I had a sense of déjà vu when I read the recent New York Times article ‘Genius: The Modern View’ by David Brooks (recommended by Bengt) – it echoed so many of the themes we’ve been discussing here on Lateral Action that I could almost have written it myself:
The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.
The idea of genius as the result of a lot of hard work is something we’ve discussed at length on this blog, in articles about Michelangelo and Darwin and others. So I won’t labour the point here, except to highlight the fact that according to David Brooks, this view of genius is receiving more and more support from recent research.
Today I’d like to look at another aspect of the development of ‘genius’, covered in David Brooks article, which we’ve not yet discussed on Lateral Action – namely the role of a mentor in fostering young talent and helping it mature:
If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday – anything to create a sense of affinity.
This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. It would, Coyle emphasizes, give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join.
Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges.
Brooks cites Mozart and Tiger Woods as examples of a young talent possessing not only a phenomenal dedication to practice but ‘a father intent on improving his skills’. In cases such as these, the father figure is able to provide a vision of the future self which the child could not have to begin with – and parental discipline is likely to be a factor contributing to the long hours of practice. Of course, the mentor doesn’t have to be a parent – it could be a teacher, another family member, or an older practitioner of the same art. Later in his career, Mozart benefited from having Johann Christian Bach as his mentor.
What is a Mentor?
Mentor was a character in Homer’s Iliad – an old and experienced warrior whom Odysseus left in charge of his young son Telemachus when he set out for the Trojan War. Later in the story, the goddess Athena disguised herself as Mentor when giving advice to Telemachus, reinforcing the image of Mentor as a trusted and wise counselor.
A mentor can fulfill several important functions for someone learning their craft and looking for their path in life:
Alerting You to Your Own Potential
You may be unaware of your potential – creatively, professionally and as a human being. A good mentor can spot talent, match it with an opportunity in the external world and encourage you to make the vision a reality.
An Image of Your Future Self
A mentor is often someone who has trodden the same path you are setting out on – e.g. a mature novelist for an aspiring writer, J. C. Bach for the young Mozart. Such a mentor provides a living example of what is possible for the student’s future self – a model for imitation (or even emulation).
Giving You the Benefit of their Wisdom
The mentor can offer advice, encouragement and warnings based on years of experience in the field. Think Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.
Feedback, Challenge and Support
Hard work is important – but without high quality feedback you’re deepening your flaws and compounding errors as well as building on your strengths. A good mentor will be relentless in reinforcing the positive and stripping away the attitudes and actions that hold you back.
There’s a sad quality to some mentors – this comes from knowing that they can warn, instruct and prepare you to some extent, but that you will only really learn by doing – and making your own mistakes, just as they did. Like Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, cautioning Luke about his impatience to confront Darth Vader. Yet the mentor is also optimistic – he or she can see your potential and trust in your ability to learn from mistakes. And they are often on hand to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.
Some of My Mentors
I’ll never forget the day my therapist, Catherine Kirk, turned to me and said ‘You know, you could do this’. To me at the age of 24, it sounded an outrageous idea. Surely you needed to be old and wise before you could contemplate becoming a psychotherapist? Not according to Catherine – and it turned out she was right.
When I began my training as a therapist, I was lucky enough to have John Eaton as my teacher and clinical supervisor. He provided me with a constant stream of provocative advice, inspiring stories and weird and wonderful book recommendations. His feedback was critical to my development – he was incredibly encouraging, as well as merciless in challenging any sign of complacency or conventional thinking. These days, John and I are friends rather than teacher and student, but I continue to value his opinion on personal and professional matters. (So if you like my writing, you should check out John’s blog.)
It’s a similar story with poetry. At secondary school, my eyes were opened to the magic of poetry by two wonderful English teachers, Sue Dove and Geoff Reilly – who told me I had a talent for writing and encouraged me to pursue it. These days, I’m very grateful for the wisdom and feedback of Mimi Khalvati, a highly accomplished poet who has an almost supernatural ability to read a draft poem and intuit the ‘real poem’ that is lurking inside it. Even when she rips one of my drafts to shreds, she’ll pick out the lines or stanzas with potential, so that I leave the class fired up to start rewriting the poem. And I’m just one of many students at the Poetry School who hold her in such high regard.
Did I say we hadn’t covered Mentoring on Lateral Action? My mistake. Seems as if Marla is about to step into the role of mentor to Jack, and he’s very lucky to have her – otherwise he’d be in a lot of trouble.
Who have been your mentors? What did you learn from them?
Have you mentored someone else? What did you learn from the process?