Mentoring

Mentoring haringIn an ideal world, everyone would be in a constant state of being a mentor and having a mentor (or being a mentee, if you prefer). In the past few years I have been part of formal and informal mentoring relationships with some people who have helped me find out all sorts of things about myself. I want everyone to experience it first-hand because I have found it to be transformative.

I sought my first mentor as I was trying to make sense of moving to a big city and changing career into my first real 9 to 5, office-based job from a short-lived career in youthwork. I went looking as I had a gut feeling that my line manager did not know how to manage my area (or me) properly because it was a new area for her. I was often left feeling that I didn’t know what to do, which was damaging my confidence.

I signed up for a local scheme which paired me up with the Business Development Manager of a charity near to the office where I worked. There were some areas of crossover in our work. Before our first meeting I felt nervous and excited. We arranged to meet at a mutually convenient coffee shop. My first impressions were not great. He seemed to be pretty grumpy, unimpressed by the lack of depth to my footballing knowledge and he was trying much less hard than I was to be liked. I was highly surprised when he said, “So, when would you like to meet next?”.

We arranged to meet up on a monthly basis after that and I can honestly say that the six months that followed saw some of the most personal and professional development I have ever experienced. What he taught me were some of the most valuable lessons that anyone can pick up at work.

  • No one can complete their job description in one year, so pick out some priorities

By presenting my line-manager with some ideas that I knew were part of the role but had never been fully completed, I was able to pick out some quick wins and make a good impression – convincing her that she was doing a great job of managing me.

  • Your job is completely your responsibility – autonomy is the greatest gift

Whilst my line-manager didn’t quite get my area of work, she was smart enough to recognise where good work was being done and just encouraged me to do more of it. I kept on relentlessly taking responsibility and giving away credit to allow myself to keep doing more of the work I loved.

  • Leadership requires you to have a vision, and to help everyone see how their work contributes towards the overall goal of your organisation

This wasn’t something he told me, more that he demonstrated through the way that he shared his experiences and introduced me to people he worked with and what they do. He was admired and respected, his work had won national awards yet he was completely himself and down to earth.

We continued to meet up for three years, during which time I went through two promotions at work. It coincided with a time of feeling that I was doing exactly the right job at the right time in the right way. Those feelings are hard to maintain forever. As my work dynamic changed and he got a new job, it felt like the right time to move on to new challenges.


As part of my new role, I wanted to be able to mentor someone else who was in a similar boat to me. I wanted to get better at coaching, as my new role had some managerial responsibilities, but I also just really wanted to give something back and pass on some of the helpful lessons that I had learned.

I signed up to a scheme which paired me up with a local university student who would be in his second year. As a mentor, I soon realised just how nervous this responsibility would feel. Did I really have any wisdom to share? I felt as much of an impostor as I’d ever felt. Fortunately, my mentee was incredibly easy-going and smart, which took some of the pressure off.

We arranged to meet in a different pub each time we met, allowing us to experience a wide range of drinking holes in North London. He had sought out a mentor as he had no real concept of what he wanted to do after graduation. He had a range of options available to him but could not really identify where to begin. I used some of the tools that other people had used with me in the past. Here are some of the things that seemed to work for us:

  • Spending almost the entirety of the first session getting to know one another

It helped us both understand what we stood to gain and build some rapport. The beer helped with this, but mainly this openness and understanding set a really good baseline for our relationship.

  • We set some boundaries around our expectations and set goals by which to measure the success of the mentoring relationship

While it sounds heavy, this just meant we knew how to behave courteously towards one another and would both have a sense of whether we had achieved something after the programme had ended.

  • A candid discussion around what things he was good at and enjoyed and would want to make a regular feature of working life

This was contrasted with all the things he hated and was bad at, along with some of the things he currently wasn’t great at but wanted to get better. We discussed what sort of roles and sectors would fit within his parameters.

He has done incredibly well during this time, finding work experience at the highest level imaginable in his ideal sector, has networked with some really valuable contacts and has a clear idea of what he wants to do after graduation.
I feel so proud to have been his mentor and am really excited to see where he ends up next. Whilst I hoped to be able to give something back, I had no idea that being a mentor could be so rewarding and encouraging. Everyone should do it!

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Male Tears

Cry me a river

Cry me a river

Saw a version of this mug today during a meeting with my line-manager and my first thought was “haha”, but it got me thinking enough to merit writing something.

I had a funny eye test the other week where I was trying to articulate to a male student optometrist (in a way that I hoped wouldn’t compromise my masculinity beyond all doubt) that it hurts me when I cry. Of course, you might think that when it hurts, that’s when you cry, but I mean that it causes me physical pain to cry. I don’t cry as much as I should, but when it ought to be happening, I get a stinging sensation in my eyes that makes me need to rub them and prod at them to try and get that sensation away. The medical explanation for it is that I have what they call ‘dry-eye’ syndrome – something that seems to be exacerbated by constantly staring at screens and not enough time staring wistfully into the distance (doctors’ orders!). They suggested that I get some eye drops, gave me a leaflet and continued with the eye test.

Of course, there is also a psychological thing around the difficulty of crying which is related to how men are socialised and taught to (not) deal with their painful emotions by bottling them up and stuffing them back down and generally not mentioning them or acknowledging their existence. As aware as I am of the negative consequences of this for men as a group and society as a whole, I’m not able to rationalise myself into painlessly shedding tears. I can’t help but feel that my body is causing me to react this way as a physical symptom representing the psychological challenge of allowing myself to cry. In the last year, I’ve had legitimate reason to cry in a way and place that would be socially acceptable but still didn’t feel able to let go. Simultaneously, I’ve found myself crying at happy / inconsequential / inspiring videos and music with the associated itchy, sore feelings. It’s frustrating because I believe a full-on sobfest might be quite cathartic.

An attractive lady struggles to remove a 'male tears' mug from her face. Superglued rims are no joke :'(

An attractive lady struggles to remove a ‘male tears’ mug from her face. Superglued rims are no joke 😥

The other thing that made me think is that when I went looking for an image of this mug, I realised that it’s a funny and legitimate response to the stupid Mens’ Rights movement and their stupid activists.

It must be pretty hard to sympathise with dickheads who are trying to legitimise your oppression. That said, not all men are. To make fun of all men’s inability to express themselves in a vulnerable way makes it harder for men to express themselves full stop. It alienates the ones who might be on your side and ultimately reinforces the status quo. Thus the patriarchy continues.

I think that perhaps the only way forward is for more full and frank communication. Unfortunately, it’s totally apparent that the people who need to do the most work on communicating their feelings are the worst at it and are actively discouraged from doing so by mainstream society.

Brené Brown talked about shame and vulnerability really powerfully in an episode of On Being back in January. The story that blew me away starts at 20:46, but the whole episode is worth listening to.

Ms. Brown: But the messages and expectations that fuel shame, the messages and expectations that bring us to our knees, are so organized by gender. You know, for women, it’s really about do it all, do it perfectly and make sure you make it look effortless.

Ms. Tippett: Right. It’s also about how we look, right? I mean, part of that is, and look great while you’re doing it too.

Ms. Brown: Oh, yeah, absolutely, no question. I mean, that’s the part that better look effortless. Appearance and body image is still the number one shame trigger for women. For men, there’s a really kind of singular, suffocating expectation and that is do not be perceived as weak. So for men, the perception of weakness is often very shaming and that one of the things that’s interesting is, I talk to men and, you know, what I heard over and over was some variation of, look, my wife, my girlfriend, whomever, they say be afraid, they tell me, you know, share your vulnerability with me, open up, but the truth is, they can’t stomach it.

The truth is that, when I’m very vulnerable, when I’m in fear, when I talk about it openly, it permanently changes the dynamics in our relationship. And when I started sharing this with women or whenever I started interviewing couples, women are like, oh, God, it’s true. I want you to be open and I want there to be intimacy, but I don’t want you to go there.

You know, and so, I’ve come to this belief that, if you show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show you a woman who, A, has done her work and, B, does not derive her power from that man. And if you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to fix it, but just hear her and be with her and hold space for it, I’ll show you a guy who’s done his work and a man who doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything.

Film

This looks like it’s going to be a fantastic documentary. I hope it gets a UK release or there’s some way that we can all watch it on this side of the Atlantic.

It’s called “The Mask You Live In” and you can follow their updates on Twitter – @MaskYouLiveIn

Tough

I completed the Yorkshire Tough Mudder 2013 on Saturday with my girlfriend and a friend I’ve known since school. We have spent months in training, trying to build our cardio and strength up to the point that we could complete the challenge, giving up alcohol and eating pizza in the process.

Tough Mudder is marketed in an embarrassing, macho way. There’s plenty of reasons why I could have quite easily not taken part but I’m really glad I did.

I spend a great deal of time in my life seeking comfort, avoiding unnecessary suffering and pain. But, there’s something gloriously primitive about running through fields and forest and mud, jumping and crawling, leaping into freezing cold water and progressing towards a goal. It’s so rare to have to face our elemental fears – injury or death through falling, being in confined space, freezing,  drowning, electric shocks – that when you spend an afternoon having no choice but to face them (or feel ashamed), it’s liberating and life-affirming.

The biggest challenge in the afternoon for me was ‘Arctic Enema’ – jumping into a skip filled with muddy water and ice cubes, and having to go underneath a board in the middle. As soon as I landed in the water, the shock of the temperature made me gasp and I ended up swallowing some horrible water and fighting for breath. But we made it out the other side, alive and relatively fine once we started running again. For my friend, the biggest fear was ‘Walk the Plank’ for my girlfriend it was the ‘Berlin Walls’.

The discipline of regular training is something quite new to me as well and I think that it’s really important. Last year, I had knee surgery on a torn meniscus and it was the limitations this created for me last year which convinced me I should do Tough Mudder. If I hadn’t had that injury I would never have gotten this fit and I wouldn’t have experienced Tough Mudder this weekend. I lost just over a stone through eating the right things and working hard and I also started to really enjoy using my body to get stronger and more fit. I wish I had considered getting fitter sooner.

The main thing that I got out of Tough Mudder was the feeling of camaraderie – we all shared a goal, each of us faced a fear that we might not have managed alone and together we helped each other through. It was a genuinely joyous moment as we crossed the finish line together, but throughout the race we had big grins on our faces. I think it was the joy of knowing we’re alive.

Toughness is seen as a positive male characteristic. As a not-Alpha male, it’s easy to feel intimidated by all the massive people around you and the marketing and all the extra stuff. It’s not really about being tough, or getting muddy or drinking Strongbow.

Do Tough Mudder, or a similar event, but do it for the shared experience, to feel alive and to face your fears.