“In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with- Maya Angelou”
A bit of history-
It was in Homer’s Odyssey that the word Mentor first came up. Odyssey describes the ten year journey that the protagonist, Odysseus takes to reach home after the Trojan War. Before leaving home, Odysseus had requested Mentor, an older and wiser man to be in charge of his young son Telemachus. Additionally, the mentorship relationship is depicted once more in Odyssey, when understanding that Telemachus had begun to trust Mentor as a guide and trusted adviser, the goddess of wisdom and inspiration, Athena, disguises herself as Mentor and advises Telemachus to keep his focus on finding his father, instead of confusing himself with day to day trivialities of life.
Since mentorship is defined by the involvement of the mentor in the overall growth of the mentee, the word ‘Mentor’ was adopted by the English language from Odyssey at a later time, to signify the more accomplished and wiser, provider of advise in this unique but important relationship.
Why is it important?
- Mentoring propels the mentor towards becoming a leader of their pack. No matter what a person leaves behind through their tangible accomplishments, people will always remember those who added value to their lives. A person with strong leadership qualities is oftentimes a good mentor.
- It builds self worth and confidence in mentees and keeps them focused and aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Success of academic institutions, public or private organizations and all professional agencies depends on a mentally strong and driven workforce which can be achieved in one part, with mentorship.
- Mentorship allows mentees to make informed choices in their personal and professional lives. They in turn make good mentors and inspire others.
- Mentoring is especially relevant in our times, where the youth is emerging as a strong and powerful form, with a potential to change the course of our civilization, for the better or the worse.
What makes a balanced mentor-mentee relationship?
- Mentor adopts the mentee– a mentor may have to give up their pride and acknowledge that their mentees are smarter than them. History as evidence, when GH Hardy, a mathematics stalwart, recognized the capability of a young self taught Ramanujan, instead of shunning him for fear of being overshadowed, took him under his wing and introduced him to the world. Geographical barriers, differences in upbringing, culture, and nationalities did not come in between the mentor and mentee. Hardy was himself an accomplished scientist but projected Ramanujan for the brilliance he deserved.
- Mentor may not be from same field as the mentee but shares a common goal– A mentor and a mentee may not share the same threads of a common background and may not even agree on similar ideologies. For instance Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a revered Indian political leader who was trained to be analytical in his political views, took to mentoring and educating a young Sarojini Naidu in national politics. Naidu’s hopeful and poetic views of India’s future were farther from Gokhale’s astute thought process and vision. However, they still bonded because, although their means were different, they were united in their goal of bringing about major social reforms in India.
- Mentee can and should seek out a mentor– Oftentimes; life may not bring your mentor in close proximity to your surroundings. It is then, important to seek out your mentor. In this case, common interests do help to bond. For instance, SN Bose, whose name is immortalized with the Boson particles, proactively approached Einstein and sent him his manuscript to review and publish. Good mentors always find time to provide advice. Einstein not only reviewed the manuscript and acknowledged its uniqueness; he took time to translate it into German and helped publish Bose’s seminal paper in a renowned German scientific journal. In quantum mechanics, particles that follow the Bose-Einstein statistics are known as Bosons.
- Mentor helps to build a mentee’s professional focus and career– The mentor understands how to focus the mentee by firstly advising them on career goals after mutual discussions and then helping them build a road map to reach that goal. Sometimes, the mentor goes beyond and provides the mentee opportunities that can hasten the journey process towards achieving the career goal. CV Raman, a Physics Nobel Prize winner has had mentored an illustrious fleet of bright mentees who have gone on to contribute greatly in their fields. I would like to mention GN Ramachandran here, not only because he was one amongst the most promising of Raman’s mentees, but also since Raman recommended Ramachandran for possible career opportunities that could enable him to shine professionally in a very short time. No doubt Ramachandran was brilliant on his own, those in structural biology know about GNRs triple helix model for collagen and equally important Ramachandran Plot that helps understand peptide structure, but Raman’s mentorship helped him stay on the path leading to major contributions. Ramachandran was equally famous for his fluctuating temperament, however, a mentor has a responsibility to keep their mentees focused on their passion and perhaps Raman did just that. Ramachandran established the Molecular Biophysics Unit at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, one of the best biophysics division in India, today.
- There is and should be no gender bias in selecting a mentor (any form of bias actually!)– Though it has been tough to find women mentors or mentees from India over internet (Sigh!), a mentee should approach anyone from whom they can learn about bettering their lives, irrespective of gender and any classifications that humans have created to divide each other. One example that was prominent was of Manoranjan Byapari and his delightful life story. Born in a poor household, Byapari did not have opportunities that many of us take for granted, example, a school education. However, he was driven to make a difference to his circumstances. While in prison, he taught himself to read, and having ‘discovered’ stories highlighting the plight of the poor from Bengal and topics dear to his heart like social reforms, written by an accomplished Bengali author Mahasweta Devi, suddenly developed an insatiable appetite for reading. Byapari got himself a job as a rickshaw puller and continued to read as much as he could. One day while driving a lady, he asked her the meaning of a word from a book he was struggling to understand. She explained him the meaning and he thanked her by showing her the book he was reading. It was Agnigarbha, a short story collection by Mahasweta Devi. While paying him for the ride, the woman asked Byapari if he would write something for her journal. Byapari agreed and asked her to give her contact details. The lady scribbled her name on a piece of paper ‘Mahasweta Devi’. Byapari’s life changed for the better after coming in contact with the seasoned author. Byapari has written 10 books and 100 essays till now and has been honored for his contribution to Bengali literature especially in depicting the struggles of Dalits in Bengal.
Agencies building mentorship programs in India, outside of educational institutions and entrepreneurial start ups: