The Value Of Mentoring
The Value Of Mentoring
When I was seventeen years old, I moved away from home to go to university in Victoria, British Columbia. Like most students in their first year, I was young and naïve, with next to nothing in terms of life experience. The shift from adolescence to adulthood involves considerable turbulence, both internal and external, and I was right in the eye of that storm. But I had no idea what was going on.
One evening, a dear friend of my family’s invited me to have dinner with her. This woman was a friend of my parents, and had known me from infancy. My guess is that she had decided that, as I was far from home, it might be an idea to check in on me. She was a practising nurse and visual artist.
Around that time, she was working at an outreach clinic that provided health and social care for people who were homeless and in difficult circumstances. She had come to know many of them personally. Sometimes, when she was on a break during a shift, she would offer to sketch portraits of those she was caring for, if they wanted. She used charcoal or oil pastels, which she kept in the boot of her car, along with her drawing pad. Making portraits of the people visiting the clinic was an act of kindness and also gave her the chance to practice her greatest joy, which is creating art. Whenever we would meet, she would have a portfolio of drawings with her; safeguarding lost souls, it seemed, was integral to who she was.
If you had asked me to describe my relationship with her around that time, I probably would have said something like, ‘oh, she’s just a good friend’. But I see now that she was my first and most important mentor.
"By helping me to cultivate stillness and humility, my mentor empowered me to immerse myself in the turmoil that comes and goes in the imperfect business of living."
Over the course of the years, we have maintained a deep, trusting friendship through letters and phone calls. She knows me, probably better than anyone, even myself. I count my thirty-year conversation with her as one of the most precious things that has ever happened to me. Each time we write or speak, we begin with honesty, trust and spontaneity. I can tell her my darkest, most vagabond thoughts. When writing to her, I am often shocked by what blurts itself out onto the page.
Her great power is how she listens. When I tell her my story, she responds with her own story, which may or may not be similar, but will have a flourish of candour and humility. Her impressions and reactions to the comedies and tragedies of my life are seasoned with a dash of gently-worded insight. Her wise and mirthful responses always give me a window onto my own blind spot. I treasure our letters, and in moments of self-doubt, return to them for balm.
Mentoring has showed me that feeling lost in self-doubt or depression, or even just inertia, is precisely where I can begin to make sense of who I am and how I want to engage with the world. By helping me to cultivate stillness and humility, my mentor empowered me to immerse myself in the turmoil that comes and goes in the imperfect business of living. Learning to find the courage to try something I have never done before, and allowing myself to experiment (with great awkwardness and an absence of grace) beyond my comfort zone, has been the greatest gift of mentoring. I am also a life-long student of the art of self-forgiveness, perhaps life’s most exquisitely agonising lesson.
Having learned these lessons from mentoring, I was inspired to become a mentor so that I could offer this insight to others, particularly those who have been exposed to negative or unhelpful feedback along their journey. My hope is that I give my mentees something lasting that they can use to build strength, and to dare themselves into a fresh challenge.
This is the heart of mentoring. The mentor extends the offer of trust. The learner’s work is to forge this trust into courage.