January was national mentoring month. For Eric Liu that was both good and bad news. Good because the former Clinton speechwriter and author (“The Accidental Asian”) has a special interest in mentoring and recently wrote a book on the subject. Bad because having to formally designate a month to pay attention to a process that should be organic and spontaneous tells him that “the bonds of society have frayed,” and “it’s harder and harder to find someone who will show us the way.”
Liu became interested in mentoring, he told a Penn Bookstore crowd Jan. 26, when he became a father. Suddenly, he realized, with everything he did he was teaching his daughter. The power inherent in that responsibility alarmed and moved him, and he set out on a nationwide quest to find top-notch mentors and discover how they inspired and motivated their charges.
The book that resulted, “Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us Toward Our Purpose in Life” (Random House, 2004), introduces readers to teachers, tankermen, quiltmakers, professors, racecar drivers and other “instructors” skilled in bringing out their students’ unique qualities.
Telling the story of a Proctor & Gamble marketing executive who nurtured a younger employee and “unscrewed the jar that was Jocelyn,” Liu stressed that though each of his 15 narratives are different, they are all essentially the same story: We have a universal yearning, he said, for someone to show us the way, and “our stories are to be found in each of those stories.”
Liu admits that he, too, was in search of a mentor when he began work on the book. As he traveled throughout the states, he hung onto the idea that sooner or later he would find the one person who could give him the guidance he needed. It never happened, and that, says Liu, isn’t too surprising. “It’s relatively rare to have a single guiding figure. It’s more usual for it to be a composite.” If you pay attention, he says, and “take encounters and interactions as experiences full of possibility for rich learning,” you can make that composite work for you.
What does it take to be a good mentor? Curiosity, says Liu. That, and authenticity. Even though you may doubt you have anything worthwhile to pass on, especially if you’re still on a lower rung of the career ladder, you have who you are, says Liu. “You have how you carry yourself, how you handle stress, what you do when you’re not motivated, how you try to navigate questions. The only requirements are to be present and be yourself. If you bring yourself fully to the relationship, they will learn how to be.”
Originally published on February 10, 2005