What is a Mentor?

Carrie Newcomer, a mentor from afar.

I made an offhand comment yesterday on FB about a “creative mentor” who had sent me an e-mail that made my week. Afterward a FB friend asked a simple but confounding question: What is a mentor? 

I await her response to the same question—it’s something she’s been wrestling with for some time, apparently—but I said something like this:

Mentor is a pretty broad term for me. There are people who mentor me who don’t know they’re doing it. Like the person I was talking about yesterday–she’s an artist whose work I’ve been enjoying for a long time. I met her several years ago, but we don’t talk regularly.

I guess my definition is someone whose life or work inspires you to be the best person you can be.

This is a timely question because Jan’s blog post for today talks about being a mentor. She, by the way, is one of my mentors. And friends.

Jo(e) is another one. I admire the way she lives, works, thinks, and walks around in the world. I’ve never met her, but I hope to someday.

I believe that technology allows us to be mentored by people in a way we could not be in previous generations. Sometimes social media creates a false sense of intimacy, though. When well-known people share their lives on Twitter or Facebook, we can get sucked into feeling like we know them. It’s a mistake to call them friends, though. But I think it’s OK to call them mentors.

I also think these virtual mentors are no match for someone who has agreed to take on the role of mentor—someone who interacts with a mentee with that intentional relationship in mind. I have had that kind of relationship too. Mainly professors.

What do you think? What is a mentor? And do you have one?


11 thoughts on “What is a Mentor?

  1. Rachel Heslin says:

    I consider a mentor to be someone more actively involved in helping you than simply inspiring you, someone who not only gives you advice but who checks on your progress and helps you stay on track. This is not to downplay the importance of inspiration, simply that I think that mentorship is a separate type of relationship.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Yeah, I’ve also been fortunate to have a coach in the past. The accountability stuff is built right into that relationship. That is true for face-to-face mentors too. Tho I think that remote mentors do more than inspire—they also show the way.

      • MaryAnn says:

        Although your comment begs the question, can someone refuse to be a mentor, in the broad definition I use?

      • Rachel Heslin says:

        See, I see being a mentor something that someone actively does expressly *for* you. There is an element of sponsorship implied in being a mentor as well, which is why I would consider those who simply show the way as a different category. As an example, David Allen and Michael Masterson have most certainly had an impact on how I approach pursuing my goals, but neither of them knows me from Adam, so I wouldn’t consider them mentors.

        I certainly think someone can refuse to be a mentor. Even if you broaden the definition to remove the need for reciprocity, I’m put in mind of celebrities who behave badly, then claim that it’s not their job to be role models.

  2. susan says:

    I think there is room for a broad range of mentorships, of people who can encourage you from afar, and those who are more intimately involved in the day to day. When I ran the internship program, I was careful to avoid the term mentor, as I don’t think mentors are assigned. I think they are chosen. That said, I don’t think I have any mentors professionally. I have peers, professionally. I have people who used to be peers, writing wise, but who have moved so far beyond me that we are no longer peers, but there is no mentorship there. I do have parenting mentors, I think. And I guess I can’t complain, since of all the things I do, that’s by far the most risky!

  3. Randall says:

    Are you blurring the lines between a role model and a mentor?
    In a mentor/mentee relationship does not the mentor have at least some degree of permission to correct or discipline the mentee?

    But it is possible to have role models with whom you have never communicated directly.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Interesting distinction. Yes. Language is fungible 🙂

      I feel like a mentor-from-afar is a little different than a role model, but I’m not sure how I would describe that difference.

  4. My maternal uncle was born one year before I was and he was my mentor when he explained before I began first grade “You CANNOT wear your overalls to school – you MUST wear dungarees (which I did not know)” and later, towards eighth grade, clued me into something he called “sex appeal.”
    from Wiki:

    The student of a mentor is called a protégé. More accurately, the protégé could be called the telemachus (pl. telemachuses or telemachi). Sometimes, the protégé is also called a mentee. The -or ending of the original name Mentor does not have the meaning of “the one who does something”, as in other English words such as contractor or actor. The derivation of mentee from mentor is therefore an example of backformation (cf. employer and employee)

    • MaryAnn says:

      Hee hee, “mentee.” Fungible!

    • Rachel Heslin says:

      As a tangent, I love the “peer mentorship” program we have here at the high school, in which we match freshman and sophomores with juniors and seniors so they always have someone they can talk to, even if it’s just saying “hi” in the hallway or sharing stuff on each others’ Facebook pages so the younger kids feel like they belong. (We call them “mentees,” too. :D)

  5. There may actually be one other person in the multi-verse as out of it as I am who also did not know “Hunger Games” the broader picture:

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