Padawan Lesson: On Mentors

“It is the parent who has born me:  it is the teacher who makes me a man.” – Bushido

It seems the universe is speaking to me lately.  Several things have indicated to me that It wants me to write something about the importance of mentors.  My readings of late, and the recent visit from my good friend Dr. Bryan Chung (PT/OT, PhD, MD, plastic surgeon) have all led me to ruminations in regard to why mentorship is important, and how a Padawan should best take advantage of the Master-Padawan relationship.

History and entertainment are filled with representations of great thinkers and achievers who all began their development as Padawans.

Luke and Obi-wan (and then Yoda)
Alexander and Aristotle
Bruce Lee and Ip Man
Faraday and Davy
Daniel-san and Miyagi
Robin and Batman (what? Did you think I wouldn’t include this one?)

The best explanation I’ve read in regard to why the mentor-student relationship is so important comes from Robert Greene’s Mastery:

“The reason you require a mentor is simple: Life is short; you have only so much time and so much energy to expend. Your most creative years are generally in your late twenties and on into your forties. You can learn what you need through books, your own practice, and occasional advice from others, but the process is hit-and-miss. The information in books is not tailored to your circumstances and individuality; it tends to be somewhat abstract. When you are young and have less experience of the world, this abstract knowledge is hard to put into practice. You can learn from your experiences, but it can often take years to fully understand the meaning of what has happened. It is always possible to practice on your own, but you will not receive enough focused feedback. You can often gain a self-directed apprenticeship in many fields, but this could take ten years, maybe more.”

I’ve been fortunate to have had several mentors at key times in my life whether they were coaches, teachers, friends, or colleagues.  I’ve also been in situations where I’ve been isolated and had to rely on my books and my brain mixed with some safe experimentation to find my way.  I’d have to agree that mentorship is a catalyst to accelerate learning and effective practice.

Bryan’s (AKA Dr. Chung’s) recent lecture at IFAST wrapped with some great advice that pointed toward the topic of the need and value for mentorship.  Bryan presented a modified representation of Gordon Guyatt’s model of evidence-based medicine.

Used with permission from Dr. Bryan Chung

Used with permission from Dr. Bryan Chung

Of note is the modification of the influence of research evidence in the development process.  It’s not that it lacks value, but when considering a Padawan’s knowledge base upon entering into the student-mentor relationship, he may not even be able to read the peer-reviewed research critically to draw effective, accurate conclusions or associate new information with his current level of understanding. The mentor, through clinical experience and accumulated knowledge of his own, provides a filter and a concentration of information that allows the Padawan to absorb a greater total quantity of useful information in a shorter period of time.  Associations can be presented that a Padawan may never have made on his own.

Bryan’s model then is further modified to reflect the important influence of the mentor in regard to the Padawan’s model for learning.

Used with permission from Dr. Bryan Chung

Used with permission from Dr. Bryan Chung

With this in mind, here are some advices (Arnold fans… did you see what I did there?) to assist in getting the most out of a mentorship.

Be a Sellout

I don’t mean this in the negative sense. What I’m implying is that you need to accept your mentor’s way as THE way at least temporarily. It is the fastest and easiest way to take advantage of their wisdom and expedite understanding. Prior to your mentorship, request books, readings, or videos that will support your learning process from the mentor’s perspective. A word of caution is necessary. Not all instructors are great mentors. At times, you may struggle with that fact. Endure as long as no ill intent is demonstrated as part of an interaction toward you or others. I’ve personally had “mentors” that unintentionally taught me to recognize what I did not want to become. Given time, people tend to show you who they really are. It’s painful but can be just as valuable.

Personalize the Mentorship

Every Padawan I teach is required to make a list of all the questions, topics, methods, and techniques in their notebook that they want to cover during their internship. Each week time is spent on addressing items on the list to assure that the Padawan receives his or her optimal experience. If the Padawan is dissatisfied, it is then his or her fault for not completing the list. If This is done in addition to all other elements of the process that I deem essential to improve how the Padawan should think, behave, and problem solve.

If you are dissatisfied with your side of a self-chosen mentor-student relationship (some are forced into bad situations), take responsibility for it. You either chose the mentor unwisely or lacked the effort to take advantage of the relationship.

Observe and “Steal”

There are many things that are difficult to explain or express due to the specificity of situations that may occur in a client or patient interaction. Words, phrases, and body language all influence the outcome. Pay attention. Borrow stories, explanations, mannerisms, and jokes. In other words, steal a mentor’s “rap” until you develop one of your own.

Eddie Van Halen idolized Eric Clapton and is probably still capable of playing his music note for note, yet his playing sounds nothing like Clapton’s. Eddie did not invent tapping on the fretboard, but he evolved it into something unique and created his own style.

This reminds me of two things. One is the famous Bruce Lee quote, “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”

The second is a scene in the movie Finding Forrester where writer William Forrester instructs the young Jamal Wallace to start typing on of Forrester’s essays with the intent that the act of typing will lead Jamal to write his own words. In other words, borrow mine to find yours.

Remain critical and challenge your mentor’s ideas

You must eventually become independent in your thoughts and professional interaction. Your evolution to independence does not begin after your mentorship. It is an ongoing process from day one. While it is imperative that you accept the ways of your teacher as THE way at least initially, remain critical of everything that you’re presented. Go deeper and explore anything your find interesting or confusing or contradictory. Formulate questions that will allow you to access your mentor’s thoughts and reasoning that even he may not even be aware of. Challenge his ideas. Take his thoughts and compare them to your own. Experiment. Create something unique.

“Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Essential Reading:  Mastery by Robert Greene