few who may have no idea they were mentors.)
And now, I do find colleagues asking me questions, often in my managerial role, where I give them pointers and ideas for doing their jobs better. I think that’s the most important role of a people manager: to help people grow in their jobs, find work they enjoy, and be productive. So, yay, I’m a mentor, too.
Sure, formal mentorship programs have their place, and there are some good ones where I work and in other workplaces. But, don’t think that you can’t serve as a mentor if you’re not a manager or if you’re “just” a friend. When we talk to each other, ask good questions, and really listen, we’ll find mentors everywhere we look!
Take advantage of your opportunities to both learn and teach others. It’s a good plan. Thanks to the coworkers who helped me think about this!
Here is a post where I lecture myself and remind myself of how one of my personality features bites me in the butt, repeatedly, for the same dang thing. It’s bugging me so much that I’ve started writing my own passive aggressive memes about it. I put a picture of Fiona enjoying Johnson grass under the words “You are responsible for your own happiness.” I felt good.
And, by the way, I am still occasionally annoyed beyond belief when people post thinly disguised “messages” to folks who are in their disfavor via memes. On the other hand, some of Kathleen’s do make me laugh, so I’m not saying y’all should never do it. Perhaps I just don’t like the ones aimed at me. Wow, that makes me sound like a jerk. Newsflash: I AM a jerk, at least in the eyes of some people. Hey, it reminds me of another meme I wrote years ago: No one is universally beloved unless they are boring as hell.
Where I’m going here is that I keep re-learning is that it’s not my job to “make” anyone else happy. In fact, when I try to do so, it usually blows up in my face in a spectacular manner. And I’m the one who gets hurt. That’s why I wrote a meme to remind myself. It said: “Reminder time: You’re not responsible for the happiness of others.”
I’ve probably mentioned this before, since I’ve been blogging so long, but indulge me as I repeat that one of my “features” is that I find sad people, see their good points, and want to help them become happier. This started in my twenties, where I tried to help a paranoid grad school friend realize that people weren’t always talking about him behind his back and the professors didn’t hate him just because one didn’t say hello in the hall. I knew I couldn’t “fix” him, but wanted to make things easier on him. Of course, he hurt me badly in the end. And I didn’t really help. I heard from him a few years ago, and he was still thinking everyone was out to get him. I didn’t contact him again.
Moving forward, many (okay, most) of my “love affairs” I now see as me trying to help someone sad feel better. Coincidentally, many had some pretty severe mental illnesses they were living with (a LOT of borderline personality disorder). I’d help with their self esteem and get them to a better place by being kind and listening a lot, but I couldn’t “cure” them, just show that they are worth caring for just as they are. Once that message sunk in, they’d move on to someone more well suited to them. And I’d be sad. I do hope the new relationships went well. And hey, I did eventually see my destructive pattern and STOP IT. Lee’s the last sad person I rescued, lol. I was also sad, though, so this time it was mutual, and we are sticking together through thick and thin.
It wasn’t just people I “fell in love” with. I also would come across younger folks and want to help them get a good start in life. Some of those actually worked out very well, and I have some great friends living wonderful, independent lives. But, I was still drawn toward people whose issues were really not something I could do anything about. I couldn’t “make” them happy by providing them with a safe home, sharing experiences with them, giving them tools for their hobbies, or anything. Mostly I now have a lot of baking and art supplies to show for that.
At least two of these people I tried to help and even brought into my home ended up lecturing me for being kind to them just to make me look good. I took that to heart. Maybe a lot of it was MY problem, not theirs. Ugh. All this self-evaluation is not fun or pretty. But I hope I learned the lesson that each of us is responsible for our own happiness, and while giving people a chance is good, they need to find their own way.
I need to keep writing myself some memes, though, because it has dawned on me that I’ve been trying to make life better to some other folks, STILL. I spend so much mental effort trying to figure out ways to make their lives easier and more pleasant. I want the people in my home and work life to feel like they’re contributing to society, cared for, and not alone. That’s probably okay. I still can’t “make” anyone feel less depressed, less unfulfilled, or satisfied with where their life has ended up. It’s not my job.
I say all that to try to reinforce it in my head. I’m NOT a failure if people I care about are not handling things well. I can’t rescue anyone, including myself! So, right now I’m working to get a better balance between caring for others and protecting myself from hurt. I know I’m not alone in this, but it’s damned hard. I’m not doing a good job of it a lot of the time. I’m wired to be an annoying rescuer, and I’m sure it came from growing up with a powerless, mentally ill mother, or whatever.
All’s not lost, though. I’ve been learning a lot in working with my team in Austin, and my boss has come up with this helpful way of looking at the mentor-mentee relationship. And that’s that the mentor can only give 50% of the effort in improving situations. The other person ALSO has to give their own 50%. Expecting someone to fix everything for you never works; you have to put in the effort. Thanks, boss, you super-stoic.
Forgive me if I’ve ever tried to help you and it made you upset or angry. I’m doing it because I also need help, ya know? Eventually I’ll figure out a balance between being part of a supportive community for those who could use some help and supporting my own self. Maybe even I’ll do better at asking for help. Those are some big dreams.
Until then, I’ll look for memes.
PS: On the podcast, I added that I may not have been clear here. I’m not saying you can’t support, love, and cherish people who are struggling, nor that you shouldn’t. I was trying to just make it clear that you can’t force people to not feel the way they feel. Did that help?