There’s no substitute for the guidance and encouragement of a real, live human.

Lately, public officials have been squabbling about when it might be safe to reopen our schools in the face of a devastating pandemic.

It’s a valid question with no easy answer. Meanwhile, distance learning has become the fallback option. Students and teachers communicate online with no in-person interaction. Few would say it’s ideal, but it’s better than nothing.

The issue highlights something most of us know, intuitively or otherwise: There’s nothing quite like live, hands-on learning. Knowledge sinks in deepest when it’s transmitted directly from one human to another. We all need mentors to succeed in work or in life. And it’s hard to mentor someone from a distance.

Mentors and NOT MENTORS

Here’s something else we all know: Not all teachers are mentors. By the time we reach adulthood most of us have had dozens of teachers. We remember the really bad ones. Most of them weren’t bad, just forgettable. And then there were those few who made a real, positive impact. They were the ones who took a genuine interest in our progress and well-being. They conveyed valuable insights that we never forgot. They changed us. They’re easy to remember precisely because they’re so rare.

In an age when online courses and even degrees are becoming commonplace, we may be losing the most vital element in the learning process: the fruitful relationship that can exist between a genuine mentor and a pupil.  

From Myth to Reality

Mentor was the name of a character in Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. In the story, Odysseus has a son, Telemachus, who is floundering dangerously without direction. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, assumes the form of Mentor, an old family friend, to intervenes in the lad’s life. Using this disguise, she guides and encourages Telemachus, imbuing him with mental fortitude to face life’s challenges.

If you can get past the goddess part, that’s a great illustration of what a real-life mentor does.  

Many years ago, my friend Roger Seymour asked me to write a book with him. He was a psychologist with a sterling reputation and a thriving practice. I was a talented but relatively unaccomplished writer. So, it was a risky move on his part. Roger knew I had written feature articles and columns for a variety of publications. But writing a book would be new territory for me. He felt I had some untapped potential and so was willing to take the risk.

We worked together for several months and eventually came up with Why Can’t I Get It Right? A New Look at Christian Freedom, a book based on Roger’s personal journey and years of experience as a therapist. Eventually, we found a publisher who liked the book and picked it up. (It’s still available on Amazon.)

That experience launched me on a new phase of my career: ghostwriting. It empowered me to begin using that skill with other would-be authors, helping them produce and publish their books. Through the years, I’ve been privileged to work with interesting people in an amazing variety of fields and see them fulfill their dreams.   

Roger had faith in me, and that faith never wavered. Throughout our friendship, which still thrives, he continually affirmed and encouraged me—as a writer and as a person.

That’s a mentor.

A few years later, my career was at another lull. I decided to call on my old friend Gifford Claiborne, a fundraising pioneer with over 50 years of experience. I was intrigued by the prospect of making a decent living while helping to sustain worthwhile organizations. So, I asked Gifford to show me how to write effective fundraising copy. He began patiently sharing as much of his expertise as I could absorb. Then we worked together on a variety of projects. The experience gave me confidence to take on other work in the same field. And that’s how I embarked on yet another career journey.

That’s how mentorship works.

Here’s some advice for anyone seeking to excel in any field: Don’t just study it in school. Find someone who’s doing it, who’s good at it and happy to share with you. Make friends with that person.

And then, watch and listen.

You’ll go far.  

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