Athena’s gift: the value of wisdom and mentorship

This week guest blog is by Professor Annie Topping, Professor of Nursing and Director Centre for Health & Social Care Research, University of Huddersfield, UK

Suddenly ‘mentorship’ seems to be in the air.  There is a lot of chatter about the value of mentorship and schemes are proliferating such as the National Institute for Health Research Clinical Academic Training scheme for nurses, midwives and allied health professions in England, launched in 2012 (http://www.healthresearchmentor.org.uk/website/).  The scheme aims to provide mentorship to funded training fellows who wish to follow a clinical academic career and support them to progress, nationally and internationally.  Mentors are senior healthcare scientists, academics and professional leaders with a range of experience nationally and internationally who understand the leadership challenges for clinical academic researchers.  

In the UK nursing has contributed to a minor confusion by calling the person responsible for supervising and assessing the clinical practice experience of pre-registration students a ‘mentor’; whereas more commonly the term ‘mentorship’ is associated with improving personal performance and accelerating career trajectories.  Putting the term ‘mentor’ into any search engine and you will find a wealth of websites explaining what mentorship is and isn’t.  The term mentor has its origins in the Greek classical story, Homer’s Odyssey.  Telemachus, Oddyseus’ son, was left with a mentor, a trusted friend to act as his adviser, when his father left to fight in the Trojan wars. As with many Greek myths there was a challenge to the throne, the Gods intervened and Athena adopted the guise of the trusted adviser, mentor, and whispered words of wisdom to the young Telemachus.  Since then the term has evolved and mentor became associated with someone older, more experienced offering wisdom, often but not always within some form of negotiated agreement, to someone younger or less experienced.  Mentorship may be put in place as part of induction into a new job or role, as part of planned development or even career long. It can involve a sustained relationship with a particular person or be equally effective over a set time limited period. A mentor might be allocated or chosen, they might be identified within an organisation or be someone unconnected who has the skills or experience the mentee wants to learn from.  

What is apparent from the proliferation of schemes and approaches is that all of us, at some point in our careers or indeed personal lives benefit from accessing support, guidance, wisdom from someone and importantly that advice needs to be offered without strings. The words of wisdom offered within the space afforded by mentorship provide an opportunity to consider afresh our hopes, challenges, barriers, aspirations and goals.  That process often allows us to renew our endeavours, find direction, inspire us and sometimes challenge us and occasionally change direction. 

So whatever happens in mentorship, and there is no one recipe, it may involve establishing realistic career goals and planning how to achieve them.  The process could involve your mentor acting as a sounding board to talk through decisions and ideas, to be challenged, and even face up to those things you may avoid or choose not to explore. Sometimes mentors facilitate access to other people that can assist you or intelligence that might help you see the work differently. Mentorship can also be used to rehearse or hone ideas and solutions. Whatever issues populate the space called mentorship it is about generating solutions in a respectful and honest way but enabling so you take responsibility for your development and actions. So whether starting out on your career or you are in need of a refresh, I urge you to take up any opportunity offered or indeed seek out mentorship. You may find, as I have, that Athena’s whispering bring immeasurable benefits not least the privilege of seeing things differently.

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