Hard Work + Mentoring = Success

Marla as MentorI 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.

Lucky Jack

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.

Your Mentors?

Who have been your mentors? What did you learn from them?

Have you mentored someone else? What did you learn from the process?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. You know, I’ve found this to be 100% true?

    I feel like, sometimes, you can read the same phrase 1000 times, but one person you trust saying “No really, it works” pushes you from understanding it to acting on it.

    In terms of my mentors, I’ve been working with Clay Collins lately, and I think he’s mastered the “No, really, you can do it…go do it now” attitude, which helps me get going.

    But yeah – seeing a person a few steps ahead of you on your path is invaluable for encouraging you to keep moving forward.

  2. I consider David Brooks one of those never-to-be-missed columnists.

    And who was it who said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get”?

  3. I have been talking for a while on the factors that help people become top performers in their field … I find the research and writing on the making of a genius really insightful

    Sometimes it seems that in today’s job market people are not really concerned about performing or becoming geniuses … they seem to concerned with just paying their bills …
    which is short sighted.

    I believe that being a genius or learning to become a top performer should not be mutually exclusive with paying one’s bills

  4. I agree with @ Kingsley. Too many professionals / solopreneurs are focused on performance only to the extent that it enables them to earn an income.

    Most don’t realize that ‘genius’ as described here–in conjunction with the guidance of the ‘right’ mentor or coach–is typically a direct path to higher earnings / profits, not to mention greater enjoyment of and more fulfillment from their work.

    Timely article. Thanks, Mark.

  5. I also agree. Without the longer-range vision that a mentor can provide, you can be stuck just looking out of a porthole as opposed to standing on the deck.

  6. This is so true and very real. Most people often confuse accademic genius as social genius. And this as clearly pointed out that IQ (accademic genius) is not a good indicator of success in life but rather EQ -Emotional Intelligence (social genius).

    My Mentors are many, some i relate with personally, Like MARK MCGUINNESS, TOLULOPE OYEBOLA, KAYODE OGUNBAJO, etc.

    Others such as JACK WELCH, MYLES MUNROE, DR. STEPHEN R. COVEY, PETER F. DRUCKER, ROBERT KIYOSAKI, PHILIP KOTLER, JACK TROUT, AL RIES, etc. i meet through their books which has proven time and time again to be very helpful towards the development of my potentials.

    Thanks mark for sharing this!

  7. I have to agree that mentoring is an essential part of growth, especially in difficult to master creative fields, but I’ve found that it is no longer built into our modern day systems.

    For example, in the IT field the common approach is self-study, self motivation. If you don’t push yourself to keep up, technical obsolescence will cripple and marginalize you. Yet as you frantically try to stay abreast of everything and anything, there is little to no guidance. You might receive a pointer on a particular subject, but more experienced people do not pick up the mantle of mentor. It is very much a “fend for yourself” culture. I think that, more than anything else, is what leads to such high rates of burn out in the industry.

    Apprenticeships were designed to provide the mentor experience in a wide range of professions, but nowadays it seems to be a holdover from an older time and no longer respected as it once was. In many cases this leads to inferior skill sets, poor quality output and frustration for those trying to excel in their craft.

    What I’ve been finding difficult is locating a mentor outside of my current work to assist in making the change over. Plenty of folks are flailing about attempting to do the same, but genuine experience from someone who’s willing to share it is a rare commodity.

  8. Gabriel:

    If you are looking for an IT Mentor … then I may be able to help you.

    I have a program referred to as “Ask a Burning Question” … which allows me to answer IT Career Related questions free … I do ask that you use the “Tell a Friend” feature to recommend my section to your friends … if you use it.

    Here is the link:

    Thank you

  9. Relatedly success can be because of Effort rather than Talent – even in David & Goliath battles as Malcolm Gladwell so vividly describes in New Yorker, with an opening story about a Mentor who coaches a Redwood High girls basketball team with little native abilities to beat “better’ teams by playing the “wrong” way. As a fan of this blog and of smart collaboration and good stories I enjoyed the many illustrative stories – and want to meet that amazing mentor.

  10. Kinglsey – I appreciate the offer, but I used the IT industry as an example because I’m most familiar with it, not to state a desire for mentorship within it’s ranks.

    After 10 years in the field, I’ve come to the sobering conclusion that I no longer want to participate in this industry. It was only after deep self reflection and a couple of “eye opening” events that I could make that confession to myself.

    As I mentioned before, my difficulties lie in finding a mentor outside of IT that can assist me on my new path.

  11. I just ordered the books referred to in this article and I am looking forward to learning more about how excellence is achieved

  12. I have read the Iliad, but never realized that’s where the word “mentor” originated. Thanks for connecting the dots for me!

    I forget where I read this, but somewhere I read a debate as to whether finding a mentor is critical to success.

    The conventional position is yes, having a mentor can dramatically increase your success in your chosen field. The antithesis is that those young, talented people who are bound for success will naturally seek out and be sought out by mentors in the field.

    The paradoxes of creativity continue!


  13. Blah Blah Blah – seriously out of touch with what’s actually happening in the real world, as well as on the Internet.

    View the Keynote speech video from the BIGOmaha convention at http://vimeo.com/4671951 to get a sense of what creativity really means for the future of the web.

    To me, this post was just a way of recycling past content (Marla’s animated video).

    I know you won’t vett this message to be posted, but I just had to pitch in my admittedly $0.02 cents’ (or less) worth.

    What are you doing? Where are you going with this blog? Sharing is nice, but what’s the payoff?

  14. River, I’m sure your opinions about the web are to be cherished. Why, taking a look at your site I… oh wait.

    My guess is that we know what we’re doing with this blog (what with a demonstrated track record and all, compared to your nonexistent web presence). And at minimum, hopefully where we’re going is somewhere you’re not.

  15. @Jeff —

    I feel like, sometimes, you can read the same phrase 1000 times, but one person you trust saying “No really, it works” pushes you from understanding it to acting on it.

    which is why trusted refers are more important than ever, particularly with the information overload on the Internet these days.

    @Jean — I hadn’t read David Brooks before (NYT is slighly off-radar for me in London), I’ll check out some of his other stuff. Thanks for the trusted recommendation. 🙂

    @Kingsley @Maryanne — Exactly. For real achievement intrinsic motivations are as important as the extrinsic ones.

    @Kingsley — I’d be interested to hear what you think of the books you ordered. I’ve skimmed Talent Is Overrated and it looked pretty good.

    @Sunny — Nice nautical metaphor!

    @Gabriel —

    It is very much a “fend for yourself” culture. I think that, more than anything else, is what leads to such high rates of burn out in the industry.

    Apprenticeships were designed to provide the mentor experience in a wide range of professions, but nowadays it seems to be a holdover from an older time and no longer respected as it once was. In many cases this leads to inferior skill sets, poor quality output and frustration for those trying to excel in their craft.

    I think what you’re describing is the flipside of the brave new world that technology has given us. I’m not an IT expert, and I can maybe understand the mindset that IT is always so new that past knowledge is no guide to future success — but even in IT, there must be plenty of principles about how you approach your work, technically and professionally, that are worthy of learning and handing down.

    @Kare — Glad you like the stories, I’ll have to check out Gladwell’s basketball story, sounds like a good one. “success can be because of Effort rather than Talent” — that seems to be the argument of Talent Is Overrated — of course, it has to be the right kind of effort …

    @Duff “those young, talented people who are bound for success will naturally seek out and be sought out by mentors in the field.” Good point about the mentors doing the seeking as well — the really good mentors won’t waste their time on all and sundry, they’ll want to see some potential and (maybe more importantly) commitment on the part of the mentee (horrible word, can’t think of a better one though).

    @River – “To me, this post was just a way of recycling past content (Marla’s animated video).” Actually the Marla link was the last thing that occurred to me when I wrote the post.

    “Sharing is nice, but what’s the payoff?” I’m sorry we’re giving away too much for your liking. But as you’ve been reading long enough to remember the original Marla video, I guess we must be doing something right.

  16. Interesting article – thanks.

    I’d like to think we can all be mentors. Perhaps not THE mentor, but we all have something we can give to someone else. Maybe it’ll last only at one meeting, for one month, or on and off for a number of years. If we share our knowledge and experience regularly we’ll all improve.

  17. The concept of mentoring certainly seems to be akin to the classic “Master-Apprentice” relationships in many of the trades (and of the Jedi, of course!)

    I suspect (and also believe, based on my own personal experience) that Gen Xers may not be as open to mentors as previous generations, because we have this streak of independence and a lack of trust in authority figures. Our loss, perhaps. At the same time, though, when the world seems to constantly reinvent itself around you each year, how can a mentor help when the rules are being rewritten? That’s not to say that mentors are useless, but it does make me wonder if one of the hidden values of the mentor is the ability to observe business and political cycles over time to see patterns that emerge over the long run, patterns which might be invisible when we’re in the throes of change. Food for thought.

  18. I count Gerald M. “Jerry” Weinberg as one of my main mentors. I attended a couple of his week-long seminars. I then attended a week-long writer’s workshop. Several books came out of that workshop. Jerry gets a big kick out of seeing people he works with publish books. The biggest thing I learned from Jerry is the “Fieldstone Method” of collecting ideas that he later put into a book (http://www.amazon.com/Weinberg-Writing-Fieldstone-Gerald-M/dp/093263365X).

  19. Laurie — yes, I think we’ve all got the potential to be mentors in different areas. Often we don’t realise how much we know until circumstances — or someone else’s need — draw it out of us.

    Mark — I think you’re right that “one of the hidden values of the mentor is the ability to observe business and political cycles over time to see patterns that emerge over the long run, patterns which might be invisible when we’re in the throes of change”. Yes, the rules of engagement are changing day-to-day — but a good mentor will remind us of timeless values and principles.

    Dwayne — thanks for sharing, it sounds like Jerry’s done a great job for you, great to hear he’s been so inspirational.

  20. Marcy Gerena says:


    I gave you a virtual handclap as I stood up from my chair and read this article. Thomas Edison is another inventor that came to mind.

    Thomas Edison had his mother who believed in him and refused to conform to the labels others placed on him. She knew he was special and able to do great things. She sacrificed her reputation, stepped in and homeschooled an inventor who changed the way we live today.

    I agree a mentor is someone who will dig down deep in you and remind you of the talent and skills he or she sees. A person who will open your eyes to opportunity and help make the connection a reality. A person you can trust to be there no matter what challenge and obstacles you are facing. A person will challenge your thinking, but also allows you to challenges theirs are valuable qualities I have found in having a mentor.

    I often wonder where we would be if those you mentioned in your article did not have a mentor.

    I also believe our mentors can change depending on the next stage in our life.

    I am one that needs and excels with having a mentor.

    Do you have any suggestions in finding a mentor?

  21. Thanks Marcy, I didn’t know that about Edison’s mother. Behind every great man, eh? 🙂

    Re finding a mentor, there’s an old saying that ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears’. Which, looking back, was probably true of my most important mentors. Having said that, it takes two to tango so you probably need to put yourself out there as well, going to classes and other events, and looking out for good teachers.

    And of course these days there are plenty of people teaching online, which makes it easier to track them down…

  22. Marcy – I like your comment and thought I’d connect you with my website.