Mark: The Seinfeldian View of Mentors

There's an episode of the classic sitcom Seinfeld in which a woman Jerry is dating, Abby, talks constantly about her mentor: the impact her mentor has had on her life and career; the advice her mentor has given her; her mentor's favorite restaurants, movies, and books. Jerry's bald and neurotic friend George Costanza can't quite get his mind around this concept of a "mentor":

George: I still don't understand this. Abby has a mentor?

Jerry: Yes. And the mentor advises the protégé.

George: Is there any money involved?

Jerry: No.

George: So what's in it for the mentor?

Jerry: Respect, admiration, prestige.

George: Push. Would the protégé pick up stuff for the mentor?

Jerry: I suppose if it was on the protégé's way to the mentor, they might.

George: Laundry? Dry cleaning?

Jerry: She's not a valet, she's a protégé.[1]

Much like George, I've struggled with the concept of a mentor. True, it's a common term, but not one that held meaning for me growing up, at least in a specific, personal sense. My parents never spoke of having mentors. No one ever encouraged me to seek out a mentor. I never had someone in my life that I consciously referred to as "my mentor."

Sherry, on the other hand, is very comfortable with the term. She speaks often of her mentor, Bill Olson, and she referred to herself as his protégé. They maintained a mentor-protégé relationship for more than thirty years. She openly searches for ways to be a mentor to young people around her.

So why the divergent perspectives? If I've never specifically looked for a mentor, does that mean I don't have one? Do I even need one? Or is it a concept that burned out before it reached my generation? Have mentors become irrelevant in a fast-paced, technology-dependent, and globalized world?

Attempting to answer these questions, I find it helpful to examine the characterization of the younger generation (broadly defined) as the "on-demand generation" (to borrow the term used by Arjun Desai, a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar to Singapore and now an anesthesia chief resident at Stanford University School of Medicine). Younger people have come of age at a time when everything is at our fingertips. News, information, communication—it all happens in an instant. This sense of the urgent, of instant gratification, has permeated the professional arena. We want to do everything, and we want to do it now. We're confident and can-do. We're ready to perform the most demanding work possible and take on all challengers. This is not meant to imply that professionals of older generations don't want to perform challenging work or succeed in their careers—people of all generations are striving for success. But it's the on-demand generation who can't seem to wait for it. Sure, we might realize that we have a few things to learn, but there's no reason to pause and learn these before jumping into a position. Forget about paying our dues; we want to do it here, we want to do it now. Anything we need to learn, we'll just figure it out along the way.

Because of this mentality, we might be more inclined to view those who are older and more experienced simply as colleagues rather than mentors. Perhaps admitting that we have much to learn somehow diminishes our proven abilities and hard work. It stunts our movement, and the on-demand generation needs constant movement.

The irony is twofold. First, younger generations desperately need mentors to rid us of the notion that we don't need mentors (got that?). That is, we need mentors to help us slow down and realize that, in fact, we don't know everything, we do have much to learn, and it's okay to take the time to learn it. In fact, it will help us achieve all that we want to achieve.

Second, if there is one thing that mentors can do for their younger colleagues, it's to help them create movement in their careers, to help them grow. No matter how experienced, skilled, or confident a young student or professional may be, he or she will always benefit from the wisdom and experience of a colleague or friend.

So if I'm suggesting that the concept of mentors is not dead and that younger generations have a clear need for them, then why the discrepancy? Why does Sherry have someone who served as her mentor for a third of a century while I've scarcely used the term? In the end, I think the difference is both personal and generational.

There's the issue of terminology. Something about the concept of a mentor taking the protégé under her wing doesn't resonate with me. It feels dated, conjuring images of a stiffly formal relationship filled with protocol, rules, and expectations. Yet Sherry is quite comfortable with the term and image. I might refer to those who have helped me along the way with monikers like "friend" or "favorite professor" or "great guy," while Sherry prefers the term "mentor." One is not necessarily more accurate than the other. It boils down to your preference—a preference determined by personality or generation, or a little bit of both.

Just because I haven't approached things in the same manner as Sherry, however, doesn't mean that I haven't benefited from mentors in my life. Upon reflection it is clear (even obvious) that I have benefited from the advice, guidance, and counsel of various mentors, even though I have never consciously used that term. In fact, most young people have probably sought out a mentor or have mentors that are important in their lives. You may not call them mentors, but they play that role.

As an undergrad at the University of Notre Dame, I became close to the director of my study abroad program in Angers, France, Paul McDowell. Though I viewed P McD (as we called him) simply as a teacher and a friend, I now realize that he's a mentor. He has helped me greatly with my postcollege decisions and direction and continues to provide guidance, counsel, and friendship. In grad school I found myself repeatedly sitting in the office of my favorite professor, Christine Chin. Again, I viewed her as a friend and colleague more than anything else. Typically, I had a class-related question. More often than not, though, we ended up talking informally and frankly about my interests and possible career plans. While I would never have called her a mentor, in hindsight that's exactly the role she was playing. I was looking for someone to talk to, someone with experience and insight, someone with whom I felt comfortable sharing on a personal level—basic qualities of a mentor.

Sherry acted as an invaluable mentor to me during my time at NCIV and has continued in that role as I've progressed in my professional life. She has not only taught me more on the job than I can possibly relate, but she's also been extremely generous in recognizing my interests and abilities and providing me with opportunities to further them. My presence as a coauthor of this book is a primary example. My boss Michael McCarry has also been an invaluable professional mentor during my time at the Alliance. The tremendous growth I've experienced as a professional in my current position is in so many ways due to his advice, insight, and example.

I realize that my dad has always been a mentor, especially as I've progressed in my career. In times of deep career contemplation, he's always been there to act as a sounding board, to answer questions, and sometimes to be the devil's advocate. True, his idea of advice can be frustrating (I point specifically to the times during my job search when he asked me if I had a résumé and planned to wear a suit to an interview). But his experience— and, more importantly, his love—has always provided me with direction and stability that I sorely need and appreciate even more as time passes.

Mentors can come from all spheres of life: personal, professional, academic. A mentor can even be someone you've never met. In that same episode of Seinfeld, when first talking to Jerry about her mentor, Abby asks him if he has such a person in his own life:

Abby: My mentor suggested that I move into equities, the best move I ever made.

Jerry: Mentor? You mean your boss.

Abby: Oh, no, no, no, Cynthia's just a successful businesswoman who's taken me under her wing.

Jerry: Hmm. So Cynthia's your mentor.

Abby: And I'm her protégé. You must have someone like that. You know, who guides you in your career path.

Jerry: Well, I like Gabe Kaplan.

Jerry is being tongue-in-cheek when he mentions his affinity for Kaplan, an American comedian successful in the 1970s. This is a professional whom Jerry admires from afar but doesn't know personally. Even so, perhaps Kaplan was something of a mentor to Jerry as the latter developed his own career in comedy. While many people have mentors with whom they maintain a personal relationship, others, such as Charlie MacCormack, former president and CEO of both Save the Children and World Learning (see chapter 9 for more on both organizations), have found mentors in those they admire but never met: "I think it is essential that we get help and support from others more experienced than we are, and I think we can get that through direct advice, as well as through watching from a distance,"

MacCormack told us. "I think there are, therefore, people you see at a long distance that become indirect mentors. Certainly in my formative years, President Kennedy was one, and Martin Luther King Jr. was another, and Nelson Mandela has taken on that kind of role in past decades."

To some, people who have affected their lives, whether personally or from a distance, are called role models. Jennifer Clinton touches on this idea in her profile, saying, "You want to find people that demonstrate the kind of values that you have and the way you want to interact with people." Perhaps you might refer to them as "my colleague" or "my favorite professor" or "a great person" or "my friend." Regardless of the designation, they are still mentors and play a crucial role in your career development.

Serving as a Mentor

Sherry is conscious of being a mentor to young professionals. It is her way of continuing the tradition, of giving back for the help she received from her own mentors. When coauthoring the first edition of Working World, I questioned whether I was at a career stage where I could serve as a useful mentor. I wasn't sure at what age or point in my career the switch might flip and I could serve as a mentor. But I was sure that my need for mentorship far outweighed my ability to provide it.

Still, I did recognize that I'd been able to help a peer handle a situation because I'd recently experienced similar circumstances. I never saw myself as mentoring, but I believe I was at least being helpful by sharing my own trials and errors.

For example, when I was working at NCIV, a young woman named Michelline Granjean e-mailed me asking for help with her job search. Michelline and I didn't know each other, but she was finishing her master's in the same program I'd recently completed, and working for the same professor that I had. Because of these commonalities, and because Michelline was hoping to start a career in international education/exchange, she thought I would be a good resource. She asked for an informational interview (read more on this important networking tactic in chapter 2).

I really didn't know how I could help. I was barely two years into my own career—what did I know about helping other people get jobs? Getting one for myself had been tough enough. But I realized that this was exactly how I could help. I'd just been in Michelline's exact situation. I reflected on the difficulties I'd run into in my job search, the strategies I'd found most successful, and the job search resources I'd used most effectively (all of which are included in part II). It was this information that I passed along to Michelline. When she began to apply for specific jobs, I used my contacts to try my best to get her resume on top of the pile. It wasn't much, but others had done the same for me. It was the least I could do.

And then, a few years later, the switch flipped. I found myself in the curious position of being referred to by the exact term I'd always found so anachronistic. I volunteered for alumni mentor programs, first at American University, then at Notre Dame. I was assigned "mentees," undergrads with an interest in international affairs. I still worried whether I was cut out to be a mentor, whether I had enough experience in my own career to be useful to someone else. But in my interactions with my talented and passionate mentees, I found myself doing just what I had done for Michelline: passing along advice based on my own experiences, recommending job search resources, helping expand their networks, and acting as a sounding board. I was also surprised, but ultimately gratified, to see that the mentors in these programs were of all ages: from recent graduates to midcareer professionals to experienced career veterans. I realized that age doesn't necessarily matter in mentoring—nor does the terminology you use. Even if I didn't see myself as a mentor, I was still continuing the tradition.

  • [1] From Seinfeld episode no. 140, "The Fatigues"; original broadcast date October 31, 1996.
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