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The Importance of Mentors

28 JANUARY, 2016

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I want you to think for a moment about a time in your life when things went really wrong; and I mean badly wrong, you couldn’t hide it, you couldn’t escape from it, people knew about it. It might have been that you studied for an exam and you failed or you didn’t study for it and you failed. You might have gone for a job interview and you didn’t get it or for a promotion or you took a risk a business risk and you lost out or maybe it was more personal, maybe it was a friendship that went sour or maybe it was a relationship where you cared about somebody but then it broke down. Just for a moment think about, what was your first response? What was the first thing you thought or the first thing you did when you experienced this disappointment or this failure? So if you have that, hold on to it, because I’m going to be coming back to it.
If your upbringing has been anything like mine, from very young age directly and indirectly, consciously or subconsciously, we receive messages from popular culture and from society that say that we should be getting better and better things all the time and life should really be an exponential success curve. I remember from a young age starting school the pressure is on to be intelligent, to become more intelligent, become popular, become more popular, learn about how to make friends and be a cool person, be beautiful, cultivate your beauty and if you’re not born with it go to the gym workout – get in shape. Go get money, aim for money, acquire more because we think that this is going to make us happy but this is what real successes is. But we don’t really have a culture that helps us to know how to process when we fall off this exponential success curve or when we don’t even get started in the first place. We don’t have a culture that teaches us to fail well or that even questions this mentality in this approach.
When I look at talent shows and TV, when I look at Blockbuster films, or the occasional romantic comedy, it’s the same kind of message: the girl gets the guy, the guy makes the money, the bunch of teenagers going to come International Superstars. This story does happen sometimes but to very, very, few people and certainly in my experience, in my own life, and in my work as a leadership coach, I see very, very few people who live a life like this. So what do we do when we fail, when we’re disappointed, when things go wrong? What did you do at that difficult time in your life? Again, from my own experience, from chatting to friends and mentors, I’m just seeing people fail a lot.
There seems to be three general approaches we have to failure:
The first is we stay down. We’re so shocked, we’re so hurt, we just think “I’m never going to get up again” – it’s too painful is too difficult.
The second is, we crawl our way back up and we return to the level that we were at before but we don’t take any more risks and we live in control and a little bit of fear.
And the third, what I see quite a few number of people doing, is we learn, we come back up, and we grow. People who grow and keep on learning, they view failure as normal – what I like to call the Learning Cycle is what kicks in with them and am I going to come back to that in a few moments.
Let’s, for a moment, think of these three positions. So, when you stay down. We stay down because you want to be protected. You want to be wrapped up in cotton-wool and don’t want to experience that kind of pain and disappointment again. Somebody has broken our heart, broken our trust, we’ve taken a risk it was really difficult. We think, “I will never allow this to happen to me again” and we take a conscious or unconscious vow saying that this will not happen. But unfortunately we don’t leave ourselves open to good opportunities that can come in the future. And in trying to minimize pain, we can actually cause longer-term pain because we shut down part of our lives.
The second response is to return. We’re shocked but we get back up eventually, we crawl our way back up. We face it again but in a different way, we now want to control and we look like we’ve got things in control but we’re actually fearful. When it comes to jobs, I know so many people who started a job and they’re very comfortable at the start and then after a while they are frustrated, but they don’t have a history of taking risks and of a failing and they’re really worried. They don’t to be stretched beyond our comfort zone so we get frustrated and stressed and worried and fearful and they can’t move. It’s the same in friendships and many of us are still friends with people we knew when we were young from growing up but we’re not really that friendly with them. We don’t really inspire and encourage each other, it’s just someone we know. It’s the same with romantic relationships. How many of us have been in the past, or currently are potentially in relationships where, “it’s good, it’s nice” we may want to move out but we’re a little bit scared because “what if I don’t get something like this again?” And then there’s the third response.
Failure is okay, it’s normal. Let’s go for it, let’s grow, let’s keep on moving on. And those of us who get to this point in different parts of our lives, we go through the Learning Cycle. The Learning Cycle has four parts. The first is you tried, you try at something. And the second is you fail because for most of us, we don’t get it perfect the first time around. And then there is this pivotal moment when we’re failing, we decide we’re going to learn it might take quite a while and then eventually we grow. This cycle can be repeated over and over again as our very own Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying:

“Ever tried, ever failed, no matter, try again, fail again, fail better.”

— Samuel Beckett

In reality, I think success or growth or whatever you want to call it, looks a little bit like this: you try, you fail, you try again, you might even fail more but you keep on trying and failing and learning and growing. This is certainly been my experience so many times and I have so many embarrassing stories I could tell you, here’s one of them.
Just over 10 years ago, I finished college and I was out a year and I got my first kind of big job and I got a job as a management consultant and my family, my friends were proud and excited, my college tutor thought this was great. And it started off and I was going in and I soon realized my social life is gone I couldn’t play football anymore and I was working long hours and I was traveling and going around but that’s to be expected that’s fine, that’s a career, that’s what happens. And I was meant to be working with organizations to align their strategy with their people and working with interesting people. But the projects I was getting were really not those projects at all and after a few months I sat down, exhausted, with my manager and I said, “look this really isn’t what I signed up for.” As we chatted it through, I realized in the foreseeable future I wasn’t going to get the kind of projects and the kind of work that I wanted to do, that I had joined to do. So after a few more months of struggling and stressing about it, I left. I was embarrassed, in public I couldn’t hide it. I felt a little bit relieved let’s be honest, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. I didn’t want to talk about it to other people. And it’s only in the last few years when I set up my own consulting and coaching business that I started to learn some of those lessons and learn from that experience of failure. And that’s kind of an easy example because that’s a failure where you can learn and grow. But we all know that there’s plenty of failures and disappointments where we can’t change it. The only thing we can change is the way we view the situation. We can reframe it.
One of the biggest heartbreaks of my life happened a couple years after I left that job. From the age of five, I wanted to be a pilot. My uncle used to fly in the Air Corps here and I used to go sit in the jets with him. I used to go to the air shows, hang out with the officers, be in the helicopters, and so on. As a teenager I was addicted to aviation. I collected his magazines every week for four years, worked my summers in an airport, and I was like mid-twenties and thought, “Let’s just go for it. Let’s get stuck in.” I took all my savings, did some exams, got into a Top Flight School in Spain, had an interview for a company, and they said, “Patrick, just send us your medical” and I was like, yeah sure, I’ve got better than 20/20 vision, I’ve always known that, no worries. Did my medical, on the day I found out I was colorblind. I never knew it was apparently is an issue with the color green and white when you’re flying fast at night but I never knew. And it took me three years of staying down and not knowing how to cope with it because this was my future, my excitement of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. And it’s in these times of failure when we really find out about ourselves, about our character. About how we want to grow and how we want to develop as a person.
So what do we do? What happens when we’re on the down curve and it’s messy, it’s difficult, and it’s painful. There are two things that I think are important. First is practices, second is people.
Practices: how do you eat? How do you sleep? What do you read? What Ted Talks do you watch? Who are your friends? What are your spiritual practices? Do you meditate? Do you do yoga? Do you pray? What are the routines that you need to get a sense of energy vitality and life? They’re really important.
Second one is people. Basic rule of thumb is, if somebody gives you energy, if somebody loves you, accepts you, supports you, spend time with these kinds of people, invest in their lives. If somebody sucks the life and the energy out of you or somebody is difficult to be around, particularly when you’re failing, and upset, try to stay away from those kinds of people.
There’s one group of people that I’d like to focus on who are really important if you want to learn and grow and go through that Learning Cycle and those people are mentors. The word “mentor” comes from classical antiquity. There’s a guy called Odysseus and he went off to fight the Trojan War and he had a son called Telemachus and before he left his kingdom, he left his son under the care of a guardian. This Guardian was to instruct him, to guide him, to support him, to encourage him from being a boy and moving him along to being an adult.

That man’s name was Mentor, that’s where we get the term from.

The difference between a role model and a mentor is that a role model is somebody who’s ahead of us. They may be alive; they may be dead. They may live down the street or we may only follow them online, where we don’t know them personally and they don’t know us personally but they can still be very inspiring to us though. A mentor is different, a mentor is somebody who comes and meets us where we are at. I’ve had some really good mentors; I’ve had some not so good mentors and here’s what I’ve learned from mentoring and mentors.
The three really good characteristics of a good mentor is firstly, they’re open as people. They’re open to possibilities, to ideas, they see the world as an expansive, exciting, and curious place. They are also comfortable. They’re comfortable in their own skin, they’re comfortable being their own person and as a result of that they don’t have a plan for your life, they’re not trying to manipulate you, they’re not trying to control you. They want you to be comfortable in your skin.
The second trait that they have is that they’re more and more interested in what’s going on internally than externally. Mentors understand that what happens inside of you, how your character develops, will one day be mirrored outside of you. They don’t really focus on how much money you’re making or how flashy or cool you look or how popular you are. They want to know who you are and allow you to develop that.
Finally, they tend to be able to celebrate the rise but also the fall. They’ll sit with you in the fall, with the disappointment, the heartbreak, the hurt. What a mentor really does is they bring you through the Learning Cycle again and again until you become very used to it – of trying and failing and learning and growing. Mentors are people who in ‘the fall’ aspect of your life, they’ve gone ahead of you. They know a little bit more than you but they’re humble about it. They realize they don’t have all the answers but they’re kind of support and encouragement. One of my favorite role models when he talks about mentors, uses the image of a fire, he says that,

“A mentor’s like a fire because they warm us, they bring us close and we want to get close to them but sometimes a fire can burn. But when a mentor brings a little bit of burn, we trust them because we know that they have our greatest good in mind.”

So to finish with the challenge, the area in your life that you have failed in the past or an area that you are currently failing in, disappointed in, where you’ve stayed down or where you’re controlling and desperately trying to control what you’d really like to change, what is it area? Make note of it. Secondly, do you know of a person that could be a mentor to you in the part of your life? Someone who has has gone ahead of you but would have some of these characteristics. They can be generative. They can give of themselves and they can encourage you. They are somebody that you would like to spend some time with. And finally, go and ask them to mentor you. Even this year I went and asked somebody, whom I really respected, would he be my mentor in a professional capacity. I was really nervous I was really scared – it’s kind of weird conversation over coffee. But he was so gracious and his response was so excellent that it was confirmed that he had those characteristics. So to finish, embrace your failure and go get a mentor.

Patrick Boland


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