mentorship is not for puppeteers

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry

One of my major themes this year is mentorship because I want to become both a better mentor and a better mentee. Over the past 5 years, I have had the privilege of learning about mentoring through the platform of a mentoring program called Khalfani that primarily serves young men of color between the ages of 6 and 18 years old. Through that experience, I have enjoyed watching young boys mature into young men even as I have grown as a leader myself. I have also begun to develop some personal guidelines that are more effective than others at influencing a mentee and helping them become successful. These guidelines are not only helpful in mentoring teenagers but can be applied to anybody that looks up to you for advice or input into their career or life choices.

The quote at the beginning of this post encapsulates the first of these guidelines. If you want to be effective as a mentor, you have to reframe the way in which you point a person towards success – unlike a puppeteer who makes the puppet act by controlling its actions directly; a mentor should not focus solely on getting their mentee to follow their instructions. This will hurt the mentee more than it will help them because you are not equipping them to develop their own problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Instead, the mentor’s role is to paint a picture for the mentee of their future that is so compelling they will long for it and implement your advice as a means to get to that end.

Practically, there are at least two ways to do this that are easily accessible to anybody:

1. Be the model
2. Tell stories

Be the model

The easiest way to mentor somebody is to live your life according to the principles that you are trying to instill in your mentee. If they spend enough time around you, the authenticity of your life will give you the credibility to speak into their lives. And if you have a life that gives them a glimpse of what they would like their own lives to be like, they will naturally want to know the ‘magic sauce’ that got you to where you are.

Tell stories

Humans are naturally drawn to stories and we remember them better than we do facts or lectures. If you want a lesson to stick with your mentee, find a way to tell a story (preferably one from your own life) that illustrates the concept you are trying to convey. When you do that it does two things:
· It reinforces you as the model they can safely follow
· It gives them a simple memory trigger for when they will need that principle in the future

So as you consistently model things and provide frameworks for concepts through stories, you will have a much greater influence over your mentee than if you merely try to teach them things through a ‘lecture’ format – and you will enjoy yourself more because your interactions will be based on the building of a relationship, rather than the transactional ‘impartation of wisdom’.

Instead of being the puppeteer, you will be the muse and your mentee will be encouraged to create their masterpiece.

moving from goals to themes in 2013

For the past several years, I have spent the final days leading up to New Year’s Day thinking about what I want to achieve in the upcoming year and writing down those goals so that I can track them throughout the year.  This has been a very effective way of keeping myself on track especially as the year progresses and I begin to lose some of my initial passion about some of the goals.

Often as I review what I wrote at the beginning of the year, I am pleasantly surprised to find that there are some goals that I have achieved even after forgetting that I wrote them down in the first place.

This year, however, I find myself in a different place.  Throughout the year, as I have read from several different sources, digested what I was reading and thought about how I can implement some of the ideas that have resonated with me, I have realized that, instead of goals, there are some overarching themes that I need to explore.

Undoubtedly some concrete goals will emerge from these themes, but I think writing down detailed goals this early in the year will limit my thinking and possibly make me miss greater opportunities than I can imagine at this point.

Each of the themes is a critical component to the vision that I have for how I believe I am supposed to contribute to the world in the next five years and they transcend spiritual, personal and professional boundaries.

I believe that the themes will guide who I become – and what I do will then be guided by who I am.  I feel that this is the most authentic way for me to live and I am excited to embark on the journey.

So what are my themes in 2013?

There are 5 of them:

  1. Build Platforms
  2. Define the Hard Edges
  3. Create Space for Reflection
  4. Provide Mentorship
  5. Focus on Lean Methods


I am convinced that the most effective way to have an impact with your message, talents or vision is to build a platform from which you can share your gift with the world.  Over the past year and a half, I have read Seth Godin’s blog almost daily and this is a recurring theme in his writing – now that I know the theory, I am going to spend 2013 putting it into practice and discovering what it means for me specifically.

Hard Edges

This is an idea from David Allen’s book "Getting Things Done" that provides very clear direction on how to create and manage boundaries to control the information that flows in and out of your life daily

Personally, I am expanding this concept to the boundaries throughout my life (personal, professional and other); the main idea is to make sure that I have clearly defined ‘buckets’ in which the commitments in my life fall into so that when I am faced with a new idea or commitment I can make decisions faster and with more clarity without allowing the edges to ‘bleed’ into each other.


Without fail, whenever I take the time to think through an approach to a problem or an opportunity, I significantly reduce the amount of wasted time I spend on it.  However, despite my knowledge of this, the ‘busyness’ I often find myself in prevents me from true reflection that would enhance my results.  So this theme is about continuously simplifying my environments to create space for reflection.


The more I teach, the more I learn.

Lean Methods

Instead of trying to plan the risk out of any of my ventures, use a process of experimentation where I use carefully designed ‘tests’ to determine what is working and what isn’t and then make the changes necessary (Build, Measure, Learn).  I don’t need to have the full picture before I start – just enough to gather feedback that will help me take the next step.  This process of experimentation is probably the biggest departure from how I usually do things and will help me to fight against the lizard brain.

starting with what I have

This weekend, following my resolution to ‘take action often‘, I decided to help my sister with a business she is building.  Earlier in the week, she posted photos of some of her products on Facebook and immediately when I saw how beautiful they were, I knew that I needed to help her create a website around the business.

So I asked her for what type of website she was looking for – and the sample she sent me was something that definitely exceeded my design skills at the moment.  My old approach would have been to begin backtracking on what I could actually do.  This time however, I spent several hours researching and eventually found a WordPress template that I can easily customize with the CSS I know and meet several of her needs all at once.

In addition, while at a children’s birthday party, I showed her Facebook photos to two of our friends and they are seriously interested in her products.  So I can help her move her business forward too.

The confidence I have about what I can do with CSS actually comes from the tinkering I have done recently with this blog – something that happened again because I decided to get more serious about posting frequently and forced myself to start customizing the design of the blog to what I want.

Taking action is definitely giving me a satisfying momentum.

Now to apply this to my simplification project.

taking action

I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker a couple of days ago.  We were talking about how both of us are getting restless with the need to ‘make things’ – to create.  I tend to have a lot of ideas, but my problem has always been execution – actually implementing the ideas.

When I start implementation, I always seem to stop long before the finished product, even if I know that I have the skill set and creativity to make something beautiful.

Unfinished poems, unfinished stories, unfinished drawings, unfinished business ideas – the list is endless.

I know what the culprit is – Seth Godin’s ‘lizard brain‘.

I think the best way to defeat the lizard brain is the increase my output and ‘fail often’ so that I am in a constant state of motion and don’t have time to overthink things.

So my new approach is to lower the bar and prioritize action over perfection.  If I have an idea that I can’t shake from my thoughts, I need to make sure that I ‘make something’ related to the idea – however small – so that I can get momentum.

Create version 0.1, ship it, and then improve it from there.

when you plot your path it is impossible to see the whole picture

There is a famous story about six blind men who had an argument about an elephant.  They were on a journey together when they came upon something in their way that they did not recognize.

The first man reached his hand out and touched the wide and rough side of the elephant, so he declared to his friends:

“It is a great wall, and we will have to climb over it.”

The next man reached out and touched the elephant’s tusk.  He yelled back to the first man:

“What are you talking about, this is a great spear – let us take it with us for protection on our journey.”

The third man reached out and rubbed his hand on the elephant’s trunk, then began to tremble:

“There is a great snake in our path and we must turn back!”

Yet another man reached out and this time he touched the elephant’s knee, so he said calmly to the other men:

“We have been walking for a great distance, have no fear, let us rest ourselves next to this great tree.”

The fifth man, reached out and touched the elephant’s ear:

“Ahh … this is a great fan which we can use to cool ourselves down in this scorching day.”

Not wanting to be left out, the last man touched the elephant’s tail and said:  “This is just a piece of rope … it is completely useless to us on our journey.”

Despite encountering exactly the same situation – the elephant – each man came to a completely different conclusion than the other men, both about what he was experiencing, and about what he should do about it.

What’s most striking to me about the story though, is how convinced each one of them was that they had the full story.  So convinced, in fact, that some of them ridiculed the other mens’ position because it differed from theirs.

How often have you been guilty of the very same ignorance when planning out a goal in your life?  A quick decision about a path you should take, based on limited information, and no outside guidance, and you are on your way.  But the wise words of the Bible sum this up very well:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”

— Proverbs 14:12

The only way to combat this bias towards ignorance is to understand upfront that getting the whole picture about the future and how your goals will progress is impossible, so never assume that you have it.  Instead, focus on getting a healthy set of perspectives – even some that contradict each other – and then take action with an open mind.