Mentor: Someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.
When I (Tom) was in college, between my sophomore and junior years, I took an internship at a large public relations firm on Wall Street. For a few weeks I worked in what felt to me like a very toxic environment. With each passing day it got harder and harder for me to go to work. It felt like that scene in the movie “Office Space” in which the lead chacter, played by Ron Livingston, declares that “Every day I go to work is the worst day of my life; every day is worse than the day before.” After grinding it out for several weeks I felt desperately that something needed to change, and that public relations was ultimately not the field for me. One afternoon, after a long, discouraging day, my supervisor – a woman in her 50’s who had worked there for decades – and I walked out to the ferry that would take us to New Jersey to continue to our respective homes. As we were walking, my supervisor sensed that something was wrong with me; not that I was just having one “bad day”, but that this kind of job was not what I was called to do in life. I remember her turning to me, looking me directly in the eyes, and saying,
Why are you doing this? There’s more that you can do with your life. And you need to do it.
I started to cry. Through my tears I responded to her,
Why do you stay here?
I knew that she was not content in that job either.
I can’t leave. I’ve worked here too long. I need the money and I don’t know what else I could do with my life at this age. But you’re still young and you can do it differently. Follow your dreams. Don’t get stuck doing something that you hate and that is only a dream that someone else has for you.
In that moment this woman, whom I had only known for three weeks – and whom I’ve never seen since – was a vital mentor to me. Even in our brief, fleeting work together, she served a very significant role in my life. Her wisdom and experience gave me permission to acknowledge the truth of who I am and the truth about who I need to be. For me, it’s not a role in public relations. The permission she gave allowed me to reflect upon and reconsider my path, the course for my life. I resigned my position that week and recalibrated my future. I am so grateful for her insights, for her encouragement to take a risk, for her support and understanding. The vulnerability that she showed in acknowledging her own discontentment enabled me to avoid a discontented path of my own. I am forever grateful for her, for that.
I (Michael) had a college internship too. Between my junior and senior years of school I worked in the office of a Pennsylvania state senator, the only serving woman senator in the state at that time, a woman who had already had a long and esteemed career in public service when I went to work for her. Unlike Tom, I absolutely loved my internship. I was majoring in Government and Public service and felt a calling to serve, to help provide a better quality of life for others. I respected the senator highly. I loved the rest of her staff, who treated me with dignity and who were very generous to me that summer. It was a dream job for a college kid; what was modeled for me was a refreshing sense of duty, honor, integrity, compassion and the common good. In observing how the senator and her staff approached their responsibilities, I saw people who were the absolute examples of what public service – and politics – was meant to be. My summer with them instilled in me a sense of service that will never leave – and has served me well ever since. I will always be tremendously grateful for that internship and for the mentors who shepherded me through it. Their example of service, over 30 years ago, is alive and strong in me today.
Ultimately, I did not go on to a career in government or that type of public service. There were too many others in the world of politics who didn’t serve with distinction, whose lack of duty, honor, integrity, compassion and a concern for the common good, dissuaded me from pursuing that path. I realized that I would not thrive in that environment, that my best gifts required me to serve elsewhere. Instead, I also learned from my internship that I was made more to serve by counseling, writing, teaching and affirming others to be exactly who they were created to be – by mentoring others, myself. These powerful mentors of my senate internship showed me the way, in the end, that I needed to go and they schooled me well to do it – in my way, using my strongest gifts for the common good.
The best mentors can teach us so much more than we will ever know at the time. But in time, their lessons will grow in us to equip us in ways we never expected. Their lessons will take us places, and remain with us in those places, for the rest of our lives.
Write to us. Tell us about your mentors, about those who have influenced and guided you to be the person you are today.
Mentors are guides. They lead us along the journey of our lives. We trust them because they have been there before.
Laurent A. Daloz