Developing the Art of Being Mentored

How well prepared are you to learn? Fred Smith talks pointedly to those being mentored.

By Fred Smith

Great teachers want to find great students. With my mentors I tried to be a good student. That entailed several things:

Admit your ignorance. I never tried to impress a mentor with my knowledge. I always exposed my ignorance. To hide ignorance from a teacher is as foolish as hiding your sickness from a doctor. The wise person is always more aware of his ignorance than his knowledge. Dr. Walter Hearn, a biochemist at Yale University, surprised me once by saying, "Fred, every night when you go to bed you ought to be more ignorant than you were when you woke up." I took this as facetious until he explained that if I considered my knowledge as a balloon and every day that balloon increased in size, it touched more and more ignorance on the periphery. Therefore my knowledge brought me into contact with my greater ignorance. The arrogant are proud of their knowledge; the humble are acquainted with their ignorance. I have learned to make friends with my ignorance.

Work to ask the right questions. Right questions come from thought, analysis, and discernment. Idle or careless questions are demeaning to the mentor. There's power in a good question. Years of experience have taught me that one of the keys is asking a question that the person wants to answer. Recently a young professor told me how he asked a prominent man two questions following an award program, and the man disregarded all those trying to shake his hand and concentrated on answering only those two questions.

Do your homework. With my two mentors, I never called them unless I had written down what I wanted to talk to them about. Writing out your questions beforehand is helpful to minimize verbiage. When we met I had organized my questions; I knew it was not a social situation. If we later wanted to spend some social time, that would be up to them, not to me. I never walked into their office and sat down until I was invited to sit down. They had to know I was not going to waste their time. Preparation shows respect and a readiness to make progress.

Never try to "use" your mentor. A person with a well-known mentor can be tempted to refer to him in ways that really use him, particularly in quoting him out of context. A mentor is for progress, not ego satisfaction.

A good student grows. Progress is the pay the student gives the mentor. The mentor likes "being there" when achievement occurs. Currently I spend most of my time mentoring high achievers. I make no charge. But I get amply paid by the vicarious accomplishment of these individuals.