McKean Minute: Picking a Mentor? Look Behind to Look Ahead

When most of us think of a mentor, we picture an elder. Maybe not a white-bearded sensi, but someone older and more experienced than we are. That’s natural. We hope to gain knowledge by synthesizing the experiences of those who have passed this way before.

But not all experience is linear, or can be counted by years. As you are considering mentors in your life, don’t just look forward to those with more experience, but also sideways to those who have other types of experiences from your own. And don’t hesitate to look behind, to mentors who are younger and have a different take on life and how to live it.

This nontraditional profile of a mentor struck me all last week, as I weighed the value of different experiences. The first will be familiar to those of a certain generation trying to understand and use digital technology. It’s hardly original to say that digital natives have an edge on applying technology to common problems, but it’s worth reminding those of my generation and older that we can learn a lot (more than just programming television remotes, Mom!) from those who grew up with smartphones and video games.

But learning goes beyond tutorials. There’s a lot we can learn from younger generations about how to balance work and play, about the value of money and job satisfaction, and about such abstractions as the definition of success.

In fact, the very inexperience of this generation makes their perspectives even more refreshing.

Should you surround yourselves with mentors half your age? Probably not, unless you want to a) feel really old, and b) assume the role of sagacious elder. But I’d encourage you to seek the advice and perspectives of at least one person in your orbit who is a fraction of your age.

Yes, they will be wet behind the ears and naive to the mechanics of the weary, work-worn world, but chances are that they’ll also be candid, enthusiastic, and optimistic, all qualities that get shorter in supply as we age.

Don’t dismiss those youngsters as punk kids. Find one or two whose company you enjoy and whose perspectives counterbalance those that you receive from your contemporaries or your elders. And then really value them as mentors of another stripe and generation.

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