What should an engineer be thankful for?
The usual seasonal platitudes might include being born into a situation that afforded a shot at an engineering education. One might be grateful for the education itself — but most American folks feel that their education was something they bought, rather than a gift. We might be grateful for the particular care or dedication of a particular professor or manager — gifts in the realm of the undeserved or unearned. Among the most powerful of these gifts is to have a true mentor.
We learn from many along the way: managers, colleagues, teachers and parents. They all deserve a special place in making us wha we are. Some of us have coaches, and we of course have learned at their table. But coaches live near the slippery slope of professionals just doing their job, and the ulterior motive of supporting their families can give us pause (sometimes undeserved) about their idealism. Mentors are a bit different because in spite of having the same kind of long term commitment to us as a coach, their role as mentor is usually incidental to some other role in our life constellation. That other role can of course be that of manager or teacher or advisor. We don’t remember all managers, or all teachers, as mentors. We remember our mentors as mentors, much as we think of our parents as parents — the parallels between the two run strong.
There is something spiritual about the relationship between mentor and mentee. A mentor is a teacher, and we explicitly lift up that a caring kind of teaching is going on in that relationship. The dictionary suggests that experience and trust are key to mentoring.
I was assigned a mentor during my early days at Bell Labs. He had all the wisdom of two more years of service than I did. He maybe invested 20 or 30 hours in mentoring me over the first year (2000 hours) of my job — if one can call such a level of investment mentoring. I’m sure he cared about my success, but I can’t say that he was invested in it. Which is mentoring?
One of my most profound mentors was Jerry Weinberg, who epitomizes many of the best qualities of good mentors. He was able to develop empathy with my situation and yet maintain a degree of objectivity. He could tell me I was full of crap when he thought so. And, most of all, we connected with each other because we wanted to — not because of any obvious “professional” motive such as was at play with my Bell Labs mentor. Sure, we both benefited from the good feelings about the relationship and for the prospects of how it would help one (or both) or us improve our judgment and the other (or both) have increased influence. What made it powerful is that it was Two, focused on One. The One was me. For Jerry to invest the time in that relationship without expectation of return was a great gift.
Larry Constantine was another — sharing painful lessons and powerful metaphors from his career. The sharing was deep, and personal. My old technical manage Neil Haller got me interested in running, and we had many mentorly chats while pounding the pavement during the lunch hour.
I in turn have tried to give back — through spiritual, long-term investments in people. Similar to the Danish concept of friend which is usually limited to two or three in number, and which tend to last decades, my concept of mentoring is concentrated and focused. How about yours?