Glory, glory, hallelujah. You're sitting in a meeting when the brainstorm happens. A perfect idea. You know the boss will love it. It's fresh. It's timely. It's the kind of project that would make you a star with the big bosses. Oh, it's a home run. Problem is, you know you can't do it. Your schedule is already packed, overflowing; you're mid-career and you've got a family to get home to; the truth is, you'd rather spend your weekend wearing pigtails and riding bikes with your kids than go on yet another business trip.
So you sit in the meeting wondering what to do with your brainstorm. You see a young woman, Jessica, at the end of the conference table. She's chewing gum. You need to remind her to stop chewing gum at these meetings. You've been mentoring her. She's got talent. She's eager. She's who you once were, way back when, looking for that perfect project that would launch your career.
All at once your home run turns into a lob. In the blink of an eye, the whole game changes.
"I have a great idea!" you say to the boss, with a level of confidence you could never have had when you were Jessica's age. You lay it out in three succinct sentences, bing, bing, ba-da-bing!
"I love it!" the boss says. "It's fresh! It's timely! Do it!"
With a smirk and a wave of your hand you say there is no way. "You know I can't." By this point the boss is someone you're all done impressing, someone who deeply understands bike rides and pigtails, a friend.
"Give it to Jessica," you say. "She can do it. Give her a try."
Jessica perks up. She looks like Pinocchio: all its life a toy and then suddenly real. "Me?" she says.
"You," the boss says. "Have the proposal on my desk by morning."
It's her chance. It's her breakthrough. It's because of you. It's your first real success as a mentor.
Glory, glory -- whose glory is it?
All evening she e-mails you drafts of the proposal. "READ THIS ONE! FORGET THAT LAST ONE!" In between scrubbing dishes and kids' bubble baths you check in, answer, edit. You'd forgotten how hard this used to be. You teach her the subtle shades of lingo, when it's hip to say "Hollywood" and when it's better to simply say, "L.A."
She has the proposal ready for the boss by morning. The boss sends it up the chain of command; three higher bosses will have to approve it. You tell Jessica to sit tight; these things take time; give it a few days.
Within hours, the boss is on the phone with Jessica telling her the proposal is a home run. "Congratulations!" she says to her. "You did it!" She gives her a budget and a deadline, says make your travel arrangements and how about staying in a five-star hotel?
The only hotel Jessica has ever stayed in as a grown-up was one she split with four college friends, two single beds on the side of a highway near the beach. She calls you to say how overwhelmed she is, how excited, oh-my-God, and, by the way, "Thanks!"
Pretty soon word gets out. Jessica is breaking out. Her career is about to take off. Go, Jessica! In the beginning your name is attached to her news, but by sundown it's long gone.
The weekend comes, and you revel in all you've worked so hard for, time to play, time for pigtails, and now you have a brand-new bike, a "comfort bike" with shocks and an upright position for middle-aged folks with chiropractic issues. Soon you find yourself pedaling faster, furiously, pedaling faster as you fixate on Jessica, all this agitation inside. It's not anger, it's not disappointment, it's a whole new feeling.
Glory, glory, hal-le-who? The thing is, you're proud of her. You're excited for her. You remember those days, the first hotel you didn't share with college friends, out on the road alone with a map. So, what is this feeling? You want her to send flowers? She should bestow praise? She should commit herself to visiting you on your deathbed to let you know your life had meaning?
It occurs to you, finally, that there were many mentors who helped you back when you were Jessica. Did you thank them? What did you do? You hope you at least had good manners. But did you ever stop to think about how it might have felt for them to send you a perfect lob? Of course not. It would have been impossible. That's not the way it works. Good mentors teach you to look forward, not backward.
"Don't thank me, just do it for someone else someday." Somehow, your mentors must have conveyed that. How did they do it? You have to figure it out, a subtle nod or wink that will tuck the notion in Jessica's brain for later use. This could be the first time you have ever admired, really admired, a thankless job.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.