Let’s Talk About Mentors

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 I’ve literally had some version of this logo kicking around in my head for twenty years. I think about it from time to time because it represents the first time I helped try to organize something. I thought of it today because of a DJ on our local indie-radio station named Steve Pick. This morning, he played a Camper Van Beethoven song on the radio, commenting that it was released over thirty years ago. What does all this have to do with having or being a mentor? Stick with me, this is an origin story of sorts.

“Pump Up the Volume” was the story of a mostly ordinary kid who found that he had something to say and became part of something bigger than himself.

Naturally, this song made me think of the movie “Pump Up the Volume”. I was talking to a friend the other day about movies that stay with us, or that define a moment in out lives. This movie was one that made me feel like I wanted to bring people together and be a part of something bigger than myself. All of this lead my train of thought to The Red Square.

When I was a Junior in High School, my friend Sean came up with the idea that he wanted to make a newspaper. So he gathered several friends that he felt were forward thinking, creative, intelligent, and that might be interested in helping put this thing together. The paper was called The Red Square, and would have articles about issues that were important to youth, about art, and poetry. A real bohemian paper. We had a meeting or two, and brought in examples of things we thought were cool. Talked about communes, music, and politics but then the project just sort of faded away. So what happened? We needed a mentor.

Ideas are good, but ideas are also the easy part. They’re the part when a project is the most exciting, before anything has gone wrong, when there’s still endless potential, and we haven’t had to consider “what next” yet. The dwarves in “The Hobbit” were smart to seek out the help of Gandalf as a mentor, and he made it clear that he wasn’t actually one of their company from the beginning. Bilbo was the fourteenth, the lucky number. Gandalf was not a teacher. He had a lot of wisdom to impart sure, but that came more in the form of advice not information on what was coming next. As a mentor to the dwarves, he’d nudge them in the right direction and then stand aside as they found their way, made mistakes, got into trouble and often back out of it again.

Through the whole story, he only stepped in twice, when they truly got in over their heads. The first time is in the city of the Goblins, and even here he had to call in a favor or two because through inexperience the company of fourteen had hugely overstepped their capabilities. Back on the path their mentor gives them advice how to move forward and then lets them continue on their way to have their own successes and make their own mistakes. He also stands aside and lets them fix their own mistakes when they can, asking what they learned from their adventure, and letting them build strength and confidence for future endeavors.

This is a key concept in the difference between a teacher and a mentor. Teaching involves instructions on how to do something from start to finish. Mentoring involves nudges towards finding the next step. A mentor is usually not a wizard, and the relationship doesn’t have to be complicated, it’s realizing that creation can’t happen in a vacuum, and sometimes we need a fresh set of eyes. If you’re working on a creative project and don’t know where to go next, I’d like to encourage you to talk to somebody about it. A teacher, colleague, or friend might just be able to give you the motivation you need to move forward or the inspiration to solve a problem. I’ve been really lucky to form relationships like this in the Craft Mafia with my show co-organizers April, Amy, and Sally who are there to give me advice but mostly just let me mess things up.

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