Mentorship Mantras by Vineet Chopra, Ravi Pendse, & Sanjay Saint

It is hard to mentor in socially distant times. Stimulating growth and development in others, taking on new proteges, or helping mentees succeed is challenging in a virtual environment. It is tough to escape the lassitude of isolation and the incessant back-to-back Zoom meetings to find time for meaningful mentorship. It becomes a chore that drains energy, rather than the joyful and rejuvenating experience it should be.

To help mentors reconnect with their love for mentorship, we offer five mantras gleaned from philosophy, religion, and spirituality.

Mantra #1: Mentorship is a journey. The Hindu Vedas divide life into 4 stages (i.e., Ashramas), each of which, if attained, lead to fulfillment. The first Ashrama is Brahmacharya, centered on growing knowledge, intellect, skill, and expertise. Brahmacharyas are mentees, seeking to learn and develop from a mentor. Fortunately, there is guidance of how to be an effective mentee. The second AshramaGrihastha – focuses on developing a stable life structure; this corresponds to a junior faculty member establishing their professional and personal lives. The third is Vanaprastha, typified by “handing over” the baton to the next generation, representing the role of mentor: the person who has established themselves and imparts collected wisdom to others.1 Vanaprasthas do several things well: carefully choose mentees, establish well-functioning mentoring teams, set high expectations, and help perpetuate a virtuous cycle by preparing the mentee to mentor. In the 4th and final stage, Sannyasa, one detaches from material goods in pursuit of a simple, spiritual life. Sannyasas have often reached great heights and are in the twilights of their career. These wise sages are able to tap into their social and political networks to pair mentees with mentors, sponsor individuals for promotions or awards, and help ensure visibility of those deserving recognition.1 The Ashramas teach us that mentorship, like life, is a journey we are blessed to be on. When the journey gets rough, remembering that we are on a path and doing our best to benefit others can be freeing.

Mantra #2: Practice Humility: One of us used to walk to school every day past a mango tree, hoping to reach the mangos to eat. Unfortunately, only fully ripe mangos bent the branches low enough to pick them. As children, we cared only about getting the mangos. Now we can appreciate a cycle that only renews by plucking the fruit, so the branch can rise back to the skies to pollinate the next season. The lesson? As trees give up fruit year after year, mentors must also give away our abundance. Mentoring others helps rejuvenate us. And we get more than we give. Each of us has learned more than we could have imagined from our mentees. There is a fusion of surprise, awe, and respect in this learning that cements the bond with the person in front of you (actual or virtual). In an isolated age, this type of reverse mentoring is a refreshing realization.2 Difficult conversations become simpler because learning is taking place at the same time. Even in a virtual environment, seek to learn from those around you.

Mantra #3: Embrace failure. Many religions hold that life is our best teacher, an idea we believe is central to high-quality mentorship. Too many people become frustrated by career events such as being overlooked for promotion, missing grant targets, or not getting along with a co-worker. Many have left organizations due to these frustrations, only to re-experience much the same elsewhere. Why? Consider the lotus flower – an icon of Buddhist divinity – the most beautiful of which come from the thickest and dirtiest of mud. As a Buddhist might say: “No mud, no lotus.” Some of the greatest lessons a mentor or mentee will learn happen when times are the toughest – when we feel stuck in the mud. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that there is a yin/yang balance to the universe, then. Today, terms like “positive psychology” or “post-traumatic growth” are used to encompass this concept, but the idea is much older. Each hardship, no matter how difficult, can foster greater resilience and strength. Having experienced our own disappointments, we often share our missteps with mentees – a powerful way to connect with them.

Mantra #4: Find empathy and gratitude: As mentors, we sometimes lose sight of the enormous privilege it is to help others grow. We are successful today because others were there to help us. Finding the empathy and sense of gratitude to pay the gift forward is self-healing, acting as a salve to the pain today’s isolation creates. One of us practices this every Friday by sending out notes to mentees and colleagues, thanking them for things they did during the week. This small ritual pays great dividends; people are often amazed that you keep track of these events. We believe we can find something to be thankful for in any situation. Do this during good times and bad. It can be joyful!

Mantra #5: Mentor with Love. We don’t mean romantic, family, or brotherly love, here. Rather, we refer to “agape,” the highest form of divine love. People don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad bosses. Gifted leaders and mentors know how to move people from compliance to commitment. Effective mentors help mentees navigate their journey and find purpose by caring for them as they do their creators. They see mentees in their full personal and professional being, not in their failures.

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These mantras frame an important perspective: mentoring is a sacrament emphasizing selflessness. This unconditional act seeks the highest forms of kindness, truth, and justice. The Indian poet, Kabir, said, “The river that flows in you also flows in me,” implying that what we see in others, we see in ourselves – the essence of mentorship. In these times of social distancing, we would be wise to remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we have a role to play in growing others, and there is perhaps no greater joy than seeing a mentee succeed.

References:

  1. Chopra V, Arora VM, Saint S. Will You Be My Mentor?-Four Archetypes to Help Mentees Succeed in Academic Medicine. JAMA Intern Med. 2018;178:175-176.
  2. Waljee JF, Chopra V, Saint S. Mentoring Millennials. JAMA. 2018;319:1547-1548.

 

Vineet Chopra, MD, MSc, is Professor of Medicine and the Robert W. Schrier Chair of Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Dr. Chopra’s research focuses on mentoring in the academic hospital space and on an array of patient safety issues like bloodstream infections caused by peripherally inserted central catheters. @vineet_chopra

Ravi Pendse, PhD, is Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at the University of Michigan where he provides university-wide leadership and strategic direction for information technology. @ravipendse

Sanjay Saint, MD, MPH, FRCP, is the Chief of Medicine at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and the George Dock Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan. Dr. Saint writes about mentoring, medical education, and topics within patient safety and quality of care. @sanjaysaint

Declaration of interests

We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.

 

 

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