By Rabbi Andy Kastner
“A life is governed by what we are capable of doing,
and that determines what we become.”
The Elusive Mentor
As a child I used to sit next to my dad and watch (seemingly endless) reruns of “Kung Fu” – a martial arts meets Western drama. In it we meet Kwai Chang Caine, the orphaned son of an American man and Chinese woman set in mid-19th century China. Caine is selected for training at a Shaolin Monastery, where he becomes a priest and martial arts expert.
Frequent flashbacks punctuate the narrative flow, recalling Caine’s training at the monastery and his relationships with his teachers that shape his character with a sense of social responsibility. For me, the most enduring of these flashbacks recounts the first meeting of Caine and his Master, capturing the essence of their relationship as student and mentor that will begin to blossom. In the scene, the young Caine encounters Master Po, an elder Shaolin priest, who is blind, his eyes opaque with cataracts.
Caine to Master Po: You cannot see?
Master Po: You think, I cannot see? Never assume that because a man has no eyes that he cannot see.
In his sagacious way, Master Po signals to the young boy, that he holds a capacity for a deeper sight, well beyond the use of the eyes. Master Po seems to see within the child a spark of potential – that which Caine does not yet see himself. In this gesture, Master Po becomes Caine’s foundational mentor, taking him under his wing to develop him, coaxing and refining his character and ability.
Here, for me, as a child, the mythic mentor emerged – the master who sees you, before you see yourself – the mentor who selects the mentee and, with a sense of duty and dedication stretches the protégé to self-actualization. This romantic vision was imprinted on me, in all of its fantasy and naïveté that this, or something like this, was how the mentor, mentee relationship comes to be. Of course, for the impressionable child, it didn’t help that the 80’s was rife with this meme – be it the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, etc.
This is a fraught model, to be sure. A mentorship that is not only very rare, but one that lets us off the hook too easily. You can imagine someone “waiting to be discovered” and bemoaning, “If I only had a mentor.” This vision of mentorship and growth is broken. It doesn’t scale, and it doesn’t demand the requisite work of the student. We need a different roadmap.
Coaching is Not Mentorship
The relationship between a mentor and coach is distinct and deserves a few words. The role of the coach has developed significantly in our professional culture and marketplace in recent years. Today, coaching (executive coaching, life coaching, etc.), has swelled to a $1 billion dollar + industry. Truly, there is a place for coaching but, as with any type of service or support, it is best to know what you need, and what type of relationship you are getting yourself into.
There is a key differentiator that should be taken into consideration between mentorship and coaching:
- Coaching is task oriented, and in this way transactional. The focus is on a concrete issue(s), such as managing more effectively, speaking more articulately, and learning how to think strategically. This requires a content expert (coach) who is capable of teaching the student how to develop these skills.
- Mentoring is relationship oriented. A mentoring exchange requires and is built upon trust and safety, creating the conditions to elicit sensitive or vulnerable material that maximize personal/professional growth in the mentee. To be sure, a connection of this kind will likely focus on concrete issues, but it is the character of the encounter that is truly distinct here – requiring some foundational relationship and trust to open up the doors for deeper sharing, deeper learning and deeper connection.
Release the Mythic Mentor
While for most of us, the relationship with the mythic mentor remains a myth, some of us have been lucky to find such a mentor – or rather, lucky enough for a mentor to find us. We must, if we have not already, let go of this model if we are indeed going to engage with mentors in a more achievable way. Whether or not the mythic mentor existed (exists) or not, is not the point. Rather, accessing effective mentoring relationships requires an attunement to how these types of relationship are forged in our current culture. While it no doubt feels so affirming to be seen (and not just seen for who we are, but who we can become), in relying on this model, not only do we risk grave disappointment when a match does not come to be, we abdicate the responsibility that we must take on to do the essential growth work on and for ourselves, instead of relying on the Master to tease it out of us.
Releasing the mythic mentor and the expectation that a mentor will find us, see us, and develop us, a different approach is required.
Mentoring Today – From Being Seen to Seeing
Today, mentorship has a different orientation – the script is flipped. It doesn’t start with the wise elder who sees us, but rather we must be the catalytic force, seeing ourselves before we can access the direction of a mentor.
In this way, we must be our own mentor first, before engaging a Mentor.
The student must see herself, taking an honest accounting of the situation and their role within it.
The student asks herself:
- What is the challenge or design problem that I find myself in?
- What are the assets, skills, experience that I am bringing to this challenge?
- What are my deficiencies or limitations in addressing this challenge?
- What support, perspective or direction do I need to move forward?
And then, and only then, when the student sees himself, he can begin to see a potential mentor to help him level up. Here, the student must choose their mentor.
The process unfolds through a series of self-guided questions:
- Who do I have in my “relational rolodex” that has the unique skills and experience to help me problem solve? Who has situational expertise (be it in board governance, strategic planning, crisis management, etc.) who can provide guidance and perspective? This is a composite mentorship approach. It requires a sense of relational curation to know who to call upon, and when.
- Why am I calling this person? Why have I chosen this mentor? What distinct experience or skill set do I expect them to lend to this situation?
- What does this mentor need to know to best be of help? i.e. concise situational background
- What am I asking of them – what do I expect from them – how can the mentor help?
What is critical here, is that the student must direct their own learning and growth. Modern mentorship requires the initiative of the student to be the prime mover. The student must see herself before identifying the appropriate mentor to seek. She must see the mentor – that is their own particular strengths, experiences and insight that they can lend to help guide the student. In communicating these strengths to the mentor, it becomes clear to the mentor why he has been chosen to serve as an advisor. In this approach, I have found, that mentors often feel honored to be approached – touched to be seen, and invested in your success.
Perhaps this is the type of relationship the Talmud had in mind, in describing the ideal chavruta/mentor/growth partner.
Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Proverbs 27:17)? This verse comes to tell you that just as with these iron implements, one sharpens the other when they are rubbed against each other, so too, when Torah scholars study together, they sharpen one another in halakha. (Taanit 7a)
In a plain/pshat reading, the Talmud envisions two students, bringing their tools to the table, for sharpening and refinement in understanding halakha – that is the way. We call upon a chavruta or mentor to support our capacity to be pathfinders.
What we are capable of doing and becoming is dependent on how we push ourselves – and how and who we call upon to further stretch and push us, fine tuning our skills and deepening our character. We all need mentors, different types of mentors for different situations at different points in our life. Yet, what remains constant, if we have done the initial work in seeing ourselves, and in seeing our chosen mentor(s), is that we find ourselves in the driver’s seat of our growth, nurturing a truly generative and relational model of supporting each other in becoming our best selves.
Rabbi Andy Kastner is the Interim Executive Director at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay.