Saturday, January 28, 2012

Retirement Reflections — Mentoring Month

January is National Mentoring Month and The View devoted a show to this topic. I was struck by the variety of opinions on what a mentor is (or does). To me, a mentor was a regular presence in one’s life over an extended period. Others defined it as someone who was a singular influence or impetus to achieve, even though the mentor may not have known it. For all, mentors were inspirational, empowering.

Joy Behar credited Gloria Steinem with giving her the courage to pursue stand-up comedy, a tough field for women back in the seventies. Steinem was unaware that her words exhorting women to be their own person and have confidence in their abilities had been such an influence on Behar.

The other co-hosts had more traditional mentors, but the clips of celebrities showed them thanking everyone from wives who pushed them to succeed to agents who stood by them early in their careers. I've decided there are several types of mentoring.

The most familiar I will call formative. A formative mentor helps set you on a path to achieve greatness, or at least to achieve your goals, no matter how modest. To do this, a formative mentor devotes a considerable amount of time and energy to molding you. He remains a presence in your life over many years.

Similar, but generally for shorter periods, are transitional mentors. They help guide you through challenging life passages—high school, college, attempts to stop smoking or to get out of a bad relationship, for example. Over time, a transitional mentor may evolve into a formative one.

Next are the exemplars. Some people call them idols or heroes. By whatever name, they serve as examples of how to lead your life, how to achieve your goals. An exemplar may not know how many people she’s mentored, but she is very likely aware that she’s setting an example. We all can—and should—be exemplars.

Finally, there is the reflective mentor. By that I mean we may not realize the person served as a mentor at the time it’s happening. Upon reflection, often years or decades later, you recognize their influence on your life. They’re very likely unaware of the impact they’ve had on you.

As I look back, I can’t say I ever had a traditional, or formative, mentor. I have long-time friends who’ve always encouraged me and I’m grateful for them. But I never had one person there over the years for me to go to for advice. No one who propped me up, pointed me in the right direction and gave me a gentle push when I might have needed it. Mostly I found my way by trial and error, by stumbling into things that made sense, that worked. Or seemed to at the time.

I’ve been a “closet” writer for decades. When I worked at a large corporation in Manhattan, I regaled my co-workers with bogus intra-office memos. Toward the end of my 17-year career there, I collected them into a book, added material and gave it a working title of “A Neophyte’s Guide to Corporate Survival.”

The father of one of my peers was with Random House, and she offered to have him critique my manuscript. His comments were constructive. The product in its current form was neither fish nor foul. If it was intended to be helpful, it needed more meat. If meant to be funny (which it was), it needed to be edgier. The net of his advice was to be outrageous if I wanted to be a published humorist.

I took this to heart. When I was “downsized” a few years later, I wrote an opinion column itemizing what I saved by no longer commuting. My “fuzzy math” concluded that I was making money by not working. The piece was published in the Sunday New York Times. I was paid $75 and I was over the moon.

A year later, the Times published my second, even more outrageous column, on the garbage crisis. A few years after that, Marketing News ran two of my crazier pieces. Then followed close to two decades with little time to write.

One of the reasons I retired was to provide that time. I keep the advice of that Random House executive in mind, pushing my humor to the edge of reasonableness. Occasionally I write more serious, wistful pieces, like today’s post. But what I consider my signature style is my humor. I think it’s time to contact my former colleague and ask her to pass on my thanks to her father. And maybe even to become a mentor myself.

In recognition of National Mentoring Month, thank a mentor and become a mentor. Retirement is a great time to start!

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