What is Conscious Mentorship?

Updated: Jul 28

I often see, and often say that some of my fellow “senior citizens” have it all wrong, when they think of what it means to be a mentor to young folks. They tend to idealize what they imagine their roles should be with youth – imparters of wisdom, they think – and then they get frustrated when it does not work out this way. “Why won’t they listen! If they would just listen to the voice of experience!” I often hear in exasperation. Some seniors just want to tell their own stories uninterrupted: they want to relate all that they know, and believe that should provide meaning and connection with a young person’s life.


For me, mentorship doesn’t begin with old people talking to youth. It begins more quietly, with our selective expressions of love and admiration for some of the young people we meet in our lives. The poet Robert Bly once said: “An elder man who is not admiring a younger man is not doing his job.”

THE JOB OF MENTORSHIP BEGINS QUIETLY, with our subtle expressions of love and admiration for those special young people who have entered our lives. These will be the youth we choose, or just as often, the young people who have chosen us. We just need to notice them. Mentorship begins when we discover things we can admire in a younger person’s life and let them know this -- with no judgements added in. When we notice them, when we initiate this process with an expression of kindness and admiration, it will be felt.


MENTORSHIP TAKES TIME AND PATIENCE TO DEVELOP. It requires our awareness, our patience (without our added judgements), and a degree of consistency on our parts as elders. We first notice a young person and if it seems like a promising fit, we find ourselves caring about them. We look for what we can admire in them and express this to them from a sincere place. After a while trust and a relationship may begin to emerge, and then importantly it is the young person’s turn to speak. As he, she, or they start to feel comfortable with us, they begin to relate their own story and share what their current troubles and concerns are. Its important for us to withhold any of the quick judgements we may have, and not rush in to share our “life wisdom” at this early listening stage. We need to listen with care and with patience, and importantly without expressing our initial judgements. It’s only after this process of our quiet love and listening that the occasion arises for us to share something back.


WE CHOOSE WITH CARE, AND WITH SOME CONCISENESS, WHAT WE WISH TO SHARE from our lives. We don’t need to share everything, it is not helpful for us to ramble on. We pick what we think may have meaning and relevance for this young person, being sensitive to and aware of “the teachable moment.”


MENTORSHIP IS A CO-CREATED PROCESS, AND A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL ONE. It may be initiated by an interested youth or by the elder. Either way, the process is more consciously and tenderly in the charge of the elder to guide it along. The joy of it for both parties is that the love and the wisdom from it eventually flows both ways. Most young folks need and will benefit from what elders have to offer - it is the natural order of things. Elders will often discover “the old soul” part in a young person. Young people can renew in us insights and perspectives that elders have forgotten. Elders have much to learn and benefit from the young people in their lives. Dan Rather put it this way:


“Cynicism is a destructive force. It is one that seems to increase with age. And that is why the

young have often been, throughout history, the harbingers of change. They are able to cast aside the repressive chains of the status quo, to see injustices from a new vantage point. They demand answers to questions that their elders forgot needed to be asked.


It has been a long trope for those later in life to bemoan the qualities of the young. I heard it in

the 1960s, during an era of unrest. The young protesters for civil rights and against Vietnam

were dismissed as naive, idealistic, and unrealistic. Today we hear how the young are selfish,

unable to think beyond their own needs, and addicted to their status on social media. (Never

mind that it was many of their elders who used social media as unwitting tools of Russian

influence in the last election). But in my travels, I come across a lot of young people. And I sense

an energy and seriousness to deal with big problems that will only grow as they grow older -

climate change being a prominent example. They understand the injustices on race, sexual

identity, and gender. In an age of #MeToo, they will not stay quiet for what was once acceptable. And in an Age of Trump, they will fight for the expansive view of democracy their parents told them was the American destiny.


I am not surprised that it is the young who are leading the campaign for an honest gun debate in

the wake of the Florida massacre. ‘Wow, they're so well spoken and poised,’ has been the

incredulous response from some. Not me. I see it all the time. There is a lurking belief among the young that the American Dream will not be in their reach, that the cynical forces of power have rigged a system against them. But they are doing what young people have always done, they are demanding that we all recognize ‘We can do better.’ They are not going allow this to pass without their voices being heard, in the streets, through civic and community engagement, and at the ballot box.”