How to evaluate your mentor
On the difference between guiding mentors and predatory mentors
I have a mentor who like many, has done far more for me than he’s ever gotten in return.
One of the last times that we had breakfast together, I asked him in full sincerity why he has done so much for me in exchange for so little. He told me something that has been sitting with me since:
Mentors take interest in mentees not just because they want to see them succeed, but because they want to see them become what they could have been.
In addition to this high level answer to my question, he suggested I read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde to gain further clarity and context on this idea. I did, and came to the following conclusion about the 2 types of mentors in this world. First,
The Predatory Mentor
The predatory mentor is someone who has a vision that they believe that their mentee should fulfill at all costs. If the mentee strays from this vision, then the mentor will criticize and try to give input to push the mentee back towards what they deem to be the correct path. The mentor instructs the mentee in this way for two reasons, varying mainly in their self awareness for each reason:
They believe that it is the right path for the mentee
It would be directly rewarding to the mentor
Both of these reasons can be the case at the same time in the instance where a mentor both believes the path they are suggesting to their mentee is correct, and is also being rewarded psychologically in a way they don’t recognize by seeing the mentee pursue this path.
Why would a mentor receive psychological benefit from seeing the mentee pursue a path they think is correct, and how is this separate from them simply thinking it is what is best for the individual?
The answer is a little tricky to pick apart. I think a good way to lay out the argument is to preface with the idea of a ‘transference object’. A transference object in psychoanalysis is when we take our personal subjections and place the weight of their responsibility in something outside ourselves. I recently finished reading The Denial of Death by Earnest Becker, where he talks deeply about this concept as it pertains to facing our own mortality.
Most people play it safe: they choose the beyond of standard transference objects like parents, the boss, or the leader. They accept the cultural definition of heroism and try to be a ‘good provider’ or a ‘solid’ citizen. In this way they earn their species immortality as an agent of procreation, or a collective or cultural immortality as part of a social group of some kind.
And so back to the predatory mentor, it is the mentee themselves who is made into a transference object. This is because the mentor fails to face directly the paths not taken in their own life, and so transfers the responsibility of facing these failures or missed opportunities unto a youth who they can see fulfill those fantasies, satisfying this latent craving to have done so themselves.
There is another type of predatory mentor who isn’t quite so innocent so as to be misguiding their mentee due to lack of psychological clarity. This comes in the form of a mentor who sees opportunity in a mentee that can be guided to a fiscally or other personally advantageous end. I’ve seen this take form many times, most often in the case of someone with ambition and skill, but lack of experience to validate their capabilities being pigeon holed into an opportunity that adds value to the mentee in the short term, but harms their potential for full individuation in the long term.
Opposite the predatory mentor is the
The Guiding Mentor
In our most recent podcast at the time of writing, guest John Launius, who among other things, provides hypnotherapy to high achievers, says that there are 2 major hurdles to human connection:
People understanding each other
People being advocates for each other
The guiding mentor first and foremost, takes the time to fully understand the personal motivations, aspirations, goals and challenges of their mentee. In time, as they grow to know thier mentee more fully, they are then an advocate for that individual in whatever form that takes. This most broadly means understanding the direction a mentee is headed, and offering input and guidance that leads them closer towards this direction. A guiding mentor does not let opportunities to take advantage of a mentee cloud their judgement for guidance. Getting the mentee to their most individuated state supersedes any opportunities for placing them in an opportunistic position in the interim.
A mentee reading this may think it a luxury belief that mentors will constantly be looking for opportunities to place them in to serve their own ends and in fact may even be seeking this as an outcome. “So what if a person of a more affluent socio-economic status wants to slide me into an opportunity where they think I’m a fit?”
Well, I would say this:
Sometimes it is the advice on what not to do, rather than the advice on what to do that matters most. The advice I appreciate and remember most clearly from mentors is when they’ve advocated that I pass up on opportunities that seem immediately attractive in lieu of my broader goals. When I’ve taken this advice, I’ve always seen it to be right in hindsight, and when I haven’t, I’ve wasted months chasing a path that once I hit its end- had only led me farther from where I truly wanted to be.
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How to vet a mentor
If you are looking to vet your own mentor, decide who, where and what type of person you want to be in as high of fidelity as possible. Then ask yourself Launius’s questions about your mentor:
Do they understand me?
Are they for me?
If the answer to both is yes, then you’re in good company. If the answer to either is no, then it may be worth reassessing the relationship or at least filtering future input with additional caution.
For a mentee to take opportunity from a mentor in a way that doesn’t infringe upon their long term goals, both parties need to be on the same page about where the mentee is headed, so they know how to craft an opportunity that best suits this end. That way, the opportunity can be a step in the right direction vs a step away.
One tangible way I’ve developed for how to achieve opportunity alignment is to create a ranked order of skills applied to a given opportunity. I have used this system to assess opportunities between me and a mentor and I’ve also used it whenever I’m offering an opportunity to work with another person. Here’s how it works:
List the skill categories that will be utilized in a given opportunity.
Rank the skills on this list in 2 categories: interest in developing said skill and time to be utilized developing this skill in the opportunity presented.
Assess for alignment.
Here is a more concrete example:
I was recently in the position to offer a 19 year old an opportunity helping out with some aspects our podcast and something we call Legacy Interviews. Help was needed in 3 main areas: video editing, running equipment during recordings and helping to improve the art of camera, light and sound placement. In starting this conversation it was important to me for the above outlined reasons to have a full understanding of where this person wanted to be over the long term to align our opportunity.
We ended up drawing out the 2 lists, and when done, they looked something like this:
You’ll see how for both of us, the #1 need was with honing the art of production set-up. It was for this reason among others that we were able to craft a productively aligned arrangement for working together, because we both had the same long term goal for what we wanted to grow to perfect. Even if the columns weren’t aligned in this way, we would still have had a better understanding of what each others’ goals and expectations were, to keep the long term aims of both parties in mind from the start.
Returning to the starting idea: all mentors do still want to see their mentees become what they could have been. The main difference between the guiding mentor and the predatory mentor is the degree with which this is literal.
The predatory mentor wants the mentee to achieve exactly what they could have if they had it to do over again.
The guiding mentor wants the mentee to achieve what they could have had they known what they knew now, then—in any form that achievement takes.
Choose your mentors wisely. I know I have.
Thank you to my guiding mentors. If they’re reading this, they know who they are.
Send me signal on Urbit: ~padlyn-sogrum
If you’d like to check out the progress we’re making on the podcast first hand, you can watch or listen to our most recent interviews here. We are back to only doing in-person interviews, because we are convicted that this is how we will maintain the level of quality that we want to have in our conversations, production, and generation of new ideas going forward.