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01 September 2008

Talking about... Mentoring

Talking about... Mentoring

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Tony Watkins helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

The new Bond film Quantum of Solace finds the mentor-protégé relationship of Agent 007 and M (Daniel Craig and Judi Dench) stretched to the breaking point. Again.

"Make a fool of yourself. Otherwise you won't survive." This is perhaps not the most obvious advice to give an ambitious businessman, but Freddie Laker's words to Richard Branson made a big impact on him, inspiring him to take risks and use himself to promote his fledgling airline.

The advice of Branson's mentor is not as eccentric as it first seems. Shouldn't mentors always encourage their protégés to push themselves further, aim higher or do what is necessary to achieve the goal? Mentors build confidence, ask difficult questions and challenge the way things are now; they inspire, encourage and support.

The most important things are caught rather than taught

There are very few successful people who are not immensely grateful for what they learned from a mentor. Even someone as fiercely individualist as James Bond (Daniel Craig) needs a mentor in the person of M (Judi Dench), though he doesn't always listen to her or repay her trust in him.

Mentoring can be formal, as in many workplaces, but some of the best mentoring happens informally. Sometimes two people find themselves mentoring each other in different aspects of life. This is the central premise of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, in which a middle-aged governess (Frances McDormand) becomes social secretary for a glamorous American actress (Amy Adams). For 24 hours, the two women help each other develop a better understanding of life and of themselves.

Few of us have the opportunity to be mentored by a prominent figure - like Madonna, who mentored Gwyneth Paltrow, or Ingmar Bergman, who mentored Woody Allen. But many of us have, at some stage, been mentored by someone who was in the right place at the right time to encourage us along. The consequences can be extraordinary. Who recognises the name Max Talmud? As a medical student in Munich in 1889, he introduced a bright 10-year-old boy to significant mathematics and philosophy books. The boy's name was Albert Einstein.

Learn from the best

Towards the end of the 2008 series of Doctor Who?, the Doctor (David Tennant) was delighted to be reunited with some of those he has mentored, and they're just as pleased to be back on board the Tardis with him. They're a great team, not just because of what the Doctor has taught them, but because of the attitudes and values they've picked up from him along the way. As Martha (Freema Agyeman) remarks earlier in the series, "I learned from the best."

Quantum of SolaceThis highlights two vital aspects of mentoring. First, successful mentoring requires the right kind of relationship. Second, it functions at different levels - knowledge, skills and attitudes - and the most important things are caught rather than taught.

The relationship is obviously fundamental. A mentor must be someone who inspires and who deserves respect. Despite all the difficulties of life on "the grid" in Spooks, this is true of Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), head of MI5's counterterrorism unit. His team has such a high regard for Harry that he is able to be an effective mentor to them.

The other side of the coin is that the protégé must be someone who is willing to learn, unlike Sidney Young (Simon Pegg), the iconoclastic writer who is hired by a top New York fashion magazine in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. But he's so intent on living it up that he is incapable of learning from others or allowing someone to mentor him towards becoming a great journalist.

Being a good mentor is not about being gifted as a teacher or trainer, but about coming alongside someone and walking with them. Good mentors are prepared to suffer inconvenience themselves or make sacrifices because the process of mentoring requires an investment of time, energy and thinking about the other person. It requires a measure of humility.

This brings us back to the fact that the most important things we learn from our mentors are caught rather than taught. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to teach someone to hold a particular set of values or to embrace a certain attitude. But as we observe someone we respect living them out, we begin to absorb them into our own lives.

Beware the dark side

There is, however, a dark side to this powerful force. It's not just the good guys who become effective mentors. All kinds of people take others under their wing for their own ends rather than out of selfless humility. Those on the receiving end may be inspired by attributes other than wisdom, and open to all the wrong things. As the apostle Paul noted, "Bad company corrupts good character" (1 Corinthians 15.33).

Teenage drug-dealer Luke (Josh Peck) has plenty of hang-ups in The Wackness, and it's hardly surprising that he looks to his therapist, Dr Squires (Ben Kingsley), for direction. But Squires - whom Luke pays in marijuana - has problems of his own, and he goes beyond being a shrink to becoming a mentor to the young man. Yes, he wants to help Luke, but he wants to help himself in the process by living vicariously through Luke.

So we must be careful about whom we allow to shape us. But finding the right person to mentor us - someone who, like Paul, is prepared to share something of their life with us - could be one of the most significant things we ever do. It could be even more significant when we commit to passing on what we've learned about life to someone else.Tony Watkins

  • ToolsForTalks.com provides a one-stop shop to help teach the Bible in the language of contemporary culture. The site contains quotes and illustrations taken from the latest films, music, magazines and TV - updated weekly.
  • Photos - Top: Quantum of Solace, James Bond (Daniel Craig), © Sony - Bottom: Quantum of Solace, M (Judy Dench), © Sony

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