Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Manatees looking for mentos

We've been rewatching the early seasons of 30 Rock--and I'm struck, as I wasn't the first time around, by what the show gets right about mentorship.

On the one hand, the relationship between Jack and Liz is a wish-fulfillment, fantasy version of the mentor-mentee relationship: out of nowhere, this powerful, senior person elects you to be his mentee! He's seen your potential, and now he wants to lavish you with attention and give you the benefit of his years of experience.

And that part--well, if you're waiting for that kind of mentor, you'll be waiting a long time.

But the show is right that mentors find you more often than the other way around. Unless the mentor relationship occurs within a formalized workplace program, it happens pretty much solely at the senior person's discretion. Sure, you can take some initiative in getting a potential mentor's attention, but as 30 Rock demonstrates, the mentor's own investments and fantasies are as important as you, your potential, and whatever you actually need. Someone who wants to mentor you is almost certainly someone who likes to think of himself as a mentor. Jack has so much enthusiasm for mentoring it's like he's selling patent medicine.

What follows from that is that a mentor's investments in you (or in your shared workplace or profession) may not always overlap perfectly with what you need from them. When Jack sticks to "leadership" issues, he's got something to offer. But when he starts pitching ideas for the show, he's just another suit who thinks he's got a creative side. So if you're lucky enough to have someone who decides they want to mentor you, think about what you actually need from them, and be attentive to whatever else might be motivating their advice. Usually it's pretty benign--your mentor sees some part of himself in you; he wants to help build up the department you share; he regrets some mistakes he made with his own first book--but it's never purely about you.

The corollary, though, is that a mentor doesn't have to be perfect, or be able to help you in all areas of your professional life--and if his politics or personal life (or even his field of study or theoretical or methodological approach) are totally alien to you, so what? A mentor only needs to be smart and helpful in one area to be a good mentor.

And who knows? Maybe you'll find someone who'll be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap.


Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Corollary to this excellent advice is that you need multiple mentors, each with their own particular expertise to impart.

Flavia said...


Yes, that's exactly right. Frankly, I think the term "mentor" is somewhat unhelpful, in that it implies not only a single person, but also someone who helps you with lots of areas of your professional life--and who takes on the role in a quasi-formal way (all things that Jack does, but that few real-life mentors do). The reality is that lots of people help you in lots of ways (and many of them are peers or near-peers, not people vastly senior to and more powerful than yourself).

Sheryl Sandberg talks about this in Lean In--her chapter on finding/recognizing mentors is maybe the most useful one for academics.

Withywindle said...

You look for a mentor, sometimes you find a minotaur.

Flavia said...


"Minotaurs and Manatees" would make an excellent video game.