In his book “Smart Thinking,” Art Markman writes about the illusion of explanatory depth: By this, he means that we think we understand things better than we actually do.
One cure for this trap is to be a mentor, because the process encourages you to teach another person. In doing so, the mentor and the mentee will both understand and better address their own limitations.
From time to time, I take on interns and view it as my obligation to serve as a mentor to these young people. When I first started, my assumption was that knowledge would primarily flow in one direction — from me to them.
I was wrong.
The people I take on are all unique individuals, but they share some traits in common: They are curious, highly motivated, hardworking, and all harbor big dreams.
Although I would use similar words to describe myself, one of the downsides of success is that it makes you comfortable. The intensity of a twentysomething's dreams can eclipse my own, and that insight disturbed me. Am I ready to dream little dreams?
With each new relationship, I see the world through fresh eyes. Rather than talk at my interns, I try to listen as much as possible. Each question brings a new perspective. Each shifts my worldview just a bit, and it causes me to wonder whether my answers are still as valid as they were one, five or 10 years ago.
“Young” does not mean untalented. These interns are fluid writers, critical thinkers, fun and loyal. Working with them isn't an obligation, it's a privilege.
Describing his book in FastCompany, Markman wrote: “Even the best workplaces involve a lot of routine. There are tasks that need to be done on a regular basis, and that can become numbing. Mentoring helps you to see your world through fresh eyes. When you serve as a mentor, you have a chance to really see how much you have accomplished in your career.”
This is why I urge my senior clients to serve as mentors. It's a non-threatening way to gain a valuable perspective on your career and on the company you have built.
When functioning as a mentor, you want to create a framework that allows the other person to explore. With my current mentee, we have talked about leadership and also M&A, because those issues have been on the table in my practice. Instead of me having all the answers, I lead with questions he ought to explore. I give him some degree of a framework to bring me something back, then let him go out on his own.
In doing so, we both learn where his questions, his competencies and his confidence are. In all cases I ask myself, “What's going to be in the best interest of this individual?”
The Good Work Project observes that positive mentors have three distinct qualities: Perseverance in the face of adversity, professional creativity, and a commitment to the mission and values of their work.
In serving as a mentor, you remind yourself of the qualities that have powered your career and of the energy you have long brought to your work.
Some mentors think about helping their mentee act older and more mature. Not me. If all goes well, at the end of the process I will act younger and be more energetic. I hope the same will also be true for you.
Demmie Hicks is the founder of Atlanta-based DBH Consulting.