Sunday, March 08, 2009

Who's Your Mentor?

Today was a much-needed break in Boston—the sun was shining, the snow was melting, and from my perch in sick bay, it was possible to believe this long, punishing winter has an end in sight. October-May are a total wash for me typically, and with DST this weekend, suddenly June doesn’t seem so far away.

I’m sick of being cold and sick there’s not much else say about it, and I’ve had enough writing about health and health care reform for at least a few days, so we’re taking a spring break and talking writing and mentors today.

I read Penelope Trunk’s blog, Brazen Careerist, regularly. From advice on job interviews to musings about gender in the workplace to things I’d never know about venture capital and start-ups otherwise, her material is always informative and usually very entertaining as well. (I love some snark when it’s combined with authenticity and intelligence.)

Anyway, one of her recent posts was about finding a good mentor—in fact, it is called “Get Your Next Mentor By Being Slightly Annoying.” I read this post a day after I’d given a presentation on publishing and social media to nonfiction students in Emerson College’s MFA program. The timing was uncanny, because one of the things I told the students was to be “politely persistent,” to have the confidence to follow up several times and to keep putting yourself out there no matter how many rejections you get. Whether it’s trying to nail down a mentor, as in Trunk’s case, finding an agent, or landing a piece in a big-name glossy, I think the premise remains the same.

(As an aside, here’s a more extreme example of “polite persistence”: I was wait-listed for a competitive program I fully believed I deserved to be in. What can I say? I was young, and suffered from a mix of naiveté and hubris. Every other Monday for the three months in between the wait list notification and the time the letters of acceptance went out, I mailed the dean of admissions a letter that talked about what I believed I’d gain from the program and what I hoped to contribute, and included new published materials each time. I got in, and joked they were simply tired of seeing my return address.)

But the blog post made me think about things beyond matters of persistence—namely, the importance and value of mentors.

I thought about my high school journalism advisor, who sacrificed countless evenings and weekends to help us put out the paper. But she did so much more than that for me. She exposed me to writing conferences and competitions that gave me confidence and concrete goals. Above all, she helped me find a voice—an identity, really—in a world often dominated by my illnesses. Finally, I had a constant. A decade later, few people have had more of an impact on my life and my choices.

I thought about my college journalism professor, who encouraged me to apply for the internship at a national newspaper and quite literally brought issues of ethics, morals and professionalism to our class through her personal experiences (she knew Woodward and Bernstein) and the dynamic speakers she arranged. It was her true passion for what she did that most influential; not many people I know are as deeply committed to and energized by their careers than she is. I didn’t want to disappoint her.

That’s what great mentors do, I think; they challenge us to be better people and better professionals by virtue of their own accomplishments and their integrity. It’s more than simply teaching us skills or dispensing advice.

I am lucky that in this latest stage in my life I continue to have incredible mentors, like the cousin who reads every draft of every major project I do, who taught me the language of grant-writing and research proposals and whose perspective has informed my work in so many ways, or the agent who does much more than negotiates contracts and submits my work but invests himself fully in my ideas and advocates for them.

We talked about the “hidden curriculum” of medicine in my classes this semester, the knowledge learned in hallways and during anecdotal exchanges—lessons that do not occur in the traditional med school classroom. Part of the discussion involved those role models who may not even be even aware they are serving that function. Now more than ever I recognize how many people like that are in my world—what may be just a link or an introduction or a passing idea on their part opens up a whole new avenue of possibilities. For someone like me who is still learning and expanding what I do, that hour-long lunch, that really wonderful phone call, or that amazing talk really can have a lasting impact, and plays a part in the choices I make and the goals I strive for long after the fact.

Long story short: Yes, persistence is a huge component of success in any field, but having people who are willing to share their time and expertise is, I’d argue, just as valuable. For as long as you keep evolving personally and professionally, I think you never outgrow the value of a mentor.

Do you agree?

1 comment:

Kairol Rosenthal said...

Hi Laurie,

I really enjoyed your post about mentors. It spurred me on to write a post on my blog about mentors too in which I name my Mrs. Kogut, my high school English teacher, my dad, Strunk and White, and Michael Denneny as my mentors. I made it part of my series "Should You Write A Cancer Book?" Have a read:


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