Just the other day, I was reading to the kids, a Burmese fable of lazy Thiri who imagined himself to be an alchemist and was on a quest for the magic formula to turn sand into gold. In comes a wise old man, Win who leads young Thiri through a journey of change, showing him that true gold can be secured only through hard work. My 9 year old who has been recently introduced to the term mentoring at school asked me a very relevant question, “Is Win Thiri’s mentor?” That question got me thinking, not about mentoring but about Alchemy – the magical science of transformation.
Webster defines a mentor as “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person”. From The Odyssey, where the term mentor originates , to Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffet, a mentor has always been equated to the wise old man who guides a lesser experienced younger protégé.
But is that what mentoring means? If so, then why is it that we don’t learn from everyone or everything? Why is every teacher not able to ignite the spark of discovery, insight and understanding? Here is where alchemy comes in. A mentor is successful in achieving his outcome only if he is able to transform the protégé.
The process of mentoring is a lot like panning for gold. The amount of gold you can extract would depend upon the finesse and patience with which you shake the pan. Mentoring is all about teaching the protégé how to shake the pan. Like you adeptly sieve through the black sand to spot flecks of gold that it has successfully masked, mentors look beyond the obvious, sight the invisible and extract the best out of the protégé as both the mentor and the mentee move patiently along the path of shared discovery.
If a protégé was to be just taught to hone the obvious, then there is no reason for mentoring. The fact that the mentor helps the protégé to discover the real treasure that has been always lodged in the dark sands of irrational beliefs, myths, fear mistakes and prejudices, should be what differentiates mentoring from teaching or training. In this context, a mentor is more like a friend, someone who understands yo u, accepts you unconditionally and faithfully and who works with you to add or multiply and not subtract.
Mentoring is also a partnered learning process, where both the mentor and the protege learn together. Seasoned mentors would respect the learner as well as the process of mutual learning. The focus here is never on power and control, but on reaching an understanding, rooted through mutual respect, common interests and trust. The mentor and protégé thus work together towards transformation through four stages – levelling differences, accepting the need to transform, bestowing feedback and creating a self- directed learning experience.