Introspection: I Took A Break from Mentorship. It Was What I Needed To Learn What My Mentors Taught Me.
Great mentors are a key part of many successful people’s journeys and a staple of leadership and self-development. Yet while we can be highly driven to grow ourselves and realise our full potential — whatever that means — there came a time when I realised that I needed to step back from mentorship and reading on self-development and let life be my teacher.
That’s because, while the mentorship and coaching scene can prepare and encourage you to step outside your comfort zone, it is a comfort zone in itself. And when you step outside it, you could even find yourself relating to and learning from your mentors in ways never before. Here’s when it may be time to rethink mentorship, and when it may actually be better for your mentoring experience and growth journey.
1. You need to experience life on your own to appreciate what you’re being taught.
In one of my last conversations with a mentor before I moved abroad, he sent me a clip of the park bench scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’ character exposes Will’s use of his intellect to mask his insecurity, inexperience, and inner demons.
At first, I had a completely different reading of the scene. Yet, only after I ventured on my own — moving abroad to a completely new crowd with a different set of values, deciding between ‘safe’ corporate paths and a new venture with partners on the other side of the world and enormous upside potential but the risk of falling flat on my face (and picking myself up when the latter happened) — was I truly able to appreciate the scene and what my mentor was trying to tell me. Partly because, in hindsight, and much like Will Hunting, there were many things that I understood intellectually but had not truly experienced — and inner beliefs were preventing me from taking that leap and truly learning.
If “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” then intellect is the plan, and experience is the punch.
It may seem cliche, but many life lessons cannot be truly appreciated, and virtues cannot be strengthened, the easy way. And while self-development and psychology articles can offer advice on strategies to build virtues such as resilience, this won’t happen unless you’re in situations to exercise them. And no one can experience those situations for you.
2. You can learn and experience your mentors’ advice in your own context.
There’s a pattern I’ve noticed in the advice I get, and it’s probably best illustrated with an exaggerated example in a different context: dating advice is most cynical from those who’ve been cheated on or in broken relationships, and most encouraging from those in stable or fulfilling relationships.
In a more career-relevant example, one mentor told me that management consulting experience is necessary to establish your track record, while another told me that “consultants are full of BS!”
A mentor-protege or teacher-student relationship positions you to admire them as a sage. But stepping back helps you see your mentors’ human sides and recognise the frame, experiences, and emotions through which they deliver their advice. And here is when you can truly practice maturity: while it’s important to show respect and gratitude for the time they invest in you, you can discern for yourself how to adapt their advice to your own life situations. Because no matter how wise they are, they can only walk your journey beside you, not for you.
3. When you reconnect, you can show your appreciation more sincerely, making your relationship more fulfilled.
The last time I spoke to a mentor, I told him of how my father, a first-generation immigrant, would resent my grandfather’s absence from the house to work, including throughout the formative years of his adulthood and life in their new home country. At my grandfather’s funeral, my father’s experience of being approached by so many in the community at my grandfather’s funeral to express their gratitude for my grandfather’s role in their life was a major paradigm shift for him. One of the last things I told my mentor was that I wanted the same (albeit for him to notice it while he is still alive!)
The closeness of relationships such as parent-child, teacher-student, and mentor-protege is a double-edged sword: it builds the relationship faster, but at points where you are so deeply emotionally invested, it becomes difficult to notice how far you’ve come.
Returning to your mentors with the experience you gained from putting their words into practice can make you a shining product or example of the lessons they impart on others, giving them fulfilment that their investment in you was worthwhile and evolving your relationship to a new level. And the goal of fulfilling this (and them) can be a powerful motivation while you venture out on your own.
There’s no denying the importance of wiser people who can support you throughout your life journey. But there will always come times where having your hand held may prevent you from having the most fulfilling learning experiences, when you need to find out what they teach you for yourself. And it just may be so that when you reconnect, what you have to show for your time away may be the thing that gives your mentors fulfilment that their investment in you was worthwhile.