To learn requires a sense of humility. We must admit that there are people out there who know our field much more deeply than we do. However, we feel, perhaps that learning from masters and submitting to their authority is somehow an indictment of our own natural ability. Even if we have teachers in our own lives, we tend not to heed to them fully and prefer doing things our own way. In fact, we come to believe that being critical of Masters or teachers is somehow a sign of our intelligence, and that being a submissive pupil is a sign of weakness. Let’s break this line of thought.
At table, the ladies praised a portrait by a young painter. “What is most surprising,” they added, “ he has learned everything by himself.” This could be seen particularly in the hands, which were not correctly and artistically drawn. “We see,” said Goethe, ”that the young man has talent; however, you should not praise, but rather blame him, for leaning everything by himself. A man of talent is not born to be left to himself, but to devote himself to art and good masters who will make something of him. – Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe”
Michael Faraday’s example
Michael Faraday, the famous English scientist, under the mentor ship of Cornish Chemist- Humphry Davy scaled great heights largely owing to this period of mentor protege relationship in his life.
Growing up amid poverty in London, Faraday could have let fate seal his future. His parents had ten children to feed and support. They were eagerly waiting for Faraday to grow up and supplement the income of the family. Obviously, Faraday had other things in mind. He had an extremely active mind, one that was not suited for physical labour. He was curious and experimental. Nature, it seemed to him, was full of secrets that he wanted to ponder and unravel. He seemed hungry for knowledge and frustrated by his lack of means to get it. Starting off as a book binder in a library, which helped him gain access to a world of books, he chanced upon – Improvement of the Mind- a self-help guide written by Reverend Isaac Watts. The book revealed a system of learning and improving your lot in life, no matter your social class. Faraday read it over and over again, carrying it with him wherever he went.For Watts, learning had to be an active process. He recommended not just reading about scientific discoveries, but experimenting to derive practical knowledge from the same. Attending the lectures of the popular scientist John Tatum, each week on a different subject, he would note down the most important concepts , quickly sketch over the various instruments Tatum used, and diagram the experiments. In the course of the year, he expanded on the information and came out with a book akin to a scientific encyclopedia. William Dance, a member of the Royal Institution on noticing this handed Faraday an apprenticeship as a personal assistant to the then recently knighted chemist, Humphry Davy.
Davy was the preeminent chemist of his time, he had made numerous discoveries and was bound to change the dynamics of scientific discoveries. Faraday was a personal assistant to Davy, taking notes and organizing his materials. Faraday knew he had to make the most of this, do whatever he could to impress the great chemist. Faraday went beyond his call of duty and eager to keep the job, he pushed himself to compile the notes of Davy’s important lectures into a beautifully organized booklet, carefully handwritten and full of sketches and diagrams. He gifted this to Davy. He was hired as a permanent assistant in the laboratory. The job mostly involved cleaning, bottles and equipment, sweeping and lighting fireplaces.
Under Davy, Faraday learned all the secrets of Chemistry and electricity that the master had gleaned through his life. He practiced with these ideas in the laboratory-mixing chemicals for Davy and doing his own experiments. In the process, he absorbed Davy’s patterns of thinking, of approaching chemical analysis and experimentation. After eight years, this interactive dynamic yielded Faraday to uncover the secret of electromagnetism. Faraday, after having a fallout and accusations of plagiarism on him knew it was time for him to part ways with Davy. Later on, Faraday went on to become a scientist who had a wider influence than Davy.
2. Importance of a mentor
Mentors do not give you a shortcut, but they streamline the process. They invariably had their own great mentors, giving them a richer, deeper knowledge of their field. Their ensuing years of experience taught them invaluable lessons and strategies for learning. Their knowledge and experience becomes yours; they can direct you away from unnecessary paths or errors. They observe you at work and give you real time feedback, making your practice more time efficient. Working closely with them, you absorb the essence of their creative spirit. What took you ten years on your own could have been done in five with proper direction. There is more to this than just time saved. When we learn something in a concentrated manner, it has added value. What makes the mentor-protege relationship dynamic so intense and so productive is the emotional quality of the relationship. By nature, mentors feel emotionally invested in your education.
3. When do I find a mentor?
To initially entice the right master to serve as your mentor, you will want to mix a strong element of self-interest. You have something tangible and practical to offer them, in addition to your youth and energy. Before he had ever met him, Davy was aware of Faraday’s work ethic and organizational skills. That alone made him a desirable assistant. Considering this, you may not want to go in search of mentors until you have acquired some elementary skills and discipline that you can rely upon to interest them.
4. How do I find a mentor?
If you work on yourself first, as Faraday did, developing a solid work ethic and organizational skills, eventually the right mentor will appear in your life. Word will spread through the proper channels of your efficiency and hunger to learn, and opportunities will come your way. Robert Greene in his book, Mastery encourages us not to feel timid in approaching Masters, no matter how elevated their position maybe. You will be surprised by how welcoming they can be. The ability to transfer their experience and knowledge to someone younger often provides them with great pleasure, akin to parenting. The best mentors are often those who have wide knowledge and experience, and are not very specialized in their field-training you to think on higher levels and make connections between different practices.
Aristotle-Alexander the Great:
Consider Aristotle-Alexander the Great relationship. Philip II, Alexander’s father and king of Macedonia, chose Aristotle to mentor his 13 year old son because the philosopher had mastered so many different fields. He could thus impart to Alexander an overall love of learning, and teach him how to think and reason in any kind of situation- the greatest skill of all. This ended up working to perfection. Alexander was able to effectively apply the reasoning skills he had gained from Aristotle to politics and warfare. Aristotle had imparted a kind of wisdom that played a key role in Alexander’s life.
5. When do I become independent?
Like in Faraday and Humphry Davy’s case, although mentors guide us at all stages, they may assume the form of a father figure-trying to control too much of our life. You must not allow yourself to feel guilty when the time comes to assert yourself. Instead, as Faraday did, you should feel resentful and even angry about his desire to hold you back. As the relationship progresses, you can begin to slightly distance yourself from the mentor, differentiating yourself from his values/character weaknesses that may hamper your progress. In Spanish, they say al maestro cuchillada-to the Master goes the knife. You internalize the important and relevant parts of their knowledge, and you apply the knife to what has no bearing on your life. It is the dynamic of changing relationships and sometimes the father figure has to be killed in order for the sons and daughters to have space to discover themselves.In any event, you will probably have several mentors in your life, like stepping-stones along the way to mastery. At each phase of life, you must find the appropriate teachers, getting what you want out of them, moving on and feeling no shame for this. It is the path your own mentor probably took and it is the way of the world.
My friend Rohan Rajiv has come out with an interesting way to reflect on the past year. I am going to fill this PDF in. You might find it interesting as well! Wish you all a very happy new year! My goal for 2016 is to equip myself with a great work ethic and top notch organizational skills so I can attract my mentor! Looking forward to a productive year. See you in 2016 you lovely people!