i feel a very strong aversion towards the word “mentoring”.
for years now i’ve been witnessing people, who have absolutely no trace of success in their own work or any real prospect of having any, doing mentoring sessions with other people who are in the exact same situation.
along with reading useless blog posts on HN and seeing pictures of food and babies on FB, i find the time spent mentoring and being mentored to be a complete and idiotic waste of time.
the reason is very simple: 99.99999999% of mentor-mentee sessions are like “the blind leading the blind”.
but to better comprehend why mentoring in its current form is, not only an utter stupidity but also quite damaging to your chances of succeeding, you have to understand where all of this came from.
so let’s take do a quick review of history.
the beginning of civilization and how “all of you are stupid and i’m smart”
up until about the 1800’s, most of humanity was wallowing in a sea of bodily dirtiness and mental darkness. knowledge, from the earthly to the divine, was concentrated in the hands of very few people who were simply lucky enough to be born into families of means. those “chosen ones” were not necessarily smarter than the other poor people, it was simply a matter of access to books and information transmitted orally from father to son (women were not really considered persons back then, so we can ignore them).
there was a clear separation between the educated and the stupid, and the fact that you were near someone who was educated meant that you almost inevitably became smarter.
society was at its most “unfair” distribution of wealth, health and education, driven by the natural animal impulse of leading and being led.
enter the “we all have valuable stories to share” concept
then books started becoming available to everyone, along with changes in all important social constructs, from democracy to feminism to breakthroughs in science and industrialized education systems.
in the space of two hundred years, the way in which humans relate, learn and interact with each other changed dramatically. in the developed world almost every child had access to a minimum amount of education. as information began to spread and be diffused easily, the number of people who were more knowledgeable than their counterparts simply because of privileged access to information decreased exponentially.
sometime at the end of the last century the notion that we are all “equal” began to spread into the subconscious of the masses. ideas like “everyone is special in their own way” and “we all have special things that make us unique” got hold of society’s mind.
fast forward to today, with events like TEDx, where mediocre people stand in front of other mediocre people and give them advice and motivation, sharing their “valuable stories” with the wide-eyed individuals looking with sheepish respect at the person on the stage. it doesn’t matter what he or she says, the simple fact of being on stage means that they were “chosen” to be there, that they are somehow better than the rest of us.
society is at it’s most “fair” distribution of wealth, health and education in history. people are driven by the same animal impulse of leading and being led, but now there seems to be a thick layer of hypocrisy on top of society’s shared mind.
mentoring does not work.
human nature does not change
the need to be led and “shown the way” is so ingrained in our brain and our nature that i doubt we can ever get rid of it. even though we evolve as a society, improving almost everything which can be improved, there is one very important thing which we cannot and will not be able to change: human nature.
as such, people still feel the need to be given the recipe to success, to happiness and to a good life. religion, arguably the second most important driver of human evolution (after the need to survive and reproduce) is based on this inherent want of the human brain. mentoring (defined as “to advise or train someone”) plays perfectly to his need, and one might go so far as calling it a “religion of the 21st century Internet generation”.
a very big part of the people in my generation who grew up in first/second world countries developed a very skeptic view of dogmatic religion. we came to maturity in the age of explosive Internet growth, the discovery of the Higgs Boson, human genome sequencing and many other scientific breakthroughs. we believe less in the bearded guy in the sky and more in the immense capacities of the human mind. and herein lies our susceptibility to the fallacy of mentoring.
the fallacy of mentoring
we somehow assume that people who have been introduced to us from a position of superiority (this guy did an amazing job in X; he is a fill-in-the-gaps expert, etc.) have somehow discovered the keys to success. as the inherent inferiority complex in our human nature makes us assume that other people are better than us, we always fall prey to the mindset that they can impart some of that wisdom to us.
but the truth is that they cannot. they cannot because they have no clue on what it means to succeed.
let me say that again: absolutely nobody, alive or dead, has ever come even remotely close to understanding how to replicate success. as such, anybody going into a mentoring relationship hoping to come out closer to understanding “the secret” is poised to become disappointed.
let’s now go into why mentoring does not work with five specific reasons.
1- on average, your mentor is not a successful person
it blows my mind how some people don’t have the common decency to admit they are mediocre. for years now i have seen people who didn’t do anything noticeable in their lives doing mentoring sessions. at some point in my youth i was also guilty of this.
the fact that you’ve spent a few months/years reading blogs about startups, business model canvas, VC investing and company building does not make you capable of mentoring others. this is especially valid for the newly minted university professors of “entrepreneurship”. reading books and watching movies is just a surrogate for real-life experience.
the fact that you have a small startup, design agency, construction company, whatever which is struggling to survive in the market does not make you capable of mentoring others. not having failed yet does not mean you are successful.
and the fact that you’ve been part of a success story (e.g an early employee in Google or Facebook) does not make you capable of mentoring others. if you were the assistant of Marie Curie or of Nikola Tesla does not mean that you discovered radioactivity or the alternative current supply system. or that you have any idea how to do it again.
2- truly successful people don’t have time for you
success rarely comes quick, and even if it apparently does, when investigated further one sees that any overnight success was years in the making. because of that, truly successful people are always busy in their own quests of discovery. the Bezos’s, Pages and Brins of the world don’t have time to mentor you, and even if they would give you their time you most likely will not benefit from their advices.
which leads into the next point.
3- idiosyncrasies play a major role in our development
we are almost identical in all the major aspects of what it means to be human, but very different in small physical and behavioral details. they make us unique, giving us charm, personality and looks.
as such, any attempt to explain or reproduce your success with another person has to take into account these idiosyncrasies. but because they play such a major role, it’s virtually impossible for the human mind to compute the changes that would need to be made to adjust the mentoring “advices” to other persons.
4- success (or failure) is at least 50% randomness
any person who succeeded or failed in his or her life owes at least half of it to luck. this in itself is sufficient enough reason to understand that success cannot be either replicated or taught.
5- you cannot live all the possible outcomes
it’s a highly researched fact that the average human mind is almost incapable of understanding statistics. particularly, statistics that have to do with averages, medians and possible paths. deducing from the simple fact that you’re reading this post it’s highly likely that you, my dear reader, have the same mental handicap. so allow me to illuminate you.
any action which you take comes at the expense of other possible actions. by reading this post instead of Socrate’s Apology you might have deprived yourself of an epiphany moment which could have potentially changed your life for the better. your decision to take the path of reading this post rendered all the other paths void.
also, by it’s very nature success is rare, which means that very few of those possible paths lead to it.
at the same time, your life has a very limited span, and the number of possible paths you can take are necessarily limited. ergo you cannot derive from your own experience any statistically significant piece of advice to share with others.
all this means that you have to rely on generalized statistics to tell you what is a relatively accurate chance of success for an endeavor in a certain field. if calculated properly (an esoteric art form in itself), that statistic takes into consideration hundreds/thousands/millions of paths taken and not taken by people in that field. this is how you come to the dreadful 10% or less chance of success for an Internet startup.
now, if you apply rationally this percentage to the mentoring subject, you realize that, as a mentee, even if your mentor is a highly successful person (very unlikely), his or her advice gives you a 10% or less chance of you succeeding as a result of applying said advice. but keep in mind that, due to the minimum of 50% influence of randomness on any outcome (point 4) and the individual differences (point 3), the 10% chances of success that you “get” from your mentor are NOT adding to your own chances.
in effect, if your mentor does not give you anything else other than advice (contacts and financing can and do indeed increase your chances of success; that’s why angel investors exist), he or she is not statistically increasing your chances of success. you still have 10% or less chances of succeeding.
so if the chances remain the same, then there is no rational argument for wasting your time in an average mentor-mentee relationship. and if you think that your mentor-mentee relationship is not average, then keep in mind that there is yet another statistical handicap of the human mind called the overconfidence effect which might lead you to overestimate just how average you are.
and that’s it for my rant on mentoring. again, as with all of my posts, you need to take everything i say with a grain of salt and the acceptance that you might have been better off reading a book instead of this blog.
Photo credits: The blind leading the blind by Squonk11