A mentor of mine, Dr. Denny Roberts, once shared the opinion with me that the word mentor has become watered down. I agree. I'm not one who generally cares about terminology battles, but I can get on board with this. Mentor is now used all of the time to describe a wide scope of relationship types, of any length, depth, or value. You can be called a mentor if you spend an hour with a person, or a decade. You can be called a mentor even if the impact you have is forgettable. So-called "mentors" can come in and out of our lives like taxi cab drivers. By the time we are in college, we've probably had dozens of individuals in our lives who were called or claimed to be our mentors.
Lots of educational institutions and nonprofits now have "mentorship" programs. "Be a mentor today" is a common slogan. Mentoring relationships are even becoming predetermined. Once, on a plane, I overheard a guy complaining to the person next to him about how much he dislikes his assigned mentor.
With mentor becoming relatively synonymous with having any well-intentioned interaction with another person, what term is truly left to describe the extraordinarily powerful, life-altering link between a person with guidance to share and a person eager to soak it up? The link that turns a caring adult in your life into a father or mother-figure? What can you call the Yoda in your life, the Morpheus, the Mary Poppins, the Professor Keating? With mentor becoming a benign, throwaway word in our culture, can it still do these types of relationships justice?
Dr. Roberts' concerns with our overuse of mentor came also from the historical derivation of the word. Mentor was a character in Homer's The Odyssey. If you remember, The Odyssey is a sweeping story of Odysseus and his adventures during his return home from the Trojan War. While he was gone on his quests, Odysseus entrusted his kingdom and his most important possession - his son Telemachus - to the wise Mentor. That level of trust was profound. Because of Mentor's wisdom and regard, the Goddess Athena chose to take on his persona while giving Telemachus guidance that would alter his life.
If you had to entrust your child with one other person in this world, who would that be? Probably someone extraordinarily consequential to you. Someone like Mentor.
Ever since The Odyssey, the word Mentor has come to mean a rare relationship that is longstanding, caring, and developmental. Well - maybe not so much any more.
The purpose of this essay isn't to try to reverse how the term mentor is being used, or try to reclaim its significance as a word. That probably can't happen at this point anyhow. I only wanted to share the information above as encouragement to all of us to remember, and not take for granted, the presence of true mentors in our lives. Even if the word gets watered down, the relationships are real. And you know which ones they are.
A lot of my mentors come from my college years. I'm guessing that's true for a lot of you as well. College is a time designed to force us into a journey of self discovery, and so we tend to be attracted to influential people who want to help us along that path. Thus, fraternity can provide us these opportunities as well. Consider for a moment your big brother or big sister program. Some bigs and littles will define their relationship by gifts to each other and perhaps a deeper friendship. Others will grab that chance to coach a younger member on how to draw the most power from the fraternity experience. They'll seize the opening to mentor.
By the way, if you let down your guard, get to know them, and let your relationship with them flourish, Greek advisors can become some of the best mentors you could ever have.
Take a moment to think about who are true mentors in your life. Remember - there should only be a few. Do these people know this? If not, why wait to tell them?
And, consider another question. Are you currently, or have you ever been, a mentor to anyone? As you look at it, you may need to downgrade some of the relationships you thought were mentorship because they aren't at that high of a level. Or, if you want to continue to call it mentorship, then you may have to double your efforts to earn it. Give your heart and soul to it. Make it matter more to the other person than it does now - more than they would have thought possible.
And, if it isn't a mentoring relationship after all, a caring relationship of any kind still matters immensely. Young people need those now more than ever. The Search Institute's research shows that the presence of a caring non-parent adult in the lives of young people could be the tipping point for their future. It doesn't have to be mentorship to matter. I have lots of advisors, coaches, supporters, and friends in my life who have made a difference for me.
But I only have a few mentors.
And to my mentors - I thank you. I'm sending you a personal note today to remind you of how much you mean to me. You have earned every ounce of the meaning of that word. And by now, you should know, that its a word I hold in reserve. For only those rare relationships. For you.
Dr. Denny Roberts has an outstanding blog, Pursuing Leadership. He is also the author of Deeper Learning in Leadership: Helping College Students Find the Potential Within.