A couple weeks ago we lost a wonderful man who was precious to me and many. For over 44 years as a beloved English professor and the director of the University of Wyoming Honors Program and Summer High School Institute, Duncan Harris patiently and wisely guided students struggling to find themselves and their place in this world. Duncan and his wife Janice opened their classrooms and their home to build and nurture a thoughtful, eclectic community that extends worldwide.
I had not seen Duncan for a couple of years when I learned he had passed and I grieved, wishing to reach out for one last conversation and to say thank you. I am not alone when I say Duncan changed my life for the better by challenging and encouraging me to dream big, while generously accepting and advising me along the way. He helped me become a better writer, a more careful reader and better listener, and cultivated my interests in art, theatre and literature. I won’t forget a perfect afternoon at the Barnes Foundation and how in awe I was of his detailed knowledge of the specific pieces and artists in the collection. The beautiful tributes celebrating Duncan remind me of the indelible mark that a mentor can leave. Duncan was early among many mentors to whom I am grateful for guiding me as I muddle my way through life, love and career.
Some people are natural mentors. You don’t even know you’re asking for advice and somehow leave the conversation with a plan. Other times you may think you know what kind of help you need, but a mentor can challenge you to reframe the question, to ask an entirely different question or to rise up and become the solution. Importantly, mentors can serve as powerful sounding boards and help you avoid mistakes they may have already made.
I refer to mentorship more broadly than a formal work-based arrangement, although these programs are also important. Companies and organizations that put meaningful mentorship programs in place reap great rewards not only because employees are happier and retention improves, but also because mentorship creates a culture that welcomes and promotes diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in and out of the workplace. Mentorship builds bridges and is part of the solution to lessening gender- and race-based pay gaps. Research shows that both mentors and mentees receive positive benefits and that mentorship increases career success, earnings and fulfillment. Strong mentorship bonds can help us navigate new technologies, the changing ways in which we work and find success and balance in all aspects of our lives.
Mentorship is at the top of my mind right now as I prepare for a new career that is both exciting and unfamiliar. Mentorship is powerful, in part, because it is individualized and tailored to fit you specifically. No two mentors play the same role and I am grateful to have both male and female mentors in different areas of my life. I like to think I’m collecting them along the way. I suspect they are also collecting mentees, just as Duncan did.
While teaching is a profession particularly well suited to mentorship, that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Everyone will be a mentor and mentee at some point and formally or informally help guide a co-worker, friend or Little Brother or Sister, on the next step in their journey. They’ll also, hopefully, help them avoid potential pitfalls along the way. We never stop needing a strong support system as evidenced by an industry of executive coaches.
To all the mentors of the world, to my parents who were my first and lifelong mentors and to my friends and mentors too numerous to name, thank you for not only helping me, but showing me through your excellent example how to pay it forward and build others up in such a meaningful, rewarding way. It is not an exaggeration to say you change the world for the better.
Story by story and life by life, mentorship can have a powerful impact, just as Duncan’s did on mine and so many others. I invite you to be mindful of mentorship opportunities that present themselves to you as both a mentee and a mentor. Mentorship is a reciprocal relationship where both parties learn and grow. And yes you, even you, can and should be a mentor. We all have strengths and knowledge to share, regardless of age, career or title. Who are you sharing your talent with?