On Mentors

One of the things that I noticed when I left university is how many people profess interest in finding a mentor. No surprise, then that a Google search for "looking for a mentor" gets more than a hundred million results.

What is a mentor? The term comes from a proper name. In the Odyssey, Mentor is a friend to Odysseus' son, Telemachus. Mentor is a respected pillar of the community, one who has found his place in the world, and he gives the young man good advice about how to behave in difficult situations. Importantly, I think, Mentor needs to play this role because Odysseus is absent at Troy. In this sense, Mentor is a surrogate father. Why, one might ask, the sudden need for surrogate fathers?

I can think of a few possibilities. One of these is cynicism. Most people, and most men in particular, have a capacity to view a younger man as a surrogate son. Instead of watching the growth of a young rival with fear and envy, the mentor takes joy in accomplishments that are in some way paternally shared. It helps that mentors are often older, and so not likely to ever compete directly with those whom they mentor. Even so, aspiring mentors might recall that history's most famous mentor was Julius Caesar, and the object of his paternal affections was one Marcus Junius Brutus.

Or perhaps there is a rush for mentors because their assistance really is needed to get the work done. Of course it is always very useful to learn tips from one's colleagues, but a mentor is surely not required for this. The problems that Mentor helps Telemachus to address are genuinely difficult - they require diplomacy and tact. Is the modern workplace more complex than ever before? Personally, I doubt it. But maybe the explanation goes in the other direction: maybe falling IQs leave people ever less able to cope with the demands of work.

But there is a third option. Once upon a time, apprenticeships led to mastery: one worked as an apprentice for a number of years, only to emerge as a master when one had learned all there was to learn. Apprenticeship was modeled on (and generally simultaneous with) adolescence; mastery came with growing up. But white collar work resembles perpetual apprenticeship. We all answer to managers, we are all forever developing our skills and being critiqued in how we do so. We are all lifelong learners, whether we pick up new skills or management techniques. Perhaps this is because mastery requires some concrete object, and so much white collar work is concerned with abstraction. At any rate, if we are perpetual adolescents, it is no wonder that we search out new fathers and seek their approval.