Mentorship for the Novice Expert

I have to admit something. I’m not very good at being a beginner.

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I’ve started riding a motorcycle again after six years. Riding is notoriously risky. There are usually seven dozen ways you are about to die at any moment. Every early morning when I get up for a practice ride, I’m all gelatinous with nerves.

But as I start up the bike, it’s not visions of being obliterated by tractor-trailers I’m quaking about. It’s the through-the-curtains drowsy glares of neighbors when I have to adjust the choke to a louder place to get the idle stable. Not the fear of getting creamed, but a dread of getting honked at. It’s the shame of wobbly turns and leaving my turn signal on.

And yet, I get up morning after clenched morning; I keep doing it because I believe the thing I’m working toward is important and relevant to the person I want to be.

Being a beginner can be terrifying and embarrassing. But it’s worth it when it changes your life or someone else’s. Coming to understand this has slowly transformed 2015 into the year I become a mentor. It’s awkward and bumpy and I love how it is transforming me.

I have no idea what I’m doing#section2

I dislike it when it’s obvious, in public, that I have no idea what I’m doing. The humiliation burns even hotter if the thing I’m flailing at feels like something I should have already mastered.

I have long worried that I wouldn’t know how to be a mentor. This holds me back, and it makes me feel shallow. Early this year I metaphorically shook myself by my own shoulders and snapped, “Get over it, Gardner!”

I had no idea what I was doing. But I was going to do it anyway.

First, show up#section3

I started tentatively reaching out to colleagues and acquaintances. First I made sure I was attuned to little opportunities—helping someone debug a specific thing, or understand a particular feature of git.

I had been operating under this illusion that mentors were sprung fully-formed at birth. Silly, of course. Much of the path to mentorship can be built with the basic skill of showing up. If I can tenaciously help someone find answers to questions, repeatedly, this steadiness can transition automatically into a mentorship-flavored relationship.

Friendship with intent#section4

Mentoring relationships have different shapes. Many incorporate other facets: friendship, mutual interests, perhaps familial or professional ties. But all are personal.

I’ve found that mentorship can be a successful bolt-on addition to an existing friendship. That part of your friendship now has structure. Mentorship is like friendship with intent.

Intent means going further than vague suggestions of “Hey, we should talk about JavaScript sometime.” It means getting things on people’s calendars, and entering scheduled conversations with some goals about outcome. Success is manifest not just in your own performance, but in someone else’s ultimate success.

Reaching out#section5

Having clarity and intent doesn’t mean we need to operate with an unbending focus on the end objective. For example, I might respond to an acquaintance’s online expression of technical woe with a message like:

Hey, (friend)! I’ve so been there. It can feel wildly overwhelming, huh? Would you like to have lunch and talk through what is making you feel so stuck? Maybe we can tease out the confusing bits and look at them more closely. How about (day and time)?

For both of us, this can be an informal lunch conversation, with venting and tangents. And food, yum. But I’ll be mentally present in an active way. This is the conversational equivalent of alert motorcycling through dense neighborhood traffic, versus the car-on-open-interstate languor of, say, weekend patio conversations. I’m relaxed but ready, on point.

Curriculum follows later#section6

Another admission: what initially got me inspired about this was the idea that I might get to write a fun curriculum and explainers. Oooh! Sample exercises, even! I love explaining technology with words (writing Head First Mobile Web with Jason a few years ago was life-altering).

This is, unsurprisingly, cart-before-horse territory. You’re not a professor; these won’t be packaged lectures. You don’t get to hand out a syllabus on the first day of class. Your mentee hasn’t even decided on a major, as it were.

Mentorship, again, is a relationship. This is human, which means soft skills and flexibility. I run close alongside that stereotype of socially uncertain, slightly awkward technical people, so these skills sometimes aren’t well-honed for me.

I have to knuckle down and concentrate on these interactions, especially shutting my trap and listening, listening, listening.  I am not always successful; when I get nervous I tend to fill gaps with words.

But over time I try to come to an understanding of how a particular person learns best, what fires his or her imagination. I find great power in the use of questions. What feels like success to you? Do you feel more at home with theoretical or applied examples on this topic?

I get answers, I get a more complete picture. And then sometimes they ask for sample exercises. Yes!

Mentorship is vital in our industry#section7

Since the personal mental challenge of teaching content turned 2015 into a year of mentorship for me, I’ve become transfixed by the humanity, and how right this feels. There’s something about gifting knowledge to someone that transforms the giver. It bestows the wisdom of being a vulnerable beginner for a greater goal.

On top of this is a glaring reality: our industry desperately needs mentors. Everywhere. The self-taught among us (yep, me, too!) are legion. Absent classrooms or clear curricula or obvious paths of study, wouldn’t a rich reserve of mentors among us be a great asset? Could we make mentorship part and parcel of our growth as technologists? Can mentorship roles be a default in our organizations?

Triumph as a vulnerable beginner#section8

I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m nervous about messing up, but I keep doing this week after week because it feels important.

Wobbly and inelegant I may be, but the terror of flaunting my inadequacy is eclipsed by the importance of what I’m after. I’m humbled by this opportunity.

2 Reader Comments

  1. This article literally gave me goosebumps. Over the past few years, mentorship has become the focus of my career as well. I can relate to every single thing you’re saying. But I think when you speak about mentorship as a relationship, you’re absolutely nailing it. Being a beginner at something, especially something as low on Maslow’s pyramid as someone’s career (there’s a reason “living” is a synonym), can be an emotionally intense period in someone’s life.

    So if you’re a beginner at mentoring, and the person you’re mentoring is a beginner at whatever it is you do… well hey, look at all that empathy you just generated! The feeling of rightness that mentorship generates is very real and incredibly rewarding.

    Thanks for writing this!

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