Monday, May 30, 2011

In search of a mentor

I was speaking with my cousin earlier today on the topic of growing up. Hey, it's a relevant thing for two twenty-somethings to be thinking about! Ok, so my cousin is almost a twenty-something, but that's besides the point. We're both going through changes in our lives like we never expected. She just finished her first year at college, I'm getting married... understandably, growing up is on our minds. Even though she and I are at different stages, one question struck a chord with both of us: "Am I even doing this right?"

Good question, and one we can't really answer. There are no set standards for maturity, you can't google "timeline of life" and find out exactly what you should be doing at any given age. It's simply not that simple. So what's the solution? Well, a mentor.

Mentorship is an idea that can be applied to just about any facet of life. You can have a professional mentor, or a personal one. It can be someone you work with or a family member. A helpful tool for both parties; the person who searches and finds a mentor learns valuable lessons, while the person who mentors gains an incredible sense of self-worth. It's a win-win situation. But where does a girl go to find such a relationship?

Sure, there are tons of official mentorship programs for adolescents, I actually volunteered for one of these when I was in high school. It was one of the most rewarding things I've done. But as far as I can find, no such thing exists for those of us attempting to enter the adult world. So I began pondering what I should do about my desire to learn from someone older and wiser than myself. I came to an inspiring conclusion: I have had a number of mentors that have each helped me in monumental ways. Here are some examples:

My Aunt, known to be the best cook in the family let me come over every weekend one summer to teach me how to prepare meals for myself before I moved out on my own. I learned a lot of great recipes, but those Sundays were about more than how fold enchiladas and the secret to delicious cookies. They were about a young woman (yours truly) trying to break my way into the adult world without a clue as to how I was going to do it.
At that point in my life, it was relationships that were a big deal. Sundays with my Aunt were a pinnacle in figuring out what relationships meant to me. She had tons of advice to offer on the matter and I insisted on bringing my current partner to dinner on at least one occasion for two reasons: To find out what he thinks of my cooking, and to see if he can get Aunties approval. 
Now they say that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but no one had ever told me that the way a man eats can provide a peek into his nature. One boyfriend of mine slept on the couch while dinner was cooking and stuck his nose up at the stir fry I had made, claiming it was "rabbit food". Another gratefully accepted seconds of my vegetarian pizza even though I hadn't let it sit long enough and it was falling to pieces before it even got to the plate. He claimed it was delicious and that we needed to take home the recipe and try it ourselves. Guess which one my Aunt gave the green light to? That was two years ago. He proposed last November.

Or how about this past year, when I was struggling with an unknown, mystery illness. Doctors couldn't figure it out, I was going in for tests left and right, medicine either didn't work or had too many side effects for me to handle. I was on the brink of dropping out of school and moving back home because I couldn't even work to support myself. My fiance introduced me to his Aunt, who surprisingly enough, had gone through something ridiculously similar.
She became my go-to person for tips on how to manage life with chronic illness, and my inspiration to keep trying even when I was too weak to crawl out of bed in the mornings. She asked me about my symptoms and told me how to articulate what was going on to my doctor. She taught me how to pay attention to the way I felt, told me to write a list of my symptoms, to include everything, even stuff I had dismissed as unrelated, and to present it at my next appointment. Following her advice, I was immediately sent to the right professionals, received a diagnosis, and got on track for a treatment plan.

Looking back at stories like this, I realize that I have had mentors my whole life. Not just these two women, but many people. I had a history teacher who was the most passionate man alive. I mean, you can't talk to this guy without feeling empowered about something. I don't think I'll ever forget what my instrumental instructor told me about performing. She said "No matter what happens, act like it went exactly how you planned." Her advice helped me get through countless auditions, recitals, and solo performances.

My grandmother taught me that love isn't perfect, and the importance of personal strength in all aspects of your life. My father taught me to be moderate and unbiased in my decisions, using thought more than emotion to solve problems. A responsible man, who follows through on his word and loathes to be indebted to anyone, he taught me the meaning of the phrase "suck it up". Never a coddler, he taught me that tough love is a balance between affection and reality. Too much affection, and you go soft, too much reality, and you don't get to be a kid.

The list goes on. What amazes me is that half these people probably have no idea how much they've helped me become who I am today. That's when my cousin really surprised me.

She told me how much she had learned from me. Someone has been learning from me all these years?! Oh goodness, I hope I gave her the right advice! I hope I was a good enough example for her, I wasn't even thinking that she might be watching my actions, or taking mental notes from conversations I had in front of her or... or... exactly what I had been doing my whole life with the people I mentioned above.

Moral of the story? We are all constantly learning and teaching. We learn from those we admire, and we teach those who admire us, sometimes without even knowing it. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "lead by example" doesn't it?

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