On Personal And Professional Growth: The Transformative Influence of Mentorship
Dec 5, 2023
Learning can sometimes be extremely overwhelming, starting from scratch is not always pleasant, the idea trying to grasp an entire topic without any prior knowledge can sometimes be enough to prevent us from learning something new, does this sound familiar?
If so, it’s because that’s the struggle we all face at some point when getting into a new field, something we haven’t yet had the chance to do or learn, and there’s something in common among us all – we wish someone could teach us one or two things.
Let’s face it, having someone who knows about whatever we’re trying to learn, who can also adapt to our learning style (and the things we look for when trying to absorb knowledge), as well as being able to ask as much as we want, sounds like an absolute dream – and you’d be right, because that’s what mentors are supposed to be like.
Wait, isn’t a mentor a person you task on teaching children when they’re really young and just getting started with the very basics? Well, short answer – yes, but that’s just a form of mentorship. The long answer is much more interesting, and it’s a topic I’ve personally wanted to go over the past few years, as I feel there’s much more to the concept than you might expect.
If there’s something I really dislike, is not knowing something. Don’t get me wrong, I say this in a (kinda) healthy way, what I’m referring to is knowing there’s something I could learn, but I’m not doing do so. Often times, this would lead up to me having to depend on others that do know some of what I’m looking for, which, may or may not have a positive outcome, depends on the case.
This resulted on me having this extreme need to learn, to go above and beyond whatever was being given to me at a certain point (like college classes, for example) and trying to master whatever knowledge awaited behind any topic’s door, trying to fully grasp a lot of stuff at the same time, which, although when mix-matched with determination and consistency can be highly beneficial, it can also have some unexpected (and not very positive) side effects.
See, it’s not good nor healthy to focus all of your attention on trying to learn everything by yourself without any kind of input or help, it may be rewarding at first but, as everything in life, the best possible way to go around this is to balance it out, because if there’s a major blocker when it comes to learning, is pressure, and there’s no worst pressure than the one we inflict to ourselves while creating this unreachable knowledge bar high above our heads – if anything, it’ll cause you:
- Lots of stress.
- Amounts of unhappiness.
- Discomfort with your own knowledge.
- Great discouragement.
In an ideal world, we shouldn’t be afraid of asking about something we don’t understand, or reaching out to someone more experienced than us – there will always be people that knows a bit less, or a bit more, and for those, the same rule applies as well. What I later found out was the actual root cause of my general distrust on relying on other people’s knowledge was quite revealing, yet seemingly intuitive: teaching is a skill in of itself.
After thinking about it over, and over, and over again, and considering every aspect I possibly could, my thought was the following:
So, if teaching is a skill, then only those who have trained it up into a certain level are the ones capable of sharing knowledge in the correct way, right?
I then had my answer to all the struggles I’ve had across my entire life – it’s not that I shouldn’t rely on others to learn something I don’t know, it’s just that not everyone has the necessary tools to effective knowledge sharing. No matter how hard you try, a receiver will never get the information if it doesn’t even come out of the emitter in an understandable way.
This immediately switched gears on my brain, and my focus totally shifted from “why is it so hard to learn from other people?” to “many people might be going through this struggle as well, so, what is the way to become a better communicator? am I part of this situation as well?” – if so, perhaps there’s something I can do to not only get better at communicating, but also directly giving others the way to do it too, but, how exactly am I supposed to develop this skill? Skill requires practice, so, what can I do?
That’s when my eyes to the world of mentorship really opened up without me realizing it, It started to become clear what the need was, what everyone struggled with, what people wanted to learn but found difficult to really grasp and/or getting to the right learning resources, this included not only stuff like videos, articles, courses, but also just people who they can reach out with questions, and be sure they’ll get an answer, even for the stuff they consider to be hard.
You know what else is hard? Calc I, that infamous course everyone at any tech-related career (such as CS) has to face at the early stages of the school program. Let’s face it, it’s a nightmare for most, specially when your assigned teacher is not the most likable person out there.
However, if there’s something that defines myself, is that I seek meaning behind everything we do, specially with numbers. Most people were afraid because they saw Calculus as this magical thing with a bunch of unpredictable nonsense and symbols, however, I knew there was a meaning behind everything explained there, and a predictable way to get to results – the question now is: how can I take this vision and share it with the rest?
As the say goes: just do it. So, that’s exactly what I did, whenever I heard someone ask a question about a formula or a sequence they didn’t understand, I tried jumped in (not in the ”🤓☝🏻” kind of way, I promise – people don’t like that), and just came up with a simplification of the subject, or whatever fits best, just trying to make everything feel like building blocks, not necessarily to show off or brag, or trying to put myself above everyone else – it was quite the opposite.
Doing this, I had to force myself to try and take everything I know, and putting it to the test of someone else’s learning style, accept the risk of getting a question I wasn’t that sure about, or that I might not even have the answer to. If I could get someone to understand something better than I did, then I’d be doing the right thing. With that, what started as just mere interventions later transitioned into frequent questions, which then became study groups.
Remember I mentioned the word “simplification”? Stay with it.
After I got into programming, and saw how most of the struggles I mentioned earlier on translated from numbers into code and development, I followed my same “method”, but now it was better (and, believe it or not, easier), as programming gives you way more flexibility and interactivity to show concepts or simplify things, and it was absolutely rewarding, not just for me, but for everyone that enjoyed having now a clear vision over concepts that appeared to be random, and nonsensical.
With this newly found love for helping others finally learn whatever was challenging them at the time, I stumbled upon a Reddit post. Someone was looking for volunteers to join a programming collective as mentors. It was aimed to hobbyists and people with some spare time to jump on and help on teaching and accompanying new programmers on their path to learning how to code. This community went by the name of The Electric Hive – I applied.
The events that followed after my initial mail was something I did not anticipate – it was such a great community. It was my first time formally teaching programming subjects, and boy, did I learn a ton over my time there, creating learning roadmaps, having 1:1 sessions with each mentee during the course of the week, hearing their struggles, knowing their strengths, and getting them to a place they wanted to be, meeting awesome people along the way and, right before I moved on in my personal life and stopped taking mentorships, I had one final mentee, let’s call him Will.
I couldn’t have asked for a better mentee to wrap things up, as I took my biggest lesson from him. Will didn’t come from a technical background, quite the opposite in fact, he had always struggled with technology, and trying to learn to code was one of the biggest challenges he could’ve faced, but he mentioned something really key to what happened later: he has always loved building things with his own hands, repairing stuff, tearing them down, basically anything that involved manual work – he had just presented me with his own learning style, and that’s when the most important thing clicked in.
Transforming, translating, shapeshifting the knowledge is the key to make it digestible for others, and the biggest challenge (along with the greatest result) is when you can translate information from a format to a complete opposite while still retaining the essence. Then, our sessions were not as much about Python, functions, classes, statements, but more about blocks, machines, tools, woodworking and machinery, with its corresponding code equivalents.
The result? He was writing Python code as the result of his mind thinking mechanically about the stuff he was already familiar with, finally fulfilling the dream of writing code by himself, and more importantly, understanding it, enjoying every session we had, even with the ones that touched into topics that I wasn’t so experienced about and had to investigate a bit, as he later told me:
It’s encouraging seeing someone learn something just to explain it to you. It motivates others to follow the same path, giving this feeling that we can all learn anything.
Those words marked my life moving forward, as it directly relates with the next part of this post.
Some of you might’ve already figured this out right away, but if you haven’t, let me tell you: everything I’ve just shared is not new, in fact, it took me a while to finally discover it has a very well established name: The Feynman Method.
The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.
– Mortimer Adler1
Richard Feynman, apart from being one of the greatest minds of our time, was also a master of demystifying complex topics (does that sound familiar?). His key learning insight: complexity and jargon often mask a lack of understanding, which is exactly what we previously discussed to be one of the greatest struggles on general learning, and the way of achieving it: learn, teach, simplify, repeat. That’s what we just went over!
And it’s no surprise that this is such an effective method. Think about it, putting yourself in the position to teach something might feel like a very vulnerable spot. Tons of unanticipated questions might come up from various different points of view from people that might not know the subject, but have their own way of approaching it.
That’s exactly what we’re looking for, a two-way learning loop, a way to look at our knowledge capable of finding points for improvement, simplification techniques, finding gaps in our own understanding of the matter such that, after closing them, connections (that were previously not visible to us) arise from the learning. Simply put:
- Don’t be afraid, present what you know.
- Listen, listen, and listen again to questions, or feedback.
- If there’s not a clear answer, go back, revisit your knowledge, find the answer you’re looking for, and try again.
You might think “Well, this all sounds very academic”, but here comes the best part – it’s a universal method, meaning, you can apply it anywhere you want, regardless of the subject, the circumstances, or the people involved, just like your professional development.
Yes, you can apply everything I’ve just mentioned at work too, in fact, you have no idea how beneficial it is, I would say this is the best place to put in practice everything we’ve just gone through so far, because, compared to school, at work we’re expected to learn and adapt at a very frequent basis for a living, specially in the tech space.
You might think “well, how exactly? I just make websites”, but there’s more to it than you can imagine! Even if you’re a freelancer, or the only developer/designer/whatever in your project, you’ll often have to communicate and work with others to get the job done, and wherever there’s communication, everything we’ve discussed comes into play.
See, by walking through this perspective of approaching learning, you didn’t just learned how to learn, you’ve actually just figured out how to talk to a client and know about their business, you also learned how to talk to your team, and translate business requirements into technical specifications and vice-versa. You’ve just placed yourself at a position where you can understand every angle of a project, every corner of a team by just asking the right questions, and this makes you a bridge between every party involved.
Companies need this type of profiles, someone that can learn and adapt, someone that can ask questions and refine knowledge, someone that can close gaps between the teams, and can consolidate information, just like a study group at college, and someone that can actively listen to the needs of their coworkers, be available to assist anyone, and lead them to growth.
You’ve read that right. Yes, I’m 100% sure about what I’m saying, you can be that person I just mentioned above. Everything I’ve just presented, though it might sounds as I’ve been building up to what being a mentor has felt like, and what it results on, what I’ve actually been trying to elaborate on is to let you know how you can follow the same steps, and even if you don’t have someone to learn from, you can then become that person for others.
There’s so much people out there seeking so hard to learn, grow, and just go beyond what they consider being capable of, in the need of someone that can kick things off in the right direction, someone that understands, and that can listen and follow them through their thought process to finally reach the final destination, a desire to know more. If you can relate to that feeling, my message to you is that you can be that person.
You can become the pillar your team needs, the go-to person to learn about something specific, even when you might not think you’re capable of it, let me tell you, you are, and everything I’ve just shared is actually not about me, is about how anyone can grow these teaching skills as a way to learn as well.
You might think “there’s so much I don’t know, how am I going to be able to answer questions about it?”, and that’s the key, you’re not supposed to, not at the first try, see, it’s not about knowing, but to share with everyone else that, though you might not have an answer, there’s always a way to figure it out.
Believe me when I say that it’s more inspirational for others than you might think, from helping others finish a course they considered hard, to being a highly valuable team member at your job, all the way through people and experiences that will find your approach to knowledge encouraging, inspirational, and motivating, spreading this healthy and fulfilling way of learning, and sharing knowledge with others in the most humble way possible, seeding mentors everywhere you go, in hopes that one day, we’ll all have someone to look up to.
As I always say, we’re all humans, we don’t (and will never) know everything, but whatever life throws at us, we can always figure that out, together.
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