Please, let me be myself

I’ve written before about the importance of being a mentor and and I’m proud to say that one of my mentees recently wrote a good educational piece on tips for a successful mentorship. But recently I’ve had more than one friend ask me not about mentoring per se, but how to help a mentor let go.

Firsthand experience as a parent and a mentor has taught me that it’s easy to get trapped into smothering someone when all you want is to protect them from harm and then help them succeed to heights greater than those you have achieved. Unfortunately, as time goes by, you lose track of how much your kids have matured or how much your mentee has grown as a professional. You see things from the inside looking out — from a place where you notice from time to time how the person you’re looking out for has changed. But from the outside looking in, other people see a child or a young professional who is blossoming and ready to burst open, sharing their beauty and brilliance with the world. The trouble is, you may be standing in their way and need to remove your shadow, letting the sun shine directly upon them.

If you do not learn this lesson the easy way, by realizing for yourself that it’s time to let your child or your mentee venture forth on their own, you might end up learning it the hard way. With kids, that’s often through rebellious acts that make you wonder what happened to the small, innocent person you’ve been trying to protect all these years. And for that young professional in your life, it might suddenly seem that they aren’t asking for help and advice as often as you are dishing it out.

As a mentor, you might at first start to resent this lack of interest in your experience and your advice, thinking that the young person is starting to get a big head about their abilities. But if you find yourself going there, take a step back and look at your relationship from the outside in. Is it really that your mentee is getting too big for their britches and doesn’t appreciate you anymore? Or is that you, as a mentor, don’t want to admit that your work is done and it’s time to let that young professional be just a professional in their own right?

Great mentoring relationships can often turn into great friendships. It is sometimes difficult to accept that transition, because it means that young person you’ve been protecting, guiding and helping is suddenly speaking to you more as an equal. They have grown because as a young professional that’s what they do, naturally and with a quickening pace. But you, as a more experienced and older professional, may find that your growth has slowed. So, you take solace in knowing that while your career isn’t expanding rapidly anymore, you can at least help someone by finding them a job or “putting in a good word” for them when you hear they’ve applied someplace.

The trouble is that most mentoring relationships, and parenting relationships, will reach a point that your trying to help isn’t really helping at all, and in some ways may be hurting. As the father of two teenage girls, I’ve had to face the facts lately that my days of protecting and caring for them are far from over, but that my ability to take care of them completely are coming to a close. They are going to be reaching new plateaus in their development as people and, soon, as young professionals. I hope they find a mentor who can take over for them where I’ve left off and help guide them for a while as they start to chart the unsteady course of a career.

I also hope, however, that the mentor they find will realize that their role will change over time, as well. The letter of reference a young professional once needed from you might not help a few years later. And, certainly, unsolicited contact from a parent or a mentor to a potential employer is a recipe for trouble. The employer could wonder why this young professional, whom they are considering handing over great responsibility to, is still being protected by someone. How will they handle the stress of the job they are being considered for if they can’t even get through the interview process unassisted?

So what’s a parent or mentor to do? You are to take that seedling you first meet, water and feed them and let the sun shine upon them in doses so they grow strong but not so quickly that their stalk breaks before they are ready for their flower to enter full bloom. And when you finally see that tiny bud ready to burst forth and embrace the sunlight and all the world has to offer, you need to get your shadow out of the way. You need to let them be seen for the person and professional they are. And on those days when it rains, you can always return, offering the comfort of your shadow until the sun burns brightly again. Basically, you can be their friend but, as the band 3 Doors Down sings, you can let them be themselves…

I guess i just got lost
Bein’ someone else
I tried to kill the pain
Nothin ever helped
I left myself behind
Somewhere along the way
Hopin to come back around
To find myself someday

Lately i’m so tired of waiting for you
To say that it’s ok, but tell me
Please, would you one time
Just let me be myself
So i can shine with my own light
Let me be myself
Would you let me be myself

I’ll never find my heart
Behind someone else
I’ll never see the light of day
Living in this cell
It’s time to make my way
Into the world i knew
Take back all of these times
That i gave in to you

Lately i’m so tired of waiting for you
To say that it’s ok, but tell me
Please, would you one time
Let me be myself
So i can shine with my own light
And let me be myself
For a while, if you don’t mind
Let me be myself
So i can shine with my own light
Let me be myself

That’s all i’ve ever wanted from this world
Is to let me be me

Image courtesy of www.hiren.info; lyrics courtesy of 3 Doors Down.

This is why we teach

I’ve been an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University for 10 years this December. Looking back, I had no idea how many lives I would be touching in positive ways when I walked into my first classroom and wrote my name on the chalkboard. (For the record, I think I’ve used a chalkboard once in the past five years.)

Being a teacher isn’t easy. In this era of whirlwind technological developments, every week adds another handful of things to the stack of information to share with your students so they can be as well-educated as possible when they leave your classroom. Of course, just because something new has come along, that doesn’t necessarily mean something older can now be ignored. Sure, some stuff can drop off, but it’s rare to find things that don’t retain some relevancy in a lesson plan due to historic impact or context.

The pay isn’t great for adjunct instructors, but then, school teachers in general are not at the top of the pay scale in most cities. There are plenty of issues to deal with when it comes to keeping up with lesson plans, student homework assignments, grading, testing, attendance, excuses, requests for extra help and basic politics that occur in any job. So, one might wonder, what keeps teachers coming back into that classroom day after day, week after week? Why do we teach?

It’s about the students. It’s about seeing those lightbulbs go off over their heads when they figure something out. It’s about watching them grow and mature, finding the courage to finally speak up during a class discussion to offer an answer to a teacher’s question or an opposing viewpoint for other students to consider.

At the college level I have the joy of watching young adults move from student to intern, from entry-level worker to experienced employee. I have kept up with a number of students over the years and am thrilled to see them succeed and prosper. I always like to think I have played some role in their achievements. Maybe those current events quizzes that I forced on them every week to a never-ending stream of groans and whines actually made a difference! Maybe being harsh on them with my red pen — “bleeding all over their work,” as one student once told me — helped them become better writers and editors. Or maybe just being a sounding board by responding to their requests for advice on classes, classwork, internship options and networking opportunities helped make that one big choice that led them down the right path.

I received an e-mail yesterday from a student who recently graduated. She started out with, “Just wanted to let you know that I’ve landed my dream job.” And she ended with, “I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me over the years. I wouldn’t have been prepared for an opportunity like this without your help, advice and wisdom!”

Thank you Michelle — this is why we teach.

Mentor, mentee, repeat

I often advocate for the idea of mentoring younger people in your profession because of the fantastic opportunities for learning that can arise from it.

The person you are mentoring can see firsthand how you’ve shaped your career and can learn from your experiences — both positive and negative. Plus, you have the opportunity to be the mentee — to learn a tremendous amount about the younger generation and, sometimes, about the technology they have grown up with but that you are still trying to master.

More important than that, however, is the feeling of wonder, excitement and joy you feel when you see the person you’ve been mentoring stand on their own two feet, spread their wings and finally jump out of the nest.

I had this experience just yesterday and I’m sharing this personal story because I hope it inspires you.

Almost a year ago, I met Becky Johns, a young professional who was just graduating from college. She started as an intern at Delta Dental of Michigan. She worked her tail off and impressed a lot of people. I like to think that, thanks to a little mentoring from me, she also learned better how to network and show her value to the company and to professionals around town and online. Her hard work and my perseverance through a jungle of red tape resulted in a full-time job being offered to Becky.

We make a good team at work because we have discovered that mentoring is a two-way street. She learned a lot from me. I don’t say that to sound conceited, I think it’s just a fact of life. I’m 20 years her senior and I’ve held a variety of jobs in journalism, media relations and public relations. I’ve been around the block more times than she has and I was happy to share my experiences with her.

At the same time, I’ve learned a lot from her. I’ve learned about her generation and what makes it tick, in ways that I don’t from the classroom-based interactions I have as an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University. I’ve learned to be a calmer person because mentoring Becky has helped me put things in perspective. I know that if I’m going to blow up over something, I have to justify it to her. So, I’ve often found that remaining calm and just working toward a solution is setting a better example for her.

And yesterday, in what I’m sure was a tough conversation for her to initiate, Becky told me she’s ready to leave the nest. She’s ready to strike out on her own and no longer be seen as “Ari’s intern.” She’s fighting to make a name for herself in a way that ensures the first question she gets when attending conferences isn’t, “Where’s Ari?” She was almost apologetic, telling me that she needed to get out from under my shadow.

Honestly, I was a little put off at first. I joked with her to “not forget about me” when she makes it to the big times. Deeper inside, though, I was disappointed that she felt like she didn’t need me as much as she used to. And I couldn’t help being a little jealous, watching her career and her networking starting to take off, knowing that she is already finding success at an age earlier than I did.

And then, I realized that this is exactly what mentoring is all about. It’s about teaching someone how to fly and then cheering when they jump out of the nest. It’s about knowing you’ve done your job as a mentor well enough that the person who looked up to you now feels confident enough to speak to you as an equal. And it’s about instilling in someone the passion to succeed and to share that success with someone in the future by becoming a mentor themselves.

For mentoring to be successful, it needs to be more than just a concept. It needs to be a living, breathing thing that ebbs and flows like the tide. It needs to follow a cycle of mentor, mentee, repeat.

So get out there and find a young person who needs a mentor. You’ll be amazed at how much you can learn.

(Bird photo courtesy of novemberwolf’s Flickr stream.)

(Becky Johns photo courtesy of Becky Johns.)