Ping-ponging with IFAST on mentorship (Part 1)

I was going to write a post about belief and mentoring, but the post took on a life of its own and this tangent became so important that I thought breaking the idea up into two parts would be better.

Last week, Bill wrote about one of the take-home points of my talk on the importance of mentors in expertise development, and how learners (or, as he calls them, “Padawans”) can approach mentor-based learning.

By the same token, however, I think there is something to be said about reflecting on one’s role as a mentor as well. I don’t think it’s fair to ask learners to “take advantage of your time with mentors” and not address the unique role that mentors play in not only facilitating this direction, but also the underestimated intangibles that mentors influence, no, DRIVE in their learners.

As part of the initial notes for this post, which I typed into my iPhone in the rest interval of a workout:

“You have to find something to believe in in your learner to snowball them into self-sustaining belief in themselves.”

Serendipitously, in this self-same workout, I was listening to Mike Robertson’s Physical Preparation podcast on Velocity-Based Training, and HE opened with a vignette about one of his athletes, who told him, “No one has invested in me like you,” and how Mike feels that a lot of his success as a coach has to do with “…believ[ing] more in my athletes than they believed in themselves…”

So, if that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.

I’ve been a learner for a really really really long time. Some degrees, you can finish faster; some you can’t. In both cases, I did not. I have had the good fortune to have had a LOT of wonderful mentors, without whom, I would not be at the other end of 20 years of post-secondary education. I’ve also had the good fortune to have the luxury of being able to take time to work in student governance, and specifically, on ways to evaluate mentor-based training, in the context of the graduate-student/supervisor relationship.

When I reflect back on my experiences as a learner, and then on my experiences as a teacher (often happening at the same time, first as a graduate student, then as a resident), what strikes me in distinguishing those mentors who I felt had the MOST impact on me over the long run, were the ones who believed in me before I believed in myself.

When you’re learning, the common adage is that you’re trying to take sips from a firehose. And while this is largely true, this focus, keeps you from glancing too far forwards or backwards. You don’t realize how far you’re progressing because your eyes are firmly fixed on the stuff you don’t know but know you have to learn. Learners are in a constant state of, “I don’t know anything,” which is actually ideal, because a learner who thinks they already know it all, can be virtually untrainable (likewise, a learner who becomes paralyzed by what they don’t know can also be virtually untrainable.)

From my perspective, one of the understated roles of a mentor is to transition learners from this, “I don’t know anything” state into, “I don’t always know, but I know some things,” which, when you think about it, is pretty much the permanent state in which you, even as a mentor and “expert”, live; where “some” gets larger over time, but, alas, remains, “some”. How about that? Moving your learner into roughly the same (but different) state as “expert”.

I think before further discussing this point, however, rule #1 in this process, regardless of what field in which you are mentoring is:

MISTAKE-BASED LEARNING IS NOT AN OPTION (unless there are literally ZERO stakes.)

If you’re a self-learner, the idea that you have to fail, and “failing fast” is very pervasive. Failing, in my opinion, is only a means of learning the inevitable fact that failure is part of life and that life does not end with failure. We learn from failure because to do otherwise is to utterly waste the misfortune, and potentially miss the opportunity to avoid a similar event in the future. However, failure-based learning in a mentor relationship (and ESPECIALLY in the context of client/patient care/training) is, in my opinion, horrible.

So what do I mean, when I use the phrase, “zero stakes”?

Zero stakes basically means that the probability of harm to another person is zero. Talking about a decision has zero stakes. Discussing a plan has zero stakes. Simulation, when done properly, has zero stakes. Allowing appropriate independence has stakes; and it’s your job as the mentor to decide this level.

Why is this rule number one?

When put a training/coaching context, this is obvious. While you CAN put an athlete under a bar that you know they can do because of your advanced knowledge/experience, you can also BREAK an athlete by doing this before they either are mentally ready themselves to do it, or before  you have a solid enough relationship they trust your judgement of their ability to make up for lack of self-belief they have in themselves.

In order for your belief in a learner to have an impact on their belief in themselves, your learner has to trust your judgement of them. As the mentor, it’s your job to keep both the learner and anyone else, safe; and your learner has to trust that you are going to do that. I have had mentors who were willing to let me do things in which I did not feel confident. That’s part of learning. The difference between an enriching experience and a sickening one (despite both patient outcomes being successful), was my belief in my mentor’s ability to keep me (and the patient) safe. If your learner doesn’t trust you to keep them safe, your belief in them means nothing because it comes across as reckless. Whether it truly is reckless or not, is actually irrelevant, in this case. Your learner doesn’t come out the other end feeling more confident, they just feel lucky that something horrible didn’t happen (god forbid something horrible actually does happen.) AND, they TRUST YOUR JUDGEMENT OF THEM LESS. Hence your ability to have an impact on them is also substantially less.

Once the relationship of trust is established, however, is when I think mentors have the ability to take their learners much further. More in Part II.

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