I was with a friend last weekend when he made an offhand comment that struck me as unusual:

“I am struggling to find a mentor to support the next phase of my career”.

It was odd because he isn’t lacking access to good people that can push his career forward. My friend is charming, resourceful, highly talented and hard working. He just turned 30 and is running an innovative program in the City for a well known institution, working closely with senior executives.

So why he is lacking the support for his learning and development?

The more we spoke, the more I realised he had set a beliefs and assumptions of what his learning should look and feel like.

His learning conditions went something like this:

1. My learning happens when it’s scheduled into my diary in advance.

2. Another person is needed to facilitate my learning.

3. I need someone to agree to the role of a mentor to enable the above two conditions.

I should say that there is nothing wrong with this approach.

But I also think it’s a limiting way to view our personal development and it says something about the way we view learning.

For many, there is an unspoken assumption that we only learn when we are on a training course, gain an accreditation or study with an institution.

I often learn through training courses and mentors, but learning can be found in many other places too:

Here are a few examples:

Getting it wrong

There is something in our culture that says getting it wrong is a bad thing. It probably started at school when we were taught to minimise our mistakes and strive for perfect scores.

I don’t remember anyone at school telling me that a scr*w up was also a learning opportunity.

Of course, it’s not as simple as making loads of mistakes and learning from it. If you want a more nuanced understanding of this topic, I’d recommend reading this blog by Steve Chapman.

Staying inspired

Lots of my learning comes from people that inspire me. They are people whose work and approach I admire and they are a constant reference point for my own learning. This doesn’t mean I want to copy them, but rather they give me a sense of what is possible.

I feel very lucky to call some of these people my friends, and just being in their company is a learning experience without giving them the label of a ‘mentor’.

For others, I have never met them — I simply follow them through social media.

Being curious

If you have children you will know of the constant learning that comes from curiosity. Whether it’s a baby studying a new face or a child asking 101 questions.

Then we go to school and get a degree and we think our learning is done. As we grow older our curiosity turns to judgement. We become quick to analyse what we experience.

To be curious as adults is to and stay open to new ideas a little longer before we judge.

It’s about asking questions rather than seeking answers.

It means we are willing to unlearn old habits and beliefs.

Making it up

Our learning is very different when we are the architect of our personal development.

When we are the designer of our education the relationship with our teachers is more adult and less parent/child.

It’s taken me a long time to realise that other people don’t always have the answer. I used to outsource my questions to other people in the belief that they would have the right answer. I would seek out a generic solution to a dilemma that was highly specific to my circumstances — and I knew the circumstances better than anyone.

*****

So back to my friend who is looking for a mentor. I have no doubt he’d benefit from finding someone that is willing to support his career.

But I wonder what would happen if he viewed a mentor as one tool among many in his learning journey?

Rather than sticking rigidly to the roles of student (my friend) and teacher (the mentor), what might happen if there as was a more fluid and dynamic relationship where both sides are learning?

What would happen if the relationship was built on mutual respect, support and challenge, rather than the archetypal roles of a mentoring programme?

Disclaimer

This blog represents a snapshot in time. I suspect I would say something different six months from now, otherwise I wouldn’t be learning.

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