Hey there, readers. I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking about mentorship – primarily, what a mentor is and is not, and why someone might want to be a mentor; what qualities makes someone attractive as a mentor; and what people seeking a mentor should look for or think about while looking.
Of course, you can also substitute for “mentor” whatever kind of leadership role that deals with helping someone better understand a skill, a community, a role, a lifestyle, an ideology, I decided to think of it as a “mentor” so as to be more broad; I don’t just want to write about spiritual teachers, but leather, kink, queer, polyamorous, power dynamic, and other sorts of “more experienced hands” that seem to be in demand.
So what I’m looking for is general concepts and thoughts about what makes a good mentor, and how can someone recognize a mentor that is a good fit for them. After all, there are a lot of people out there who bestow titles of authority onto themselves (“mentor” only being one of them), and it’s possible that even if Moonbeam drives you bonzo because he only “teaches” by pointing out when you’ve fucked up, for someone else that might be the best arrangement they could think of.
I would greatly appreciate if you would share your thoughts with me, and I will try to get the essay written before the end of the week. You can either leave a comment here, or email me at awesome dot del at gmail dot com.
Thanks in advance! I look forward to reading your thoughts!
Speaking for the first thought that entered my head when reading this: I think the biggest thing that’s always held me back in seeking out a mentor (other than the sheer lack of them) is the worry that I’ll end up with less mentoring to encourage me along my own path, and more of someone who will try to pigeon hole me down their own path.
Oh, that’s a pretty fair point. My problem is that I tend to be a little “out of order” as a student. For me, I require a mentor who is able to be inventive, or able to read what I need as a student and to best guide me. So I guess: understanding. It’s similar in vein to yours: the “no pigeon hole into their path” thing, but also “don’t force on to one method.” I’m more of an immersive “whoops fell off the cliff” type student that can’t do just memorization or verbal cues, but to be shown how it’s done, then to be shoved off, like a mama hawk to a fledgling, and stressed into flapping my wings and figuring stuff out. So I figure what I look into a mentor is: versatility.
I dunno what makes a mentor, but I know one thing. A mentor shouldn’t be relationshipally involved with with their mentee. I see these ppl on Fet marked as mentor or protector to someone, but they’re fucking and topping the newbie, and generally seem to be looking out for their interests when they should be looking out for the newbie. I think when you agree to mentor someone, you are obligated to look out for them, do what’s best for them. I don’t think you can put their best interests first when you’re fucking or topping them. Even when you love them dearly, your feelings are gonna get in the way of the distance you need to look at what’s best for them.
What I look for in a mentor is someone who’s more advanced than me, but isn’t too advanced to follow from my current level. Sometimes that translates into having two or more successive mentors in the same area as my skills and understanding improve. I look for the same in a mentee: there’s no way I’d take on someone who’s *completely* new at poly or D/s. I can’t remember what it was like to be them, so I’d take it for granted that they’ll somehow know things that are now second nature to me.
I think my kink mentor did it right. He referred me to one of his more advanced proteges for the basics, and didn’t get directly involved until I could follow his own explanations easily. Also, I agree with heldc re: topping/fucking a mentee. That’s likely to cloud one’s judgment, and the dynamic, especially in the case of topping, could get pretty unhealthy. I’ve seen it happen over and over.
As for what makes a good mentor in general, I’d say patience, intuitiveness, and genuine passion for the field – after all, mentors help shape their own eventual peers. They should be willing to accept feedback, question their own practice, and learn constantly.
Mentors are guides and path-smoothers. A mentor should always tell the truth, as hard as it is to hear. A mentor can only light the way—the protégée must make the journey themselves. To expect a mentor to provide all the answers, to give all the solutions, to be master facilitator and trench grunt, to do the protégée’s work—that is a recipe for disaster, both for mentor and protégée. If the protégée is not willing to work—REALLY work—then a mentor is just another crutch.
So, then, a mentor is someone who will listen to your goals, help you to recognize those which are attainable and realistic, and to modify those which are not. A mentor can point out flaws in logic and reasoning and help the protégée develop a stronger sense of self. They can provide feedback that is compassionate yet honest, always with the protégée’s best interests at heart. A mentor is a friend, a confidant, a soul-teacher. Mentors can make or advise to sever connections to others, and often have the experience to know when a situation is a good or bad fit for the protégée. A mentor is someone who can be trusted to do the best things for a protégée without thought for the mentor would gain or lose.
My very brief Twitter response, expanded:
I’m speaking from a spiritual point of view, here, though I think the student/teacher relationship is pretty universal and many of the same principles apply, regardless of context.
From a student perspective, a good mentor is someone who feeds me just enough information or help so that I can get a foothold to find the answers and, more importantly, the next questions for myself. I also need to occasionally be pushed off a cliff and made to build my wings on the way down. Keeping me on my toes, but instilling confidence that I’ll be caught if shit gets really bad, is key to being a good mentor. It’s my responsibility as a student to remember not to take that safety net for granted and keep up with the work presented to me.
From the mentor perspective, beyond the obvious required skills and abilities, I feel a good mentor can recognize that you are partly responsible for your mentee. This person’s spiritual wellbeing is partly in your hands (note: PARTLY) and that is a huge undertaking and shouldn’t be done lightly, even if the teachings appear light and breezy. At the same time, you should remember that this is not your journey, that as much as a mentor may learn from the teaching experience (and you always do), this has nothing to do with the mentor’s ego or what they get out of it. It is a sacrifice, a task to be of use, and a responsibility to be a support and a sounding board without using it as a platform for your own work or (ack) aggrandizement. And yet, you need to be invested in the task, to honor it and be present. All the while, the student’s success and failures are ultimately their own responsibility. It’s a dance, maintaining that balance and proper separation.
As for finding a good mentor, there needs to be a compatibility of spirit and personality. Having enough in common to develop a shared vocabulary is important for clear communication. If the two people also happen to like similar mundane things (movies, books, etc.) then that eases the social aspects of the relationship. You’re already doing enough work on other levels, a shared cultural experience can smooth out the ‘getting to know you’ phase.
This doesn’t mean the two people must nor should be the same, however. In fact, they should probably be different enough to be at risk of pushing each other’s buttons, if it were another kind of relationship. That subtle conflict can fuel the fires of learning, so long as both remember their roles and have mutual respect.
I think one of the most important facets of looking for a mentor is to know yourself, at least a little, and have a decent idea of what you’re looking to learn. If you’re completely flailing, it may feel like having someone else step in would solve a lot of problems, but unless you have a handle on where you’re trying to go, you’re going to spend a lot of time sorting that stuff out and not utilizing your mentor’s time and energy as efficiently as you could.
You don’t have to know how to get there, that’s what you two can find together, but you should have a clue where you’re trying to go. Having a handle on whatever basics are involved is probably good, too, so at least you can have questions that are in context with the work you two are doing, rather than just “How do I start”, which is rather broad. It also lets a potential mentor see that there is some dedication already established on your part and that their time is not about to be wasted by someone just trying things on for size.
Ultimately, the mentor/student relationship is exactly that: a relationship. There are two people committing themselves to each other and to working together. Conflicts will arise, personalities may grate on each other, communication is foundational, and a willingness on both sides to show up and do the work that is required is vital for the work to succeed. If respect, focus, and open hearts and minds are maintained, than the situation can be rewarding for both sides. And yes, you can even have a lot of fun exploring it all together.
In my opinion, a mentor can’t have any agendas other than 1. wanting to see the student achieve their own personal highest potential, what ever that may be (the mentor needs to be self-aware enough that they do not project their own expectations of what that might be for each individual) and 2. (not a dealbreaker, but a healthy agenda if it’s transparent) The desire to create healthy colleagues, able mentors in their own right, for whatever discipline they are working on.
A mentor has to understand that there are many, many different learning styles, and be willing to adapt accordingly. A mentor needs to be committed to their own self-improvement and self care first, because you ain’t gonna be any good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself, and also because Loving and Caring for yourself in healthy ways is, in itself, an incredible lesson by example.
Off the top of my head, those are the most important things to me. I look forward to your essay, and I hope this comment finds you well!
Additionally (I think, after scanning the previous comments), a good mentor should be completely aware of their own limits, even if it’s hard to admit that those limits exist. A mentor should not be afraid to admit that they don’t absolutely know something, and also it should be clear that it’s possible that they might make mistakes as well. Nobody knows everything, and even out of the things one does know, one may only be able to teach a fraction. In a way, I think it comes down to getting over one’s ego. Of course the mentee has to make a similar commitment, but regarding mentors: recognising your limits definitely should be a priority. For example: if someone has a mental illness and the mentor is not a mental health professional, they absolutely have to admit that, and defer to mental health professionals.
In a similar vein, a good mentor should not bristle at the mere thought that their teaching might be questioned by their students. A good student will ask “why” and debate a point instead of swallowing things blindly. It is up to the teacher to react to said questioning in a way that promotes a learning experience, as opposed to “because I said so”. Mutual respect is the key, and of course the student would also commit to being respectful; this includes not debating for the sake of debate, but only when they have analysed the issue and come to the conclusion that there is an actual problem.
Finally: patience. Teaching is repetitive and frustrating at times. If you have no tolerance for that, then you have no business teaching at all.