Recently I was approached by a young woman, Daphne Fecheyr-Lippens, who sought my advice at what she felt was a crucial but confusing point in her career. Daphne and I had only met once before. But that didn’t keep her from reaching out assertively to someone almost twice her age with an explicit request for support. I find that smart and brave.
Mentoring relationships between young and more mature people develop naturally in a family and educational context. (At least for those lucky enough. Research points out that a significant fraction of at-risk youth do not, at any point while growing up, have access to adult mentorship, structured or informal). However, my feeling is that young people are not sensitized enough to the value of mentorship beyond the traditional settings of family and school. The enormous, empirically validated, positive outcomes associated to mentoring are not brought to their attention. They are not taught what to expect from quality mentorship, how to respond to such a relationship in a way that optimally benefits mentor and mentee, and how to develop into mentors themselves. This is regrettable as an enormous potential for personal growth remains untapped.
I can testify to the invaluable importance of mentorship in my own personal development. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it has been at least as important as the influence of my parents and schooling. The love and attention that my parents put into my growing up, and the broad humanist-scientific horizon opened up by my education put in place a solid foundation for personal growth. But it has been my mentors’ hyper-personalized and empathetic support in negotiating my evolving learning edges that really gave me the confidence and tools to question myself and strive for excellence on an ongoing basis.
Here I’d like to share a few things I learned as a result of being part of long-standing relationships with several mentors. I hope these lessons will incentivize readers to go out and shape nourishing mentoring relationships themselves.
Dare to trust your gut feeling
Without fail the first encounters with my mentors-to-be made a strong impression. I immediately sensed that they were people I could learn a lot from. I was intimidated by them and felt attracted at the same time. Most of these encounters were live. I remember meeting Lorenzo Castore, who would take up a role as my ‘photography mentor’, at a workshop he was leading, back in 2007. Five minutes into his introductory speech on his vision for the workshop I knew he was someone who would play a pivotal role in my life. Noor Bongers I really discovered through her writings. There was a blog post that hit me like a bolt from the blue and that pushed me to get in touch with her with an explicit request for advice.
Feel very free to shape the relationship in any way that suits both you and your mentor
Mentoring relatonships come in all shapes and sizes. Structured mentoring is hot nowadays, but the relationships I have been part of were always pretty informal and open, unencumbered by specific and (God forbid) measurable learning goals. The relationship doesn’t even have to be labeled as ‘mentorship’. I don’t think Luc Hoebeke, my wise and gifted ‘systems’ coach, and I ever talked about our conversations as taking place in a mentoring context. We just happened to see each other regularly over lunch and then I would put all kinds of professional challenges on the table and he would tease me into another perspective on the matter with his incomparable, light-hearted wisdom. The trajectory with some of my mentors has been punctuated with more structured intervals, such as a week-long workshop in a group setting. My relationship with Jo Mattens, my Reiki Master, has obviously been shaped by my 15-year long, structured progression towards Reiki mastership, with long informal stretches punctuated by specific, long-anticipated milestones.
You can have several mentors at the same time
Our life unfolds in different spheres. In my case I might label them as ‘the professional’, ‘the personal’, ‘the artistic’, and ‘the spiritual’. It’s a convenient fiction, obviously, as all these domains are folded into one another and rooted in the same drive and spirit. However, a given mentor may not be attuned to all of these domains. So I ended up with four different mentors, two women and two men. This has not been the result of a deliberate quest; it just happened that way. I have distinct conversations with each of them, but each connects in its own way to the common ground that is shared by all.
Mentoring relationships are long-term relationships
Mentoring relationships unfold over years and may last a significant part of a lifetime. The intensity will vary, depending on the issues life is throwing at you. But it is good also to simply maintain the relationship for the pure pleasure of spending time with people you love. Mentoring relationships also naturally evolve over time. As one matures it may become more balanced in terms of transfer of insights and experience. The mentoring relationship matures into a friendship pure and simple that benefits from a free exchange of trust, energy and experience. About a year ago Lorenzo told me he wanted to quit ‘the mentoring thing’: “ We are just two friends now, each with his own set of weaknesses and challenges.” That is beautiful and gratifying and deepens the bond even more. I also find that, as one grows more mature, one can simply bypass the mentoring stage and develop relationships that are characterized by deep learning and whole-hearted reciprocity from the very start.
Mentoring relationships are reciprocal relationships
Stepping in a relationship as mentee goes beyond extracting wisdom and advice from your mentor. It’s always about receiving and giving, beyond any sort of calculus. Sure, a mentor will be all the more generous when she or he feels that you are participating as a whole person, not simply as a client. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that a mentoring relationship may not be associated with a financial transfer from mentee to mentor in exchange for time spent and advice given. I have always been happy to pay most of my mentors in return for their help simply because they stepped into the relationships as professionals. They had to earn their money somewhere. This has never been a source of awkwardness for me and I hope it hasn’t been for them. But the key currencies to be exchanged are trust and energy, not cash. Being trusted as a mentor is gratifying. Being exposed to the drive and brilliance of young people is revitalizing. Ideally, the relationship should be experienced as a privilege by both mentor and mentee.
I realise I am now at a point where I’m stepping into the role of mentor more assertively. I have prepared myself for that role through fatherhood — co-raising two children in loving partnership with my wife — and through my own participation in mentoring relationships. I am very ready to pass on my experience and look forward partaking of long-lasting and nourishing experiences of reciprocity and growth.