How To Be Your Own Mentor

Luke Hanson, Academic Advisor and postbac at University of Alabama at Birmingham

I wrote recently about the concept of storytelling and personal narrative as a key means through which to develop self-awareness and establish a base on which to create and foster individual skills and broader professional and personal toolboxes. This is the overarching focus of Capsule's Mission Two, but the module also adds an additional layer I hadn't considered previously which is critical for holistic growth.

One key element that comes fairly early in the hero's journey is that of meeting one's mentor. Professionally, this can come in many forms, including supervisors, experienced peers and those in roles to which we aspire in other fields. Academically, they can be professors and instructors, advisors, student leaders, upperclassmen and even successful peers. In the traditional journey, the hero will meet or otherwise encounter their mentor shortly after beginning their quest and, hesitantly or otherwise, come under their tutelage.

Personally, it's not hard for me to look back and identify specific mentors I've had as both a student and professional, from my undergrad program director to my assigned mentor at an academic coaching firm to a current coworker who took me under her wing when I started out and really showed me the professional and cultural ropes within our office and at UAB as a whole.

The thing is, I never considered these individuals as traditional mentors so much as I took for granted they were there to help me, and that I had and would continue to fill that role for others. I saw each instance as a transactional give-and-take with the implication I would one day pay it forward, rather than the powerful, lasting relationships into which each of my mentor-mentee relationships has developed.

I feel retroactively narcissistic typing that out, but hopefully it reads as an honest reflection on the ignorance of (semi-) youth. I understand now that those folks weren't fulfilling a role purely for my benefit, but rather that we met each other at such a time and within a certain set of circumstances that allowed me to (ignorantly) serve as their mentee. I'd like to think they benefited in developing their mentoring skills as much as I did from being their mentee.

All of this serves as preamble to a slightly different approach to the concept of a mentor, with the key point being that mentors are hugely beneficial drivers of self-awareness and growth. To some extent we will be mentors and mentees throughout our lives, and the better we are at recognizing these relationships the more we'll enjoy the numerous benefits of the mentor-mentee relationship, whichever role we're in.

The specific concept I want to focus on is that of being your own mentor, which can allow you to reap the benefits of being both mentor and mentee. Capsule outlines how we can just as easily visualize idealized versions of ourselves and figure out the necessary steps to get there as we can identify a different person who is essentially what we want to be. A huge component of the program is journaling, including writing letters from our future selves.

This approach works. I've experience it personally and with students, especially when letters are as specific and illustrative as possible. Research has focused on how letters from and visualization of our future selves can help benefit us when it comes to everything from saving for retirement to decreasing delinquent decision-making to improving exercise adherence.

When I was an academic success coach, I would typically hit a lull with students during our third or fourth session as we progressed into the latter half of the semester. This occurred for myriad reasons, but pretty much always led to an awkward pause after a few minutes of catching up. Growing pains had been navigated, a new routine established, an approach to each class put into place. The work-life-social balance had reached a new homeostasis, and they were mostly focused on finishing the semester strong. Or just finishing. Typically, especially with first-semester freshmen, this is when I would pitch the now-future exercise.

"Who are you now," I would ask, "and who do you want to be?"

This exercise is essentially a facilitated version of the future letter, with the student building themselves up as a mentor with a bit of help and navigation. If things were going great or terribly that semester, we could discuss why and develop a plan to sustain or improve the situation for the next one. We could talk about a graduation timeline, and who and what they hoped to be when they finished up. We could talk about dream jobs for which they were earning degrees, and what they looked like on day one in that professional role.

Essentially, we'd pick a perfect endpoint, featuring them in idealized form, and work backwards. That endpoint version was a mentor, and outlining the steps it would take to become that was equivalent to progressing through one's own hero's journey with a mentor.

The key in plotting out what it takes to achieve that seemingly perfect future self is identifying attainable specifics for every step of the journey, and tapping into the elements of our individual selves that will motivate us to achieve them.

I haven't used that exercise in awhile as an academic advisor, because I and my students are typically more focused on the day-to-day. However, I do still engage them in future planning, and Capsule helped remind me of this and other exercises. One offered up in Mission Two is the letter from future self, which essentially allows one to channel their idealized future self, dreaming as big as they want, and writing a letter that functions both as an inspiration and road map for how to achieve that aspirational version of themselves, as well as affirmation that it's worth it, that it's everything they dreamed of and more.

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