"Are you crazy?"
This was how colleagues reacted to news that I was considering leaving my assistant professor position at the University of Miami. Tenure-track jobs were scarce in 2000 (and still are). Leaving that security for a temporary research post at the University of Maryland was "risky."
But my gut felt differently. The sociologist Leonard (Len) Pearlin was recruiting me to help direct his study of aging, stress and health. I didn't know Len personally, but during my graduate training I learned of his status as a foundational figure in my area of research, the sociology of stress.
So, I packed my bags and headed to Maryland. It was the best decision I've ever made.
During those four years with Len, we'd often share the commute after work. He'd drop me off at the Friendship Heights metro station near his home, and then I'd hop on the subway to my condo in Washington.
On the way to Friendship Heights, Len would share insights about the history of stress research and the intellectual puzzles that remained. But it was Len's many personal stories that contained the real lessons. For example, he fought in the Second World War and received the Purple Heart after being wounded. When his two older brothers were killed in the war, Len was sent home under the "sole surviving son" policy. His experience with great loss left a deep impression.
At this point, you might be wondering: What does mentoring have to do with health? A lot. From my experience, two elements – openness and generosity – enhance our life chances and well-being by informing our experience of adversities and by bolstering our resources. Mentors help us thrive and flourish.
Mentors see something in you, but you need to be open. This requires being comfortable revealing aspects of yourself – especially flaws. If you were perfect, you wouldn't need a mentor. To grow, you must be willing to think, feel and act differently. Share your limitations and ask: "What would you do?" or "How would you say it?"
There are boundaries, of course. Oversharing isn't wise. Mentors provide an opportunity to learn what and how to share – the appropriate, effective form of communication. Recognize that good mentors are often busy people. If their door is "always open" to you, it probably is for others, too. They have their own stressors and might sometimes be distracted. This requires learning to read socio-emotional cues about the timing of your approach.
A good mentor demonstrates the benefits of failure. In that process, you can learn how to receive criticism and how to give it. You hear the structure and tone of questions that solicit useful feedback. In response to rejection, a good mentor can turn self-doubt on its head and generate an optimistic perspective – an essential ingredient for motivation. No book or journal ever taught me about the value of persistence. Mentors did.
It is a very good thing that mentors aren't perfect. You can learn from their mistakes and shortcomings. Watch what a mentor does when she fails. How does she handle it? Flexible thought and judgment can be modelled. And mentors unwittingly offer opportunities for you to see alternative – perhaps better – ways of doing things. Over the years, I've witnessed actions by mentors and thought: "I'd do that slightly differently."
But back to Len. Last June, upon hearing news that he wasn't doing well, my colleague Blair Wheaton and I drove to Virginia Beach where Len lived with his wife, Gerrie. (Blair and Len were long-time friends and collaborators in the burgeoning years of the sociological study of stress.) Over a few shared meals, our conversations were lively and engaging. Len was slower and frailer but seemed well and in good spirits. Before Blair and I departed, the three of us walked to the beach and sat silently together on a bench, looking out at the ocean. It was a moment for feeling – words weren't necessary.
A few days after our visit, I received an e-mail:
I'm enormously grateful for your visit. My main complaint is that it was far too short, although we seemed to have covered a lot of ground in a brief time. I also regret that you guys had to slowly negotiate your way through heavy traffic on your way down … Please don't let these hardships of travel discourage you from a return visit.
I enjoyed very much hearing a bit about your research-writing agenda. Indeed, I'd love to learn more about it; put me down for any pieces you produce.
Our very best,
This was our last correspondence. Three weeks later, Len passed away at the age of 89.
An obituary described Len as "one of the finest mentors in the discipline" and said that he "always had time to encourage and support the work" of others. He set a standard, modelling a genuine curiosity about ideas and a sometimes obsessive pursuit of the unresolved questions of social life.
Through their acts of generosity, mentors inspire creativity and innovation. Over the years I've heard encouragement like, "Push that idea further – I know you can." Small gestures like this can be felt deeply and have unforeseen lasting effects.
When mentors give you these gifts, accept them and let yourself thrive and flourish. Then, give those gifts to someone else. Create your own mentorship journey. As I discovered on the way to Friendship Heights, it can make all the difference.
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Dr. Scott Schieman is a Canada Research Chair (Social Contexts of Health) and professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the causes and health consequences of social stress. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottSchiemanUT