Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Many Mentors

In my post on "Nannies first; Children Second", I wrote about the value of inter-generational friendships to our children.  These kinds of friendships are just as important for us as they are for our kids.  Grown-ups don't have nannies, but we do benefit from the advice and encouragement of other adults, and sometimes we just need someone to take care of us, too.

One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was starting out in my own career was: choose your own mentors.  I love making lists, so I took this advice to a bit of an extreme.  I made a page of all sorts of areas in my life where I might need advice, and wrote down the people I'd turn to.

I'm a math professor.  Professors do three kinds of things:  we teach, we do "service" (committee work and larger community service), and we do research.  The professional parts of my mentor list had a 3-by-3 grid covering each of those three areas.  In each of those areas, I chose three people I admired: someone within my department, someone at my college but outside of my department, and someone outside my college.  I'm guessing these general categories might apply to any professional person.

But I also chose personal mentors.  I chose mentors who I thought could provide advice and encouragement in these areas:
  • how to parent my daughter (at the time I was a single mom, so I really appreciated outside help),
  • how to do household repairs, 
  • local (living in my city) matters,
  • gardening, and
  • someone I could call at 3 a.m.
After I made this very long list, I called or emailed each of the people I'd written down, and I told them of their new role in my life.  Some of these people I knew well; but for many of them, I quaked in my boots at the thought of bothering them.  Still, I let them know that they were on my list.  It seemed to me that each of these people was flattered (even the 3 a.m. person seemed to be cautiously honored by her new-found role).  Most people are flattered to be asked for advice -- I know that now that I'm an old-and-wise professor, I've had a lot of such requests, and each request has perked me up rather than ground me down.  I've always worked hard to make time to respond.

Over the years, I've learned I needed to add a sort of a "spiritual mentor" to the list.   One of my good friends is the one I go to when I just can't figure out how to forgive another person in my life -- letting that resentment eat at me just drags me down.

Thinking ahead of time of "who do I call when I need help?" took a huge amount of worry out of my life.  But the act of reaching out to these people was the best part of making this list.  I forged ties with people who had been my heroes then -- and most of those people have remained important parts of my life ever since, which has been a real blessing to me and my family.

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