It’s been said that a man (or woman) never stands so tall as when they stoop to help a child.
There’s truth in that saying. I’ve seen it happen. Occasionally I try to be helpful myself. It’s relatively easy to do, frankly. It’s worth a try at least.
As adults we’re physically, emotionally, and intellectually superior to most kids — at least in theory. Based on our greater experience and familiarity with the options available to us in most situations, we should be head and shoulders above the kids we work with. That being the case, almost anything you do can be helpful — assuming you actually do something and that the thing you do is intended to have a positive result.
Not all adults are equally committed to getting the job done. There are instances where the adult in question has almost no interest in getting the job done — even if they’re being paid to do it.
That’s not just sad. It’s contemptible.
Without naming names, I’m going to describe two real-life situations I’ve encountered recently. One was uplifting, productive, successful, and there’s every reason to believe it will last for the long-term. The other was a stellar example of the pointlessness of lethargy combined with all the worst negative connotations of disinterest.
Both are real-life examples of how important it is for those of us who volunteer to help to actually help. The alternative is nothing to be proud of.
The first case involves a high school aeronautics program that has grown from an idea, to a problem-riddled program that was just barely limping along. Thanks to some revamping, a bit of hard work, and the establishment of a more productive management methodology, a smoother operation was the result. That improvement ultimately provided the stimulus to transform the organization into one with a gold-star production that just keeps pumping out confident, capable, truly accomplished graduates.
Problems are inevitable. Challenges abound, whether you’re 15 or 53. Regardless if you’re trying to teach teenagers to be responsible adults through the multitudinous tasks inherent to aeronautics or driving to the grocery store. There will be complications that arise out of nowhere. The unexpected will happen. The inconvenient will occur. The key is to learn that facing an uphill battle isn’t synonymous with being beaten. It’s a detour, not a dead end.
Problem solving is one of the great lessons any of us can learn. A good aeronautics program designed to help teenagers find success in life doesn’t avoid the troubles we’re likely to encounter along the way. It seeks them out, provides a variety of possible solutions, and illustrates the benefits of being intellectually flexible and curious.
As Fox Mulder famously said, “The truth is out there.” And the truth is this: Being inquisitive and putting in real effort will pay off in the end. That’s true in aviation. It’s true in banking. It’s true in pretty much any line of work a student might pursue as they mature.
The first program I encountered last week understood this concept. The adult manager of the program has a long history of letting his adolescent charges find their own solutions to the problems they come across. With the Big Man providing supervision and insight, of course. Rather than answer every question with a solution, he often replies with a variation on, “Well, what are our options?” Or, “Where might we find an answer to that question?”
Challenging his young mentees to find their own solutions gives them first-hand knowledge of the problem-solving process, while incrementally building their confidence as each new solution is found.
Conversely, the second program I encountered was led by an adult who displayed no recognizable skills in adulting or at being responsible. When one of his students flubbed by failing to make the proper arrangements for a project, the instructor chastised the student in public. He turned a simple case of understandable youthful ignorance into a running joke that he continued to replay to any and all within earshot for the better part of an hour.
This is not how you impart confidence in your students. It’s also not a great way of fostering a sense of trust or respect.
The adult leader of this group, after observing his full count of mentees into a classroom, left. He gave no instructions. Provided no encouragement. He just left. I never saw him again. His students were left to fend for themselves to find a productive way to use their time without benefit of adult supervision, or assistance, or even basic awareness of what was happening.
Imagine the frustration experienced by teenagers who are actively seeking the guidance they need to achieve a goal, only to find the one person they count on most couldn’t care less if they even get in the game, let alone win.
Mentoring is one of the truly great gifts we can offer others. But it does require effort if you’re to be successful at it. Not dozens of hours each week. Maybe not even time spent on a weekly basis. Perhaps it’s a lunch meeting once a month. Maybe you take a walk through the park with your mentee every other Wednesday evening to talk about whatever issues they’re bumping up against. And maybe you dedicate yourself to being in the hangar, wrench in hand, every afternoon when your mentee gets out of school. Whatever works for you is fine.
The one caveat to that is, if you don’t have time, if you don’t have the energy, if you’re not willing to make a real effort to be helpful, don’t waste your mentee’s time by pretending you do.
As is true of so many aspects of life, mentoring is a double-edged sword. If you’re dedicated to it, you’ll get good at it. And a good mentor can provide incredible benefit.
On the other hand, disinterest and disengagement will do more harm to your mentee than if you’d done nothing at all.