Your ‘guide on the side’

One of the most intimidating aspects of job search is networking. Along with that, one of the most mysterious – finding a mentor. Why the mystery? “We don’t know anyone.” And, our pandemic isolation has limited the professional opportunities for ‘accidental’ conversations.

Maybe we’ve just made the process a bit too complicated. 

Simplify and begin with two questions: Can you articulate your career expectations?  Do you believe we learn from the wisdom of others? Your answers emphasize a thoughtful assessment of your talent and a willingness to accept counsel from those who have faced challenges and succeeded over time.

“The best mentorship is not a kind of leading, but a kind of being with.”

Jenny Shank

This captures the essence of the ‘guide on the side’ definition of a mentor. It’s not about a Disney created fairy godmother waving a magic wand to grant your career wish. Rather, a GPS voice, in the background, recalculating as you ‘proceed to the route’ toward your destination. 

Along the way, developing a relationship with a mentor isn’t limited to career advancement. A mentor doesn’t have to be in your chosen career field. Basically, you’re looking for an adviser who is willing to share their experience, and whose advice you respect – a professional relationship that endures over time based on clear, engaged communication, beyond a specific job description. 

“In a time of incredible change, professional disruption, and overwhelming loneliness, mentorship can anchor us. The connection and meaning it can bring through rapport and clarity of purpose is critical to supporting people through turmoil, and it can strengthen relationships across one’s organization.” 

Mariana Tu and Michael Li

Ask questions. Be curious. Listen. Act on the feedback you receive.

“At its highest level, mentorship is about being “good people” and having the right “good people” around us — individuals committed to helping others become fuller versions of who they are.”

Anthony K. Tjan

In this time of the ‘great resignation’ little has been written about consultation and reflection. Major work/life changes can be scary and a ‘devil’s advocate’ is priceless as you evaluate the potential outcomes of your decision. When you embark on a new adventure, your ‘guide’ can help you focus and stay on course.

 “A true mentor does not have to open doors but instead show us how to endure and persist with grace when doors will inevitably be shut.” 

Jenny Shank

Maybe that’s what we need most right now, in a forever changed workplace – an ability to endure and persist with grace – open to the professional generosity of others.

“My work has taught me some valuable lessons, but perhaps the most important is that no matter what stage you’re at, it’s worth learning how to make an ask, nurture, and maintain these kinds of relationships.” 

Janet T. Phan  

Learn More:

‘What the best mentors do’ Anthony K. Tjan

‘The 5 types of mentors you need in your life’ Julia Fawal

‘What’s the right way to find a mentor?’ Janet T. Phan

‘What Great Mentorship Looks Like in a Hybrid Workplace’ Mariana Tu and Michael Li

‘Lucia Berlin: My Mentor in Being an Outsider’ Jenny Shank

The Friday Poem – ‘For the young who want to’ by Marge Piercy

When I started ‘work thoughts’ in 2015, I included a poem each Friday to allow the reader to step away from their daily workplace and gain a perspective of work through the words of various artists. To my surprise, looking back, the most searched topic on this site has been the poetry.

Sales for books of poetry have been increasing since 2019, with the majority of purchases in the ‘under-34’ demographic. “Poetry experts say that the pandemic, along with the social unrest the country has been experiencing, could have something to do with it..”

“We’ve been reminded during this time that poetry is an art form that people turn to in times of crisis for comfort and courage… “

Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets

The selection this week is a reflection on work and recognition. Poet Marge Piercy (the first ‘Friday Poet’ considers her own profession as a writer, while offering advice ‘For the young who want to’. Her thoughts are equally relevant to each of us following our own unique calling.

For the young who want to

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason why people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Marge Piercy, ‘Circles on the Water: Selected Poems’  (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982)

Photo credit: BillMoyers.com ‘Sounds of Poetry’ 1999

The Future is NOT One Thing

Did the pandemic cause us to think differently about work? Did the constant reminder of our mortality in the sound of sirens and breaking news alerts, stop us in our career tracks? Has a ‘great reflection’ occurred to prompt the ‘great resignation’? 

“I think of all the people playing roles, getting further and further away from themselves, from what moves them, what stirs them all up inside.”  Lily King, ‘Writers and Lovers: A Novel’                                          

Have we stepped back, recalculated and narrowed the gap between who we are at work and who we are? 

How do we even do that?

I think the first step is to recognize that we have a choice – at every career ‘hinge-point’ – we can choose. 

And it’s not one decision. Choosing a major in college doesn’t determine your life path. An internship isn’t a lifetime commitment. The first job is just that. 

‘Try to do the work that brings out the best in you. I say this to my university students: You are at university to understand your gifts and what you love to do. If you are lucky, they will be the same thing. If not, let’s talk and see if we can increase the overlap. If you relish your work, you will not have a disappointing career. When failure comes, and they come to everyone, you will have loved the work itself.” Sherry Turkle, ‘The Empathy Diaries’ 

‘If you relish your work, you will not have a disappointing career.” It’s the curiosity thing. The question that you leave at the end of the day, that compels you to get up the following morning. It’s the energy of colleagues who encourage and challenge. It’s being in a place where you can succeed. It’s discovering your gifts as you actively engage with all aspects of your workplace. It’s about sharing those gifts as you put your experience to work.

“That’s what I hope students in MFA programs now can understand – the future is not one thing. So many possibilities can arise as a result of intelligence, education, curiosity, and hard work. No one ever told me that, and I’m sorry it took this long for me to figure it out… My MFA showed me the importance of community. We are social creatures. Even the introverted readers, the silent writers, want a place where they feel welcomed and understood. I had wanted that once, and now I can give it to others. That’s how I’ve wound up putting my degree to work. That’s how I discovered that my truest destiny was I thing I never saw coming.” Ann Patchett, ‘These Precious Days: Essays’

That other thing we learned in the pandemic- we are much better humans as part of a community – face to face. 

As we emerge from our bubbles and begin to connect, we will rediscover how who we are at work can meld with who we are. It really does take a village and in building ours anew, we may discover our destiny is the thing we never saw coming.

“Becoming open again to the generosity of others offers a fresh way to see the world. Small kindnesses from friends and strangers suddenly feel outsize in their humanity.”  Sarah Wildman, ‘Self-Sufficiency Is Overrated’

The future is not one thing. (And, we are not alone.)

The Saturday Read: ‘Manifesto’ by Bernardine Evaristo

“I was never prepared to settle for less than I desired.”

I sometimes think our investment in professional development is better made on novels and memoirs vs. management guides. If you agree, head to your local independent bookstore for a copy of author Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Manifesto’. (You may add an underlining marker to your purchase as well – take notes!) This memoir by the Booker Prize winning author follows her life and career trajectory and in doing so, describes influences, struggles, priorities, commitment, and the value of life-long learning.

She begins with a question: “Most people in the arts have role models –writers, artists, creatives – who have inspired them, but what are the other elements that lay the foundation for our creativity and steer the direction of our careers?”

How do you find a path to success when you don’t have access to the resources of the elite? How do you move beyond “My school didn’t inspire me to greatness… Nobody encouraged us to think big and make our dreams come true.”?  

In seven chapters, Ms. Evaristo details the evolution of her work ethic, commitment to craft and determination to mentor those who follow. Her story is a lived example of the value and responsibility of experience. Her narrative is relevant because each reader will find a point of connection in following the writer’s journey. 

“… we all learn, eventually that life demands a lot more from us than the ability to get good grades. Combating struggle and disappointment early on in life can instill a strength and determination we would not otherwise possess… Life presents us with obstacles. It’s never a completely smooth ride for anyone, and while nobody wants to struggle, it’s the only way to build resilience.”

And we don’t stop learning. “My goal, as always, is to continue to write stories and to develop my skills. There is no point of arrival whereby one stops growing as a creative person; to think otherwise will lead to creative repetition and stagnation.”

We read memoirs because we are curious. At the center, who is this person?

“I am first and foremost a writer; the written word is how I process everything – myself, life, society, history, politics. It’s not just a job or a passion, but it is at the very heart of how I exist in the world, and I am addicted to the adventure of storytelling as my most powerful means of communication.”

But that’s only part of the story. In her book review for NPR, writer Hope Wabuke described the ‘real world’ impact of Ms. Evaristo’s commitment and influence. “Evaristo’s work in supporting inclusivity in the literary arts is legend. It includes the commission of a Free Verse report, which found that less than 1% of poetry books in the United Kingdom were published by poets of color, and then creating a mentorship program, The Complete Works, to do something about it; this program mentored 30 poets over two years. Evaristo’s advocacy work also created the Brunel Poetry Prize for African writers, the first and largest award of its kind, and led her to work alongside Kwame Dawes in situating the African Poetry Book Fund as a force that has changed the shape of contemporary publishing. Most recently, as the curator of Black Britain: Writing Black, Evaristo is republishing overlooked books by Black authors such as Minty Alley, by C.L.R James originally published in 1936.”

‘Manifesto’ is one more creative endeavor for Ms. Evaristo to share her wisdom. Not all influences are one-on-one connections. Sometimes we find direction in a book. 

“We must pass on what we know to the next generation, & express gratitude to those who help us – nobody gets anywhere on their own.”

Learn more:

Bernardine Evaristo books – https://bevaristo.com/books/

Black Britain: Writing Back – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jan/09/booker-winners-mission-to-put-uks-forgotten-black-writers-back-in-print

Brunel African Poetry Prize – https://www.africanpoetryprize.org

An aside: I picked up two new applicable concepts: “period of self-calibration” (which we can all use about now) and “to bounce back in the act of falling.” (advice to her students to continue to be positive)