This piece is the first in a new series, “Leadership Reimagined”, which features columns for On Leadership by students and fellows in programs across the country. This month we’ve invited these young writers to reimagine mentorship.
I came into college accustomed to being told I was exceptional. Advice always came sweetened with affirmation. I wanted to be patted on the head at the end of each meeting and told, “You’re wonderful, and good, and you’re doing a great job.”
I also expected that my spiritual mentors did not have anything to say about my academic career. I was, after all, coming to them with spiritual questions, not academic ones. I thought the people I consulted about my emotional life should keep their noses out of my professional life.
My college mentor changed that perception. She chose to tackle the tough stuff: humility, patience, seeking peace within difficult situations. Not just in my friendships, but also in my schoolwork. Not just in who I was as a church member, but also who I was as a sister and a daughter. Suddenly she was probing every aspect of my life, however difficult it seemed.
My affirmation-saturated, easily categorized world shivered under this new model of conversation, where my sins and shortcomings were picked apart as frankly as my gifts and callings. I had thought my mentor and I would talk just about spiritual life, but suddenly her questions and thoughts touched on every aspect of who I was.
My mentor was also a staff member in the office where I worked during my freshman year. I sat at the front desk, answering phones and emails and scheduling meetings. Soon I discovered a tension between the professional self I was at the front desk and the very nervous, still uncertain self I was inside my mentor’s office. Should that truth-telling voice sound the same when it came to my professional work? Could she ask me questions about life while I was answering email? Should I tell her when I was having a bad day? What kind of advice equals “life advice,” and what kind is “work advice”?
If the point of mentoring is to grow the whole self, the conversation about “life” in her office is ultimately the same conversation as the one about my “work performance” at the front desk.
We want to categorize our mentors: This one is spiritual, that one emotional and another professional. But as humans, we live across all categories. If we really want to grow, then our mentors have to meet our whole selves, including who we are in the office. The moment we begin to draw boundaries around the topics that can and cannot be covered in a mentoring relationship—those parts of ourselves our mentors can and cannot see—is the moment we lose the point.
This does not mean that our vocabularies and approaches to professional, spiritual, emotional or academic mentoring cannot be tailored or distinct. I think they can. The vocabulary my mentor uses to talk about my spiritual development should not be identical to the vocabulary she uses as my boss. But in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “We distinguish in order to unite.”
We nuance our vocabulary and our approach to different kinds of mentoring not because there are hard and fast divisions between them, but because making those distinctions enables us to have the best conversations. My mentor did not correct the way I answered the phone in our office by telling me frankly that it was “wrong,” as she might when we talked through a decision I was making about a spiritual dilemma. But in both those cases our conversation was about the kind of person I am becoming.
When it works, mentoring does not exclusively plume our résumés or make us more impressive interviewees. Nor does it exclusively make us diligent Bible-readers or spiritual warriors. It teaches us how to be our fullest self in every part of our lives.
Through my college years, I have watched conversations about being kind to others in my mentor’s office meander into how I conduct myself in my work. Our conversations about how best to answer a question or direct a phone call have similarly meandered into how I pray for others and the kind of person I am in the midst of difficult conversations about faith.
An individual mentor can be both spiritual and professional, because mentoring is about both. Mentoring is about helping me integrate all parts of who I am into a whole being.
The lessons about obedience and humility, which I learned my freshman year? They happened in my mentor’s office and in our shared workplace. I am my fullest self as a result.
Hilary Sherratt is a senior Pike Scholar majoring in Religion, Ethics and Politics at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass.