In the middle of grad school, I had a particularly bad thesis committee meeting. I had hit a plateau with my progress in both my research and professional growth and it showed…badly.
My committee hammered away, question after question, for which no answer seemed satisfactory. I wanted to shrink into invisibility. My graduate advisor watched the whole episode in silence.
I went home and cried, thinking this was the end. There was no way they’d let me finish my degree now. I wondered how they could do this to me? After how hard I had worked up to that point? How could my advisor let this happen to me? How could he let me fail like that?
Going back to school and facing my advisor was one of the hardest things I had to do as a graduate student. He must want me to quit, I thought. He’s trying to get me to quit. As we talked, though, I realized he wanted just the opposite. He wanted me to be successful. He wanted me to finish. But, he wanted me to “own” my work. Admittedly, I had not taken full ownership of my success yet.
Falling down like that was just the kickstart I needed to see my degree to completion. And as hard as it was for me to fail, it was just as hard for my advisor to let me fail. Luckily for me, he was invested enough in my success to help me get back up.
Secretary Perry talked about falling and failing in his visit this past week. When asked for advice to early career professionals, he told us to not be afraid to get out of our comfort zones, that it is okay to fall down and fail and that sometimes, we need people to help us get back up. And that is what mentors do.
Mentors are not there to be our “fixers.” They are there to help us grow–professionally and personally. Sometimes that growth involves learning from failure. Gifted mentors know when to step back and when to ask what we’ve learned from these occasions. They know how to let us come to our own conclusions. Mentors can offer us a hand up, but it is up to us to keep standing and move on.
I don’t recall ever thanking my graduate advisor–my mentor–for helping me get over that hump. Maybe I should. Now would be a good time to do that, as January is National Mentoring Month.
This is the perfect time to reconnect with your mentor. Ask them to coffee–and buy! Drop them a few lines to let them know what they’ve meant to you. Send them a hand-written note. Reverse the role and ask them what help you can offer. Whatever you do, take some time to honor mentors this month.
Join us on January 24th as we honor the 2017 Outstanding Mentor and Supervisor Award recipients. It’ll be a nice celebration of mentoring at the Lab. And hey, why not bring your mentor with you?