Toastmasters: Introduction to Mentorship

This past weekend I booked a rental car, plugged in my destination in the GPS, and hit the road. A college friend had moved back east from the west coast to wait out the restrictions stemming from COVID-19 for a few months. For the first time in a couple years, my friend was back within driving distance, and I couldn’t pass up the chance to connect in person, especially when life has been so devoid of face-to-face contact over the past few months.

As we sat outside and caught up, soaking in the sun and breathing in the fresh air of the suburbs, our conversation turned to how work was going. Both of us are in our late 20s, and have spent nearly half a decade working in a professional capacity. We’re no longer at the bottom rung on the ladder, trying to break into our respective fields. Over the past few years, we’ve both gained more responsibility, ownership, and autonomy as we’ve worked our way through our careers. Being a few years into our careers, we also have the opportunity to make more choices about the direction we want to take for the future. While this optionality is great, it also brings a great deal of anxiety about deciding which direction to take. This topic was broached as I talked with my friend, as he described a situation with a mentor of his who had given some really insightful advice and provided opportunities for him to grow and expand in his role. It got me thinking about what mentors I’ve had, and in what situations it would’ve helped for me to have a mentor.

I’ve found that career development is a realm in which it can be really beneficial to engage in a mentor-mentee relationship. It’s very helpful to have someone that can provide more tailored advice, or speak to anecdotal experiences that they might have had in similar situations. I’ve been fortunate in the past to have mentors in various stages of my career, although I don’t think the mentorship relationship was ever explicitly defined. I don’t currently have a solid mentor relationship like I’ve had in the past, and I’m especially feeling the dearth of that type of relationship right now, when I’m moving into a mid-career phase and have some important career decisions coming up.

Before I go on, let me explain what I mean by “mentor”. Here, I’m describing a mentor as someone who has appropriate context or knowledge about a type of situation and is someone you can trust and that operates in good faith. Often when I think about a mentor, I envision a sage, older copy of myself - almost like if I had time traveled back to impart hard-won wisdom to a younger version of me. However, I think this image is too restrictive. I don’t think a mentor necessarily has to be older, or have more experience or information. They don’t need to have experienced the path you have. In my mind, the most important thing is for them to be able to look at a situation objectively and to be able to share a different perspective. Sometimes this different perspective is gained because of similar experiences by the mentor, but experience is not the only way a mentor can gain helpful insight.

The different perspective here is important; to put it simply, if both of your perspectives are too aligned, you’ll often arrive at similar conclusions. The point of a mentor is not to affirm your own thought pattern, but rather to confront your assumptions, biases, and understanding, forcing a situation or decision to be reasoned about in a new light. Advice is not seen as wise because it is obvious, but rather because it is often not.

I can think of a specific instance where a discussion with a mentor caused me to reevaluate a viewpoint, and altered my path. Looking back, that was a pivotal moment for me, and it completely changed the direction my career would end up taking. Having lived through the results, so far I can say that the insight my mentor provided me has unequivocally made me happier in my career.

This situation happened when I was deciding my major. I entered college as a biology student, wanting to focus on molecular biology. As I entered the program, I wasn’t so sure that my initial choice of study was the right fit for me. I found that my interests lied more toward an engineering focus, and I migrated to the biomedical engineering program. As I continued on my new program, I also felt that it wasn’t totally a fit - I liked it, but there were certain parts of it that I didn’t fully enjoy. However, because I had already switched my major once, I didn’t want to do so again, fearful that I’d end up in a cycle of changing majors and never sticking with one.

I wasn’t sure what to do, and sought the advice of an older engineering student that I had a friendship with. He was a biomedical engineering major, the same program that I had switched into and was now considering switching out of. He provided some insight into the situation I hadn’t previously considered. At that point, I was so focused on the fact that I had entered college with the intent to study something in the biology field. Even though I had switched my major, I still stayed within the same field and had just changed the discipline a bit. I hadn’t really thought about moving outside of the biology field, even though there was no reason I couldn’t - it was just a mental box I had put myself into.

This older engineering student, who became something of a mentor for me during that period of determining my program change, approached the situation with a more holistic perspective. He saw that I was struggling with optionality - that I perhaps realized that I had initially chosen a field that was not best suited for me - and incorporated that in his guidance. He advised me to seek out a computer engineering degree. His reasoning was that computer engineering was applicable to all fields, including biology or biomedical engineering, and that I wasn’t sealing off the career I had originally intended to embark on. Strangely enough, I had never really considered that - I think at that point, I was still ignorant of what opportunities a computer engineering degree would provide. The insight he brought to the situation was presenting an alternative that both gave me a solution to the problem while also assuaging my fears about jumping around majors too much - technically, I could still have a biology focus with a computer engineering degree if I eventually realized that was what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t have been able to fully think through the situation without that mentor.

Instances of having a mentor have been incredibly beneficial to me, with the most tangible benefits coming in my career development. Mentorship can take all shapes and sizes, ranging from a small, one-off occasion of advice-seeking to a longer, fuller relationship. If you’re hemming and hawing on a decision, or feeling unsure about a situation, I advise you to seek out a mentor to help reframe your thoughts on the matter. We can all stand to benefit from having mentors in our life, and eventually, we can take the role of being a mentor and pass the benefits along to others.