I’ve had more than a couple over my short career and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from those willing to share their wisdom and knowledge. I appreciate the people who took the time and made the effort to mentor me, I really do, but I want to address a consistent issue I’ve encountered in nearly every mentoring relationship I’ve ever had. Perhaps it’s just me or perhaps it’s just the mentors I’ve paired with, but I don’t think so. I believe the Mentoring Problem is the norm in the vast majority of cases. Discussions I’ve had with other students of my generation have backed up my suspicions.

What am I taking about?

Well, the mentors I’ve had and the mentors I’ve seen are more than happy to share with, encourage and help the student right up to the point that one of three things happen:

1) The student surpasses the teacher in ability, visibility, possessions, etc.

2) The student questions the teacher’s core principles in a significant way.

3) The student forms their own set of beliefs that doesn’t align with the mentor.

Why does this matter and why should you care? It may not and you may not. It may be that this is always how it’s been and everyone knows it. It may be that I’m just slow to understand reality but I always assumed that mentors mentored to help the student and that most had a sincere desire to see the student rival and even surpass the mentor’s abilities and constraints. That is what I used to believe but it has not been my experience or the experience of the other students I’ve observed and talked to.

To explain what I mean let me explain my experience – the one scenario I’ve repeated multiple times with multiple mentors. I tend to seek out those who are doing more or know more or have more than I do in order to learn. I’m not overly clever and I’ve figured out that I’m much better at identifying and adopting the habits and skills of proven doers than I am at de novo creation. I’m good at approaching my superiors with the right attitude and displaying a willingness to subjugate myself and listen, and for this reason, I’ve had many mentors. The problem is that, in retrospect, the mentors I’ve had have almost universally taken advantage of the situation to benefit themselves in terms of time, visibility, credit, money, intellectual property or other forms tangible and intangible assets. I didn’t notice this pattern for a long time but looking back it is obvious to see that the mentors I’ve chosen have gained as much or more from “helping” me than I gained from sitting at their feet. And some would say this is a fair exchange. I can live with that and I could even make that argument but for two issues:

1) The mentor hid their true motivations from the beginning.

2) The mentor’s ego couldn’t stand it when the student surpassed them or when I realized that much of what the mentor was taking credit for was actually the student’s work.

I’m not upset or jaded about these past experiences. I’m not even crying foul. I’m just dispassionately dissecting historical events for the benefit of myself and others. Perhaps all mentors are like the ones I’ve had. Perhaps not. Perhaps my mentors are who they are because they are orthodontists, by and large, and that’s how we are conditioned – to take advantage of juniors the way they were taken advantage of when they were joining a practice decades ago. Perhaps not. The upshot of all this is a hope and some advice more than a complaint or an admonishment.

1) Mentors, try your best to help others for the sake of helping. Don’t look to reward yourself or line your pockets or take credit for the works of others. Be happy when your student surpasses you in any way great or small and acknowledge the fact publicly. Helping others is a reward in and of itself. This is what many of us try to do in the various Facebook groups, study clubs and The Progressive Orthodontist Magazine. We want to identify and elevate talented and accomplished individuals for the good of all. Our hope is that we will identify and mentor those who will eventually surpass us and lead the profession.

2) Students, be warned that mentors often do not have pure motives and the more talented you are, the more likely it is that someone will want to mentor and shepherd you while claiming magnanimity but actually covet your abilities and want to take advantage once they are a trusted advisor. Don’t shy from mentors for fear of this outcome, just be aware and don’t let someone convince you that you’re not awesome if you get awesome results on a daily basis. In the same token, be careful not to overestimate your abilities or ignore your results should they be lackluster. As with life in general, an accurate self assessment is critical for success!

Maybe the definition of mentor is at the heart of the issue. Perhaps I/we are too quick to erroneously call a facilitator, partner or teacher a “mentor” and maybe that adds to the confusion and frustration between mentors and students. Long story short, it is best to help others, underplay our own hand and learn all we can from those willing to help while maintaining a healthy skepticism and an accurate self-assessment. This is much easier said than done! There is no shame in being taken advantage of repeatedly if you learn to fall forward. Don’t fear failure because fear of failure will limit your potential. If you avoid failure then you’ll most likely avoid accomplishment! Don’t worry, the more you fail, the easier it gets. I know this because it’s my vast portfolio of failure that has allowed me to accomplish so much!

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