Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Top Ten: Mentor-ific Part #1

Telemachus and Mentor

One of the first things people tell you when you take a faculty position in medical education is this: "Get yourself a mentor."  It doesn't matter if you're a clinician educator, a clinician researcher or both. At some point somebody is going to catch you at the coffee maker and ask you all nonchalantly:

"So. . . .who's mentoring you?"

This is the point where you break out in a cold sweat. Unless, of course, you have a clear idea in your head exactly who that person is.  Maybe you're so savvy that it's more than one person, even. But if you are like many fairly junior folks. . . .that answer isn't as clear as you'd like for it to be.

Here's why. Many institutions help you identify a mentor right of the rip. Someone looks at you and your accomplishments and serves as a professional "" for you and your future.  The problem is. . . as well meaning as these arrangements are, ofttimes it doesn't result in "eharmony."

And so. You give that name that was given to you whenever someone asks, but secretly you kind of recoil because there hasn't been the kind of magic you'd been hoping for.

Um yeah.

I know that some professional person somewhere is reading this thinking, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"  Yes, because it's true.

Hold up.  A few of you might be like, "What do you mean mentor? Like why must I have one of those? Is it like having a guru? Because if it's that, I'll pass, thanks."

Alright, so check it. Back in the Greek mythology day, Odysseus (as in the dude behind "The Odyssey") had this right hand man named Mentor (yes, this was the dude's real name.) Anyways, Odysseus had some big things going on and by big things I mean The Trojan War. Odysseus, being the responsible dude he was, was concerned about who would hold things down for him in his absence. And see? Remember when I said that all women need good women friends and all men need good men friends in their corners? Fortunately, The Odysseus had that in his running mate Mentor.

This just reminded me of my hospitalized patient who introduced me to his best friend who was visiting at the bedside one day. He said to me, "Hey Miss Manning, this man right here is my 'A-alike!'"

And of course, I asked this patient who happened to be a New York transplant, "He's your 'A-alike?'"

In unison they both laughed out loud and said, "Yeah, 'cause we B-alike and we C-alike."

Yes, I digress but the point of telling you that was. . .uhh. . .nothing really.


Okay, so Odysseus had a son who was the apple of his eye named Telemachus, and he needed somebody to keep an eye on his boy while he was away. Even though Telemachus wasn't like a baby or anything, this was necessary because his father was kind of a big deal. So, in a way, Mentor was kind of like having secret service for the Obama girls but like, before the secret service was invented.

You still with me? Good.

So the story goes on, a lot of stuff goes down, but the bottom line is that Odysseus' A-alike Mentor held down the fort big time and proved to be a great guide to Telemachus. When it was all over, Telemachus probably said, "''Preciate you" to Mentor and Mentor, like any good mentor, just smiled all proud-like and replied by saying something poignant like, "Ah, my lad. . . . when you succeed, I succeed."

Anyways. This is where that whole word comes from in the English language. The gnarly thing about the story of Mentor is that he wasn't just a babysitter. He was wise counsel, a cheer section, a coach, and a trusted confidant. And although Telemachus had a good father who could serve in that capacity most of the time, it ended up being good to have someone else in that role as well.

So I say all this to say. . .I think good mentors help us to get close to our full potential. We all need good mentors to nudge us, advise us and sometimes taze us into doing what we need to do. The most effective mentors coach, inspire and lead by example. It took me a minute (a Grady miiiii-nute) to recognize and identify my mentors in medical education. And man, am I glad that I finally did!

Haven't found one yet? Or don't realize who yours are? Never fear because today, in the first installment of my Mentor-ific series, I bring you:

The Top Ten Ways to know a GREAT mentor when you see one.
Use this to help guide you to the promised man or wo-man.  (Not in the romantic sense but in the mentor sense, alright?)

Drumroll please. . . . . .

#10  --  R-E-S-P-E-C-T

A mentor that's right for you is someone that you respect. Now, this is trickier than you might imagine. Just because someone is a rock star professionally doesn't mean that you'll fully respect them. Perhaps you don't like the way he or she speaks to his or her administrative assistant or even they never leave work to be with their family.  Whatever it  is, if there's a disconnect with your ability to feel genuine respect for the person, it's probably not a good fit.


It's kind of ideal to have a mentor who has actually done some of the things that you aspire to do. Don't confuse that for EXACTLY the things that you want to do.

Case in point:  My main professional mentor is Neil W., who happens to have some interests that don't exactly mirror my own. But. He is a highly accomplished teacher on the local, national and even international levels. His teaching style is quite different than my own, too. And that's fine. Because he is very, very productive and helps me to push harder both through his encouragement and his example. Plus he's a kick ass teacher, which I always aspire to be. I respect that. It works.


Doesn't matter how amazing of a fit a person is for you if they don't have time for you. Some folks are well-meaning but ridiculously busy. Too busy to reply to your emails or your phone calls. And if that's the case? Regrettably, it's probably not a good fit.

There are some times when the mentee falls short and isn't assertive or prepared enough. This might leave said busy potential mentor less than enthusiastic about making time for them. But when it's not that, then at some point you just have to cut your losses and keep it moving.

Yes you are published in the highest tiered rock star journals and you present at the biggest deal conferences every year. But you won't call me back so . . . . oh well.

#7 -- WISE

A great mentor has been around the block enough to have gained some wisdom here and there. Sometimes you need to turn to your mentor for insight on what to do when those paths diverge in a yellow wood. It helps if they don't have to use an 8-ball to give you some advice.


Those I identify as mentors are people who I consider role models. Not just professionally, either. I like knowing that, yes, you work hard but that you also go on vacation with your family or take a cooking class with your husband on Tuesdays after work. No, you don't need to be perfect. Just working to achieve some sort of balance, you know? It also helps if you're nice.

By the way--I gave a speech once called "Let your life be a mentor."  It was about how even when folks don't know you personally, they can be mentored by your example and the lessons in your life. I am mentored, for example, by Angella L. on many things. She is a mom and professional and a wife and when I read her writings, I get guidance. That's just a little bit of food for thought.


I'm sure Mentor had a whole bunch of things he needed to do while Odysseus was gone to the war. Even though it is technically a myth and was technically waaaaaay back when, I know for sure that not that much has changed in the world since then. Real talk? Time is a precious thing.  This is why many people would much rather write a check toward food for the homeless than going to a shelter and actually feeding them. Time. Energy. Commitment. 

It takes an unselfish person to spend time focusing energy on someone other than themselves. Exceptional mentors are willing to sacrifice their time, ideas, and energy to bring out the best in you.

Oh,  and don't be fooled. Sometimes productive mentees find themselves working with people who seem unselfish. Ask yourself a question: Would this person still be as interested in working with me if they weren't last author on all of my papers in their field or if I wasn't completing the manuscripts that were sitting on their desk for the last five years? If the answer isn't an immediate absolutely yes, then know that the relationship could be difficult to sustain.


Mentors come in all shapes and sizes.  Some serve as "coaches" -- kind of like what surgeon Atul Gawande, M.D. wrote about in his lovely piece called "Personal Best" in The New Yorker. They stand on the sidelines watching you and telling you how to improve your technique. They come up with ideas that you never thought of, point out strengths and weaknesses that never occur to you, and. . . .they just. . . .they just invigorate you.

One of my mentors who serves in this capacity is a Grady doctor named Carlos D.  Carlos is quite possibly the busiest, most hard-working person I know. But he does all of the things he does with such zeal, man. He teaches with zeal. Treats patients with zeal. And even responds to my most simple text messages with a spunk that often makes me laugh out loud.  I learn so much from watching him and listening to him. And though he is not my mentor in the formal sense I count him as one because he makes me better.

There's a whole movement about peer-mentoring that I have to mention here, too. Many of my peers in medicine hype me up so much! I watch them teach or talk or do what they do and I feel invigorated. Ready to try something new.  That list is long. But I count these people as the swirling moons around me that serve in a mentoring role, too.


Your mentor should NOT be in competition with you. Period.

#2 -- FUN

Mentor-mentee relationships can be time consuming. It sure can be painful to spend all that time with someone who's a stick in the mud.  When I meet with my mentor Neil W. we spend at least 70% of the time laughing out loud. It's productive, yes. But always fun.

Okay, except for the last chapter we wrote together. That wasn't fun. But he did laugh at all of my jokes regarding how un-fun I found that whole process. And the reason he insisted I do it was because he thought it would help me professionally. (He also helped a WHOLE lot with the hard parts which takes me back to number 5.)


Not what you can do. Not how fast you write. Not how willing you are to work long hours. And not just what you can do to make them look good.


They remember that your son is turning five and they fly back from wherever they were to be at his birthday party because it's important to you. (Yes, I remembered that, Neil.)  They want to hear your ideas and have the patience to help you flesh them out. They take the time to look at your unique qualities and try hard to come up with the best ways to utilize them.  They know when to push you and when to back off because they've taken the time to get to know you.

In other words, they care. About you. You.  Even if you don't have great comic timing. Even if you got a 'B' on the medicine clerkship or if you didn't get awarded that big grant from the NIH. They still make room for you in their schedule and start that meeting off with simple things like:

"How are you? How was Harry's birthday? Are the kids out of school yet? Have you ever eaten at Antico Pizza?"

And then they get down to business. I think everyone knows that there is a very fine line between business and pleasure. It sure helps when it gets blurred.

Oh and mentoring isn't just a doctor thing or medicine thing either.  Many of my mentors coach me in life and motherhood and everythinghood as well. And. Many people mentor you without even knowing it. Kind of cool, isn't it?

Bottom line? The best mentors get it. And they get you. 

That's all I've got today.

(Stay tuned for more on my mentor Neil W. in the next installment. Ha ha ha. . .)

Happy Hump Day, y'all.

Now playing on your mental iPod. . .  If you're lucky, your mentor just might teach you how to Dougie. . . but don't count on it. Don't worry, this is not a requirement.


  1. Thank you for mentoring through your blog - not all 10 criteria may be met, but I still consider you among my mentors.

  2. Wow. Just got placed with a potential mentor for my masters in education.

    Wonder what he would think if I just sent him this blog and said "Live up to this."


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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