The Joy of Becoming a Mentor



by Barbara Quick


One of the rewards of graduating from the school of hard knocks is a fund of knowledge that’s yours to save or spend, depending on your outlook on life. Some people hold the attitude that everyone needs to learn life’s lessons the hard way. Others delight in easing the passage of those who come after them.

            Stephanie spoke of the generosity of one of her mentors toward her:

I called up a professor of mine years after I’d graduated from film school, because I’d seen her byline on a film review in the newspaper, and I was just at that time thinking that I’d like to start reviewing films myself.  She told me everything she could think of that might get the editor to take me seriously, and she said I could use her name if I thought that would help.  When I thanked her, she said, “A. lot of people have opened doors for me over the years. If I can open a door for you, it’ll just be a way of completing the circle.”

            There are plenty of people who don’t want to open the doors of opportunity too wide, for fear of the competition  that might  crowd  them.  Others,  like  Stephanie’s professor, feel safe enough in their abilities to know that there is ample room in every field for as many high-quality people who want to enter. Instead of feeling threatened by a younger or newer person’s excellence, they feel glad that the general standards around them will be raised. Like the queen in our revisionist version of “Snow White,” they will exult in the success of the younger people they’ve been able to nurture and nudge into full bloom.


A Giant Web of Support

One of the pleasures of getting older is the chance to help and encourage younger people (as we continue to give pep talks  to ourselves and our contemporaries). Among the many lessons our mentors teach us by example is how to be a mentor. There are books and articles on how to be a mentor, but perhaps the best way to learn this wonderful, life-giving skill is to be the recipient of it at one time or another. It’s never too late to find a mentor; and it’s never too late to become one.

            Susan Caminiti writes in Working Woman, “The simple act of teaching, by sharing stories and experiences, has been going on since men in loincloths swapped hunting tales.  What’s different is how women are redefining its role in the workplace to fulfill their particular needs.”

            In the same article, Caminiti quotes Gail Graham, a thirty-nine-year-old bank executive, who says that because of her mentor and the women she met through her, she feels like she has “a giant web of support.”  Graham continued: “So often you think you’re the only one going through something, but now I feel like I can fall and land in the web and things will be okay.”

            Paula expanded on this idea:

I think of the link between a mentor and her protégé as the smallest unit in a larger web of supportiveness, empathy, and nurturing that may eventually show itself to be the world’s safety net. If what you’ve learned in your life can help another person leant more quickly, then the learning curve of the world’s emotional intelligence will begin to slant upwards. If you can use any of the keys on your key ring to open doors that will allow other people to speed themselves on in their personal evolution, then the world’s locked doors of potential will begin flying open. If we each share what we know, the earth will grow wiser much faster than if everyone has to keep learning everything all over again on his or her own.


Fairy Godmother as Career Path

Is it possible to even conceive of a society in which wisdom is esteemed just as highly as youth and beauty? When our time to play Cinderella passes, can we joyfully step into the sparkling shoes of the fairy godmother?

            Lori, as a teacher, is beginning to understand the power that comes with wearing those shoes: “Now I’m in a position where people are looking to me to be mentored, because I’m the teacher and they’re the student. There’s a tremendous responsibility that goes along with being a mentor. I remember how much influence my mentors had over me.”

            Fairy godmothers have, by definition, arrived at their career goal: they are fully empowered to work their magic to help others. Their job description reads, “Live in the world as a beneficent presence that will help others actualize their dreams. Wake the Sleeping Beauties of the world, replace Cinderella’s rags with fine clothes and send her to life’s ball, remove the piece of poisoned apple from Snow White’s throat so that she can wake to her own happiness.”

            Cathy spoke about the ways in which she now feels able to expand the legacy of her mentor:

Sam helped me so much, and now I’m in a position to help other, younger women coming into the firm. And it’s  not just  at work that  I  can pass  on  what  Sam gave to me. There must be half a dozen opportunities every  day wherever I interact with other people—on the subway, at restaurants, at the grocery store, or just walking down the street—when I can slip in an encouraging smile or a compliment and change someone’s day, relieve me, I know what a difference that stuff can make. We think of it as throwaway stuff, but it’s gold and jewels that we scatter to the world. I’m only in a position to share it with others because of the great gift of abundance that Sam gave to me. I can afford to give it away, because that well is never going to run dry again.


How To Live Forever

Changing lives in a positive way, or making the world a better place to live in, is an even more certain path to immortality than giving birth to a child. As women, we’re uniquely equipped to do both.

            For centuries, most women have not had the time, opportunities, or resources to focus their energies on world improvement. In the twentieth century, we had more leisure time, at least in the western industrialized world, to think about more than survival—and many of us set about a course of improving the quality of our own individual lives.

            Marcella spoke with passion about the collective consciousness communicated to her by her mentor:

One of the things she taught me in the way she lived her own life was to try to see the larger picture — to get beyond the whole idea of our own little family to the family of humankind. I think a lot of people now, myself included, are hungry for some meaning beyond getting ahead in our work or just being a success or making money. We’re finding more room in our embrace beyond the room we’ve always made there for our own children or members of our immediate family. Women especially, I think,  are recognizing the virtues of cooperation and information sharing, because we’re starting to get an inkling of the positive changes we can make in the world.

            As women grow used to their wings, testing their strength and power, they are also discovering the warmth and space those wings allow to nurture and embolden whatever fledglings venture underneath them.


From Under Her Wing, The Mentors Who Changed Our Life by Barbara Quick. Copyright © 2000 Barbara Quick. Excerpted by arrangement with New Harbinger Publications, Inc. $13.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-748-6273 or
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