Earlier this week, I got put in touch with Karen Carter at the Smithsonian’s Office of Fellowships and Internships, about appearing on a panel about the importance of mentoring for a group of around 90 young people participating in 4-H’s National Mentoring Program. I ended up joining the panel, which turned out to be an excellent chance to reflect on my personal experiences, as well as my research on 4-H, in a different way than I usually do.
I felt that the exercise of having to come up with 5-7 minutes of material on the importance of mentoring in my life was incredibly valuable, and made me reflect on experiences and events in my life that I haven’t thought about in a while. I’m including here the basis for my remarks, and a few comments I added in on the fly. Thanks so much to Karen Carter, Adam Silvey, Erika Ferrin, Kelly Baird, Anne Harper, and all the young people who listened and asked us so many good and thoughtful questions on a sweltering day in D.C. You made the event a huge success, one I was proud to be a part of.
Some Thoughts on Mentoring
Amrys O. Williams, 19 July 2013
First off, I just want to say how pleased I am to have the chance to appear on this panel today, so thanks to Karen for working so quickly to put it together. As a historian, I spend a lot of time by myself in libraries and archives, looking at documents, reading, thinking, and writing, so it’s always a welcome change of pace to speak with people not just about my work but about my experiences.
As someone who’s done a lot of thinking about 4-H, I just want to offer a quick observation before I begin, something that came to mind while I was listening to the other panelists. I think that, in many ways, the genius of 4-H as an organization has been the way it has sought to connect the more formal knowledge of experts and the experiential knowledge of adults to the curiosities and interests of young people. In this way, mentoring has been central to how 4-H has operated for a century, and it’s no surprise then that all of you are here as a part of a 4-H mentoring program.
I spent the past week reflecting on the role of mentors in my life and career. I came up with a long list of people who had advised me at different times in my life, as well as instances in which mentorship was critical in helping me figure out what path to take. Like my fellow panelists, I could probably talk for hours about how mentorship has shaped me, but instead I’ll just draw out a few main observations and stories from my own experience.
But first, as a historian, I have to do the nerdy thing here and explain the origins of the term “mentor.” It’s a term from Greek mythology, and comes from Homer’s 8th-century-BC epic poem the Odyssey, about the journey of the hero Odysseus after the Trojan War. Mentor is a wise old man that Odysseus puts in change of his household and family—particularly his son, Telemachus—when Odysseus goes off to fight. So our modern-day understanding of this term draws from this story: a mentor as a trusted advisor, someone who gives guidance to the young in a parental sort of way.
But here’s where it gets interesting. When Athena, the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, and justice, wants to help out Odysseus and Telemachus, she sometimes appears to them disguised as Mentor, their trusted advisor. Of course, we’re not so lucky—the goddess of knowledge is not often swooping down to give us a leg up—but I think the idea that wisdom and mentoring are closely linked deserves some attention. It helps us see that mentorship is not just an older person advising a younger person, but rather a more fundamental sharing of knowledge among people that pervades our lives. This means that mentors can be anyone from teachers and advisors and coaches and pastors to parents, siblings, peers, friends, and co-workers. We can be mentors ourselves as well; in fact, the mentoring relationship is not unidirectional, but mutual, so whenever you are being mentored, you are also, in a sense, mentoring. This mutuality, this back-and-forth, characterizes all fruitful human relationships; good mentorship teaches us not only to be better people, but to be better friends, colleagues, community members, and citizens.
I want to offer two main observations about mentorship to you today: one about perceptions, one about responsibilities.
A relationship with a mentor helps you see yourself in new ways that broaden your field of vision, and consequently your opportunities. As individuals, we often limit ourselves by thinking that there are certain things we are good at and other things that we are not so good at, and we allow our peers’ or society’s perceptions of us to influence the way we see ourselves. We put ourselves in boxes, and we discount our ability to succeed outside of those boxes—perhaps in areas where we feel we don’t have an innate talent. The problem with this is that, as a result, we foreclose a whole set of possibilities for ourselves before even trying.
The story of how I ended up at MIT for college is a case in point. When I was a kid, I loved reading and music, but didn’t have the same innate enjoyment of math or science, even though I did fine in these subjects. As a result, I never seriously considered STEM fields for a career. It wasn’t until high school, when my guidance counselor suggested I consider applying to some engineering schools that I even entertained such a notion.
My guidance counselor didn’t say anything grand or life-changing, but that small suggestion made a big impact on me. It forced me to see that I had been putting myself in a box, and not looking beyond that square bit of space.
This simple suggestion forced me to ask myself, well, why not? You do well in these subjects. You are capable. Why would you limit yourself to liberal arts schools, when there are many other kinds of experiences that are open to you? Why do you assume there is just one path you can follow?
My preconceptions, both of myself and of what technical schools were like and who they wanted, were narrowing my options in ways I hadn’t recognized. To my surprise, MIT accepted me—ME, a writer of poetry and singer in the school chorus—and after visiting I decided that I wanted to accept that challenge and see where it would take me. That choice has defined my life, because it opened my eyes to a set of fields and careers and paths I had never seen before. MIT is where I discovered there was a field called the history of science that would allow me to combine my passion for storytelling and writing with my interest in technical subjects. That discovery led me to graduate school, and eventually here to the Smithsonian.
Sometimes it’s as simple as someone believing in your potential that helps you see your abilities in a new light—one that opens up possibilities you didn’t know existed. Mentorship helps you see yourself through someone else’s eyes, and that exercise—of seeing yourself in new ways—is often the first step towards imagining all the things you might be capable of.
One of the things you’ll notice about the story I’ve just told is that my guidance counselor didn’t say to me: you should go to MIT and study science. She made an observation about me and a suggestion about something I might consider doing, but she didn’t tell me what to do. This brings me to my second point, which is that mentoring isn’t something that you receive passively, something that happens to you. Rather, it is something that requires you to actively engage in your own personal development. You are the only person who can rightly make decisions about your life, and good mentoring will always be open-ended, conducted as a conversation, an invitation to participate in making sound decisions about your life. Mentoring of this sort is always empowering, because it requires you to take responsibility for yourself and to own your decisions.
This doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t make mistakes, but that, in the context of a good mentoring relationship, any missteps you do make will become educational and helpful rather than debilitating. You’ll be able to step back and learn from them, because they will have been your choices, not things that were forced upon you. This is not to say that you won’t feel frustrated or bound by the strictures of society, or by others’ perceptions, but that, with a good mentor at your side, you will be able to chart a course that supports you and your goals.
Mentoring thus teaches you resilience, self-knowledge, and how to be understanding of yourself and of others in times of difficulty. In its best form, it teaches us that, while we are each responsible for ourselves as individuals, we are also members of a larger human community, and we have responsibilities to one another as well. The mutual support of mentoring reminds us of these broader connections to one another.