Mentors and Heroes

I grew up without any heroes. That’s a hard thing to admit.

In the 5th grade when every kid had to stand up in front of the room and talk about his or her role model, I just made one up that would sound good.

How is this possible? Even at that tender age, I basically thought everyone was full of shit. I cared deeply about all of the amazing inventions and legislature and revolutions in our world’s history, but didn’t think much of the people who made them happen — hell, I didn’t even idolize Steve Jobs.

The first time I realized that I had somehow acquired a mentor was during my sophomore year of college. It was the first time I can recall really looking up to someone and seeking their advice when it came to my academic and professional career. My first mentor was Jim Davidson, my journalism professor at Carnegie Mellon, who helped me hone my writing skills and encouraged me to pursue writing as a profession. My second mentor was Richard Scheines, the director of the undergraduate program in Human-Computer Interaction, who was key in fostering my passion for positive user experiences and played an integral role in getting me accepted to the program, and later the Master’s program.

While I am no longer in regular contact with these men, they have forever changed the course of my life and I owe them so much. In the past year and a half, I have gained two other invaluable mentors; I’ll wait to tell you about them at a later time.

It was only recently that I realized I might have finally found my hero, and he is Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology and the concept of self-actualization.

Suffice it to say, I have been thinking a lot lately about what mentorship means and how it contrasts to the hero-admirer relationship; it’s something I’ve been wanting to explore here on the blog and the time has finally come.

I asked 50 people whom I greatly admire to tell me about their mentor or their hero — it was their choice whom to highlight. For the next several weeks, I’ll be posting their responses: every Tuesday will feature a mentor and every Thursday will feature a hero. It’s a little experiment that I’m doing in an attempt to illustrate our interconnectedness and the significance of role models in our careers and our personal journeys.

I hope you find it useful and interesting. I’ve already learned so much.

[This post is part of a series on Mentors and Heroes]

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  1. says

    Growing up, I remember thinking about how certain people were important to me in very specific ways and how I was aware of the way they were part of my life influenced who I became. But I never thought of them as mentors or heroes. I just thought of them as family and friends.

    Like you, from an early age, the notion of a personal hero or mentor just seemed full of shit. Or just very foreign to me. Also, the way Americans throw the word “hero” around it's hard to get real meaning out of it these days.

    Looking forward to the feedback you received!

  2. says

    cool. I have a series like this on my blog. It's called Monday mentors. — I only have 6 postings so far but I think it's a good way for people to know who you follow (in a way its like #followfriday, eh?)

    You define mentors as someone who provides guidance through interaction. I chose instead to align mentorship with idolization or inspiration. Though I admit part of that 're-definition' is becuase Monday Mentors just sounds better.

    good luck in this series! i'll be watching it carefully

  3. says

    “Even at that tender age, I basically thought everyone was full of shit.”

    Gen-X? In any case, it's an important baseline observation against which to compare future research ;-)

  4. says

    Thanks for doing this Whitney. It's an important topic to explore and I'll be interested in who appears here.

    My favorite mentor story is about a psychology professor I worked for during my senior year at Columbia. He ran the Vision Science Laboratory with three or four graduate students. I showed up on my first day and he threw me a small red book, called Programming in C, and told me to learn it so I can help “reprogram the stimulus on the Techtronix monitor and rewire the input box” for his latest experiments. Oh and then write a script or two to analyze the results.

    I sort of freaked because I had no idea what he was talking about. There were wires and metal button boxes and a huge TV monitor with several computer components connected to it. Behind was a box loaded with little switches and more wires. Somehow I was supposed to write a program that would make it all work. I hadn't taken a programming course since Apple Basic in 10th grade. The graduate students laughed at me a lot, but I read the book, got the hang of it and ended up having the most fun that year.

    Second semester, the same professor challenged me to take another semester of Calculus. I hadn't taken the first semester Calculus since freshman year but he said I could do it. Well, I failed the first test, which was basically, “name the formula you use to solve the following problems.” But because I had that initial push and a lot of encouragement from a professor who showed me how to teach myself, I realized that I could get through it, though it was indeed a struggle. I ultimately took the pass/fail option and passed.

    I always thought mentors and heroes had to be superstars. I admit that I have had my own little quiet conversations with Mozart & Washington a la HClinton & ERoosevelt, but if you do that too much, you end up finding yourself falling way too short in comparison. I don't need to write a symphony or win a country. Knowing I challenged myself and figured out how to get through it by myself was one of the best lessons I've ever learned.



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