The "M" Word: Making the Most of Mentoring to Achieve (and Exceed) Your Goals

A mentoring relationship is fundamentally driven by the mentee's desire to maximize their full potential in some area of life, whether it be personal, career, or some combination thereof.
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Mentoring. Suddenly the word is everywhere.

January annually is National Mentoring Month. URS, Chevron, many learning institutions, and even the military have instituted peer mentoring programs in an effort to maximize resources. A group of Fortune 500 companies voluntarily participates in American Corporate Partners (ACP), a non-profit, nationwide veterans mentoring program. For that matter, the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, widely considered to be the most successful sobriety program in the world, relies largely upon volunteer mentors (called "sponsors") who pair with newcomers to recovery and guide them through the process.

As of April 15, 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education-Related Agencies is reviewing a bill to approve $100M in federal funds in FY2010 as a support for mentoring initiatives.

But why mentoring? What is so special, so essential, about the esteemed but until-now rarely mentioned art and discipline of mentoring?

For that matter, what exactly is mentoring, and how do you know when you have encountered someone who is qualified serve as your mentor, or someone who could benefit from the mentoring guidance you are uniquely equipped to provide?

Mentoring, quite simply, is what happens when a mentor, a trusted guide who has knowledge and expertise in a certain area and is willing and able to share it, is paired with a mentee, a person who is in need of guidance and support, and is willing to receive it.

A mentoring relationship is fundamentally driven by the mentee's desire to maximize their full potential in some area of life, whether it be personal, career, or some combination thereof. Katie, a 21 year-old social work major, shares that having a mentor "has really been that missing link for me. It's like I can actually use my skills and everything I've learned because I know I'm supported."

Interestingly, there is more than minimal truth to the old adage that "when the student is ready, the teacher appears." This is why, while the mentor's value may be a mystery to outside observers, to the mentee the appearance of the mentor in an area where the mentee is struggling and the mentor has experienced success is literally a god-send.

One of the most moving testaments to the power of mentoring can be found in acclaimed poet Rainer Maria Rilke's collection of correspondence with a young poetry student, "Letters to a Young Poet". Now a literary classic, the relationship began when the student encountered Rilke's work, became inspired to write to him for guidance, critique, and support, and was pleasantly surprised when Rilke actually responded to his letters!

Rilke, a master mentor, recognized aspects of his own past in the student's plea for support, and responded out of the compassion and life experience that demanded to be passed along in order to be fully valued and preserved. Their correspondence reveals that, over the course of their mentoring relationship, Rilke steadfastly refused to critique the student's work, preferring instead to address deeper issues of life, love, and self-doubt that were gnawing away at the student's ability to let his unique poetic gifts flow.

In the same way, you will recognize your mentor when your path crosses with an individual who makes you aware that you are not yet tapping into your full potential. This very awareness is also what infuses you with a courage you did not know you had to reach out to that person and ask for guidance and support.

If the person is meant to be your mentor, they will respond as Rilke did, with compassion, empathy, and humility, freely offering what they know -- and doing so precisely because someone first offered them the exact same gift of hope and help when they needed it most.

The true beauty of mentoring will then reveal itself, as, in time, with the help of your mentor, you will transition through challenge to triumph and find yourself in the mentor's shoes. As you grasp the true value of what you have received, gratitude is awakened along with a desire to continue to participate in the mentoring process by "paying it forward".

One day you may find yourself very naturally responding to another person's request for help. Jeanette, a 30 year-old Ph.D. graduate in Counseling Psychology, has experienced this process from start to finish, first as a mentee and then in time by becoming a mentor herself. "Having a mentor was an important part of my journey. Now I have the privilege of being a mentor and sharing what I have learned with those who are still struggling. Being a mentor is a very rewarding experience because the relationships that are built are priceless."

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