Penn State's Academic Advising Journal defines mentor as "a wise and trusted counselor or teacher." It is rooted in Greek mythology, Mentor was Odysseus's trusted counselor, under whose disguise Athena became the guardian and teacher of Telemachus.
Today, when we think of mentors we think of one of two things: (1) a person who has added quality to your life through sheer good will, or (2) a person assigned as a part of an educational or work program whose job it is to show you how things are done. I’ll use a shorthand for referring to the two types (1) an “organic” mentor and (2) an “assigned” mentor. If you are very lucky, you may get a two-for-one, but don’t worry if you don’t. Life is full of both types and you can learn from both. I’ll write more about strategies for working with mentors in the future.
If you are lucky enough to find a person you want to emulate, ask them to be your mentor, this will be your “organic” mentor. Tell them what you want to learn and listen to what they have to say. If they are good, they won’t always tell you what you want to hear. If they are really good, they’ll ask you questions that lead you to learn the hard answers for yourself. Chances are you’ll have lots of “real” mentors throughout your career and life. Remember to thank them for what they’ve given you, they need reassurance too. Most importantly, don’t forget to emulate their most important lesson, helping others along the way.
If you have an “assigned” mentor through an educational or work program, you’re probably dealing with something different. It is not realistic from a supply and demand perspective to hope that each mentor and protégé assigned will have that long-lasting connection that you get from an “organic” mentor. There is probably a specific task they are supposed to help you with (getting into a program, learning the ropes of a new program or job, deciding what to do after a program, or mapping your career). Hopefully they’ve been trained with a basic coaching model. Even if they have been trained, they may still describe their job as “to indoctrinate you.” Don’t run screaming the other way, yet. Remember, this is not the “organic” mentor you picked to model and emulate. This person is there for a specific purpose and you will be well served to learn from them. The more you can learn about your assigned mentor, the more you can tailor your questions to their strengths and those qualities or skills that you find in them and want to learn.
Many people who receive an “assigned” mentor through a program find that they don’t quite mesh with them. Obviously, if there is a serious conflict you can always ask to be assigned to a different mentor. However, if you separate the two types of mentors in your mind, you might find that working with the “assigned” mentor opened up questions in your mind that may be beyond the scope of the relationship with the “assigned” mentor or that the “assigned” mentor is not equipped to address. As an alternative to asking a for a new “assigned” mentor, consider searching out an “organic” mentor who can better address your needs and who will likely outlast the formal program.
Remember, “assigned” mentors should never replace “organic” mentors, they merely supplement them. Organic mentors come into your life through random twists of fate and you must reach out to them to learn from them. Assigned mentors come into your life at a specific time and are there for a purpose. As with any relationship, you get out of a mentoring partnership what you put into it. You can learn as much from an “assigned” mentor as an “organic” mentor if you are deliberate about the process.