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Chapter 03: ABSORB THE MASTER’S POWER: THE MENTOR DYNAMIC
Life is short, and your time for learning and creativity is limited. Without any guidance, you can waste valuable years trying to gain knowledge and practice from various sources. Instead, you must follow the example set by Masters throughout the ages and find the proper mentor. The mentor-protégé relationship is the most efficient and productive form of learning. The right mentors know where to focus your attention and how to challenge you. Their knowledge and experience become yours. They provide immediate and realistic feedback on your work, so you can improve more rapidly. Through an intense person-to-person interaction, you absorb a way of thinking that contains great power and can be adapted to your individual spirit. Choose the mentor who best fits your needs and connects to your Life’s Task. Once you have internalized their knowledge, you must move on and never remain in their shadow. Your goal is always to surpass your mentors in mastery and brilliance .
THE ALCHEMY OF KNOWLEDGE
Growing up amid poverty in London, it seemed that the fate of Michael Faraday (1791–1867) was pretty much sealed for him at birth—he would either follow in his father’s footsteps and become a blacksmith, or he would pursue some other manual trade. His options were severely limited by his circumstances. His parents had ten children to feed and support. The father worked sporadically because of illness, and the family needed additional income. The parents waited anxiously for the day when young Faraday would turn twelve and could get a job, or begin some kind of apprenticeship.
There was one trait, however, that marked him as different and was potentially troubling—he had an extremely active mind, one that was perhaps unsuited for a career that would entail mostly physical labor. Some of his mental restlessness was inspired by the peculiar religion his family belonged to—they were Sandemanians, a sect of Christianity. Its adherents believed that God’s presence was manifested in every living thing and every natural phenomenon. By communing with God on a daily basis and getting as inwardly close to him as possible, they could see and feel his presence everywhere in the world.
Young Faraday was steeped in this philosophy. When he was not doing errands and chores for his mother, he would wander the streets of central London, observing the world around him with utmost intensity. Nature, it seemed to him, was full of secrets that he wanted to ponder and unravel. Because he was taught that the divine presence was everywhere, everything interested him, and his curiosity was limitless. He would ask endless questions of his parents, or anyone he could find, about plants or minerals or any seemingly inexplicable occurrence in nature. He seemed hungry for knowledge and frustrated by his lack of means to get it.
One day he wandered into a nearby shop that bound and sold books. The sight of so many shiny books on the shelves astounded him. His own schooling had been minimal, and he had really only known one book in his life, the Bible. The Sandemanians believed that the Scripture was the living embodiment of the Lord’s will, and contained something of his presence. To Faraday this meant that the printed words of the Bible had a kind of magical power. He imagined that each of the books in this shop opened up different worlds of knowledge, a form of magic in its own right.
The owner of the shop, George Riebau, was instantly charmed by the young man’s reverence for his books. He had never met someone quite so intense at such a young age. He encouraged him to return, and soon Faraday began to frequent the shop. To help Faraday’s family, Riebau gave him a job as a delivery boy. Impressed with his work ethic, he invited him to join the shop itself as an apprentice bookbinder. Faraday happily accepted, and in 1805 he began his seven-year apprenticeship.
In the initial months of the job, surrounded by all these books, the young man could hardly believe his good fortune—new books were rare commodities in those days, luxury items for the well-to-do. Not even a public library contained what could be found in Riebau’s shop. The owner encouraged him to read whatever he liked in his off-hours, and Faraday obliged by devouring almost every single book that passed through his hands. One evening he read an encyclopedia passage on the most recent discoveries in electricity, and he suddenly felt as if he had found his calling in life. Here was a phenomenon that was invisible to the eye, but that could be revealed and measured through experiments. This process of uncovering nature’s secrets through experiment enthralled him. Science, it seemed to him, was a great quest to unravel the mysteries of Creation itself. Somehow, he would transform himself into a scientist.
This was not a realistic goal on his part and he knew it. In England at the time, access to laboratories and to science as a career was only open to those with a university education, which meant those from the upper classes. How could a bookbinder’s apprentice even dream of overcoming such odds? Even if he had the energy and desire to attempt it, he had no teachers, no guidance, no structure or method to his studies. Then in 1809 a book came into the shop that finally gave him some hope. It was called Improvement of the Mind—a self-help guide written by Reverend Isaac Watts, first published in 1741. The book revealed a system of learning and improving your lot in life, no matter your social class. It prescribed courses of action that anyone could follow, and it promised results. Faraday read it over and over, carrying it with him wherever he went.
He followed the book’s advice to the letter. For Watts, learning had to be an active process. He recommended not just reading about scientific discoveries, but actually re-creating the experiments that led to them. And so, with Riebau’s blessing, Faraday began a series of basic experiments in electricity and chemistry in the back room of the shop. Watts advocated the importance of having teachers and not just learning from books. Faraday dutifully began to attend the numerous lectures on science that were popular in London at the time. Watts advocated not just listening to lectures but taking detailed notes, then reworking the notes themselves—all of this imprinting the knowledge deeper in the brain. Faraday would take this even further.
Attending the lectures of the popular scientist John Tatum, each week on a different subject, he would note down the most important words and concepts, quickly sketch out the various instruments Tatum used, and diagram the experiments. Over the next few days he would expand the notes into sentences, and then into an entire chapter on the subject, elaborately sketched and narrated. In the course of a year this added up to a thick scientific encyclopedia he had created on his own. His knowledge of science had grown by leaps and bounds, and had assumed a kind of organizational shape modeled on his notes.
One day, Monsieur Riebau showed this rather impressive collection of notes to a customer named William Dance, a member of the prestigious Royal Institution, an organization that sought to promote the latest advances in science. Thumbing through Faraday’s chapters, Dance was astounded at how clearly and concisely he had summarized complicated topics. He decided to invite the young man to attend a series of lectures by the renowned and recently knighted chemist Humphry Davy, to be given at the Royal Institution where Davy was director of the chemistry laboratory.
The lectures had been sold out well in advance and this was a rare privilege for a young man of Faraday’s background, but for him it was much more fateful than that. Davy was the preeminent chemist of his time; he had made numerous discoveries and was advancing the new field of electrochemistry. His experiments with various gases and chemicals were highly dangerous and had led to numerous accidents. This only added to his reputation as a fearless warrior for science. His lectures were events—he had a flair for the dramatic, performing clever experiments before a dazzled audience. He came from a modest background and had raised himself to the heights of science, having gained the attention of some valuable mentors. To Faraday, Davy was the only living scientist he could model himself after, considering Davy’s lack of any solid formal education.
Arriving early each time and gaining the closest seat he could find, he soaked up every aspect of Davy’s lectures, taking the most detailed notes he had ever attempted. These lectures had a different effect upon Faraday than others he had attended. He was inspired and yet he also could not help but feel somewhat dejected. After all of these years of studying on his own, he had managed to expand his knowledge of science and of the natural world. But science does not consist of the accumulation of information. It is a way of thinking, of approaching problems. The scientific spirit is creative—Faraday could feel it in Davy’s presence. As an amateur scientist looking at the field from the outside, his knowledge was one-dimensional and would lead nowhere. He needed to move to the inside, where he could gain practical, hands-on experience, become part of the community and learn how to think like a scientist. And to move closer to this scientific spirit and absorb its essence, he would need a mentor.
This seemed like an impossible quest, but with his apprenticeship coming to an end, and facing the prospect of being a bookbinder for life, Faraday went into desperation mode. He wrote letters to the president of the Royal Society and applied for the most menial jobs in any kind of laboratory. He was relentless, and yet months went by with no results. Then one day, out of the blue, he received a message from Humphry Davy’s office. The chemist had been blinded by yet another explosion in his laboratory at the Royal Institution, and the condition would last for several days. During this time he needed a personal assistant to take notes and organize his materials. Mr. Dance, a good friend of Davy’s, had recommended young Faraday for the job.
There seemed something fateful, even magical, in this occurrence. Faraday would have to make the most of it, do whatever he could to impress the great chemist. Awestruck to be in Davy’s presence, Faraday listened with utmost intensity to every one of his instructions and did more than was asked for. When Davy, however, had recovered his sight, he thanked Faraday for his work but made it clear that the Royal Institution already had a laboratory assistant and there were simply no openings for him on any level.
Faraday felt despondent, but he was not ready to give up; he would not let this be the end. Only a few days in Davy’s presence had revealed so many learning possibilities. Davy liked to talk about his ideas as they occurred to him and gain feedback from anyone around him. Discussing with Faraday one experiment he was planning afforded the young man a glimpse into how his mind worked, and it was fascinating. Davy would be the ultimate mentor, and Faraday determined that he would have to make this happen. He went back to the notes he had taken on Davy’s lectures. He worked them into a beautifully organized booklet, carefully handwritten, and full of sketches and diagrams. He sent this off to Davy as a gift. He then wrote to him a few weeks later, reminding Davy about the experiment he had mentioned but had probably forgotten about—Davy was notoriously absentminded. Faraday heard nothing. But then one day, in February 1813, he was suddenly summoned to the Royal Institution.
That same morning the Institution’s laboratory assistant had been fired for insubordination. They needed to replace him immediately, and Davy had recommended young Faraday. The job mostly involved cleaning bottles and equipment, sweeping, and lighting fireplaces. The pay was low, considerably lower than what he could gain as a bookbinder, but Faraday, hardly believing his good fortune, accepted on the spot.
His education was so rapid it shocked him; it was nothing like the progress he had made on his own. Under his mentor’s supervision, he learned how to prepare Davy’s chemical mixtures, including some of the more explosive varieties. He was taught the rudiments of chemical analysis from perhaps the greatest living practitioner of the art. His responsibilities began to grow, and he was given access to the lab for his own experiments. He worked night and day to bring a much-needed order to the laboratory and its shelves. And slowly, their relationship deepened—clearly Davy saw him as a younger version of himself.
That summer Davy prepared to go on an extended tour of Europe, and invited Faraday to come along as his laboratory assistant and valet. Although Faraday did not relish the thought of acting as a personal servant, the chance to meet some of Europe’s most preeminent scientists and work so closely with Davy on his experiments (he traveled with a kind of portable laboratory) was too much to pass up. It was best to be around him as much as possible and soak up his knowledge, his whole way of thinking.
During the trip, Faraday assisted Davy on a particular experiment that would leave a lasting impression on him. The exact chemical composition of diamonds had long been in dispute. They appeared to be composed of carbon. But how could something so beautiful be made of exactly the same substance as charcoal? There had to be more to its chemical composition, but there was no known way to divide a diamond into its constituent elements. It was a problem that had baffled many scientists. Davy had long entertained the radical idea that it was not the elements themselves that determined the properties of things. Perhaps charcoal and diamonds had precisely the same chemical composition, but it was changes in their underlying molecular structure that determined their form. This was a much more dynamic view of nature, but Davy had no way to prove this until suddenly, traveling through France, an idea for the perfect experiment came to him.
After being reminded that one of the most powerful lenses of the time resided at the Accademia del Cimento in Florence, Davy made a detour there. Gaining permission to use the lens, he placed a diamond in a tiny glass globe containing pure oxygen and used the lens to focus intense sunlight on the globe until the diamond completely evaporated. Inside the globe, all that remained of the diamond was carbon dioxide gas, proving that it was indeed composed of pure carbon. Therefore, what turned carbon into either charcoal or a diamond must involve a change in the underlying molecular structure. Nothing else could explain the results of his experiment. What impressed Faraday was the thought process that went into this. From a simple speculation, Davy found his way to the one experiment that would physically demonstrate his idea by excluding all other possible explanations. This was a highly creative way of thinking, and it was the source of Davy’s power as a chemist.
On his return to the Royal Institution, Faraday was given a pay increase and a new title—Assistant and Superintendent of the Apparatus and Mineralogical Collection. And soon a pattern developed. Davy liked to spend most of his time on the road. Trusting Faraday’s growing skills, he would send back to him all kinds of mineral samples to analyze. Davy had slowly grown dependent on his assistant; in letters to Faraday he praised him as one of the best analytic chemists he knew—he had trained him well. But by the year 1821, Faraday had to confront an unpleasant reality: Davy was keeping him under his thumb. After eight years of an intense apprenticeship, he was now an accomplished chemist in his own right, with expanding knowledge of other sciences. He was doing independent research, but Davy was still treating him as an assistant, making him send packets of dead flies for his fishing lures and assigning him other menial tasks.
It was Davy who had rescued him from the drudgery of the bookbinding business. He owed him everything. But Faraday was now thirty years old, and if he were not allowed soon enough to declare his independence, his most creative years would be wasted as a laboratory assistant. To leave on bad terms, however, would ruin his name in the scientific community, especially considering his own lack of reputation. Then, finally, Faraday found a chance to separate himself from his overbearing mentor, and he exploited this opportunity to the maximum.
Scientists throughout Europe were making discoveries about the relationship between electricity and magnetism, but the effect they had on each other was strange—creating a movement that was not linear and direct, but apparently more circular. Nothing in nature was quite like this. How to reveal the exact shape of this effect or movement in an experiment became the rage, and soon Davy got involved. Working with a fellow scientist named William Hyde Wollaston, they proposed the idea that the movement created by electromagnetism was more like a spiral. Involving Faraday in their experiments, they devised a way to break up the movement into small increments that could be measured. Once this was all added up, it would show the spiral motion.
At about the same time, Faraday was asked by a close friend to write a review of all that was known about electromagnetism for an established journal, and so he began a rigorous study of the field. Thinking like his mentor, he speculated that there must be a way to physically demonstrate the motion created by electromagnetism in a continual fashion, so that no one could dispute the results. One night in September 1821 he had a vision of just such an experiment, and he put it into practice. With a bar magnet secured upright in a cup of liquid mercury (a metal that conducts electricity), Faraday placed a suspended wire, buoyed by a cork, in the mercury. When the wire was charged with electricity, the cork moved around the magnet in a precise conical path. The reverse experiment (with the wire secured in the water) revealed the same pattern.
This was the first time in history that electricity had been used to generate continual motion, the precursor to all electric motors. The experiment was so simple and yet only Faraday had seen it so clearly. It revealed a way of thinking that was very much the product of Davy’s tutelage. Feeling the weight of years of poverty, crushed expectations, and servitude lifting off of him, he danced around the laboratory. This would be the discovery that would free him at last. Excited about what he had done, he rushed to have his results published.
In his haste to get his report out, however, Faraday had forgotten to mention the research done by Wollaston and Davy. Soon enough, the rumor spread that Faraday had actually plagiarized their work. Realizing his mistake, Faraday met with Wollaston and showed him how he had reached his results independent of anyone else’s work. Wollaston agreed and let the matter drop. But the rumors continued, and soon it became clear that the source of them was Davy himself. He refused to accept Faraday’s explanation and no one knew quite why. When Faraday was nominated to the Royal Society because of his discovery, it was Davy, as president, who tried to block it. A year later, when Faraday made yet another important discovery, Davy claimed partial credit for it. He seemed to believe that he had created Faraday from nothing and so was responsible for everything he did.
Faraday had seen enough—their relationship was essentially over. He would never correspond with or see him again. Now having authority within the scientific community, Faraday could do as he pleased. His coming experiments would soon pave the way for all of the most important advances in electrical energy, and for the field theories that would revolutionize science in the twentieth century. He would go on to become one of history’s greatest practitioners of experimental science, far outshining the fame of his one-time mentor.
KEYS TO MASTERY
At table, the ladies praised a portrait by a young painter. “What is most surprising,” they added, “he has learned everything by himself.” This could be seen particularly in the hands, which were not correctly and artistically drawn. “We see,” said Goethe, “that the young man has talent; however, you should not praise, but rather blame him, for learning everything by himself. A man of talent is not born to be left to himself, but to devote himself to art and good masters who will make something of him.”
—JOHANN PETER ECKERMANN, CONVERSATIONS WITH GOETHE
In the past, people of power had an aura of authority that was very real. Some of this aura emanated from their accomplishments, and some of it from the position they occupied—being a member of the aristocracy or a religious elite. This aura had a definite effect and could be felt; it caused people to respect and worship those who possessed it. Over the centuries, however, the slow process of democratization has worn away this aura of authority in all of its guises, to the point today of almost nonexistence.
We feel, rightly so, that no one should be admired or worshipped merely for the position they occupy, particularly if it comes from connections or a privileged background. But this attitude carries over to people who have reached their position mostly through their own accomplishments. We live in a culture that likes to criticize and debunk any form of authority, to point out the weaknesses of those in power. If we feel any aura, it is in the presence of celebrities and their seductive personalities. Some of this skeptical spirit toward authority is healthy, particularly in relation to politics, but when it comes to learning and the Apprenticeship Phase, it presents a problem.
To learn requires a sense of humility. We must admit that there are people out there who know our field much more deeply than we do. Their superiority is not a function of natural talent or privilege, but rather of time and experience. Their authority in the field is not based on politics or trickery. It is very real. But if we are not comfortable with this fact, if we feel in general mistrustful of any kind of authority, we will succumb to the belief that we can just as easily learn something on our own, that being self-taught is more authentic. We might justify this attitude as a sign of our independence, but in fact it stems from basic insecurity. We feel, perhaps unconsciously, that learning from Masters and submitting to their authority is somehow an indictment of our own natural ability. Even if we have teachers in our lives, we tend not to pay full attention to their advice, often preferring to do things our own way. In fact, we come to believe that being critical of Masters or teachers is somehow a sign of our intelligence, and that being a submissive pupil is a sign of weakness.
Understand: all that should concern you in the early stages of your career is acquiring practical knowledge in the most efficient manner possible. For this purpose, during the Apprenticeship Phase you will need mentors whose authority you recognize and to whom you submit. Your admission of need does not say anything essential about you, but only about your temporary condition of weakness, which your mentor will help you overcome.
The reason you require a mentor is simple: Life is short; you have only so much time and so much energy to expend. Your most creative years are generally in your late twenties and on into your forties. You can learn what you need through books, your own practice, and occasional advice from others, but the process is hit-and-miss. The information in books is not tailored to your circumstances and individuality; it tends to be somewhat abstract. When you are young and have less experience of the world, this abstract knowledge is hard to put into practice. You can learn from your experiences, but it can often take years to fully understand the meaning of what has happened. It is always possible to practice on your own, but you will not receive enough focused feedback. You can often gain a self-directed apprenticeship in many fields, but this could take ten years, maybe more.
Mentors do not give you a shortcut, but they streamline the process. They invariably had their own great mentors, giving them a richer and deeper knowledge of their field. Their ensuing years of experience taught them invaluable lessons and strategies for learning. Their knowledge and experience become yours; they can direct you away from unnecessary side paths or errors. They observe you at work and provide real-time feedback, making your practice more time efficient. Their advice is tailored to your circumstances and your needs. Working closely with them, you absorb the essence of their creative spirit, which you can now adapt in your own way. What took you ten years on your own could have been done in five with proper direction.
There is more to this than just time saved. When we learn something in a concentrated manner it has added value. We experience fewer distractions. What we learn is internalized more deeply because of the intensity of our focus and practice. Our own ideas and development flourish more naturally in this shortened time frame. Having an efficient apprenticeship, we can make the most of our youthful energy and our creative potential.
What makes the mentor-protégé dynamic so intense and so productive is the emotional quality of the relationship. By nature, mentors feel emotionally invested in your education. This can be for several reasons: perhaps they like you, or see in you a younger version of themselves, and can relive their own youth through you; perhaps they recognize in you a special talent that will give them pleasure to cultivate; perhaps you have something important to offer them, mostly your youthful energy and willingness to work hard. Being useful to them can build a powerful emotional connection to you over time. On your part, you also feel emotionally drawn to them—admiration for their achievements, a desire to model yourself after them, and so on. Mentors find this immensely flattering.
With this two-way emotional connection you both open up to each other in a way that goes beyond the usual teacher-student dynamic. When you admire people, you become more susceptible to absorbing and imitating everything they do. You pay deeper attention. Your mirror neurons are more engaged, allowing for learning that involves more than the superficial transmission of knowledge, but also includes a style and way of thinking that is often powerful. On the other side, because of the emotional bond, mentors will tend to divulge more of their secrets than they would to others. You must not be afraid of this emotional component to the relationship. It is precisely what makes you learn more deeply and efficiently.
Think of it this way: the process of learning resembles the medieval practice of alchemy. In alchemy, the goal was to find a way to transform base metals or stones into gold. To effect this, alchemists searched for what was known as the philosopher’s stone—a substance that would make dead stones or metals come alive and organically change their chemical composition into gold. Although the philosopher’s stone was never discovered, it has profound relevance as a metaphor. The knowledge that you need to become a Master exists out there in the world—it is like a base metal or dead stone. This knowledge needs to be heated up and come alive within you, transforming itself into something active and relevant to your circumstances. The mentor is like the philosopher’s stone—through direct interaction with someone of experience, you are able to quickly and efficiently heat up and animate this knowledge, turning it into something like gold.
The story of Michael Faraday is the ultimate illustration of this alchemical process. His life seemed to progress almost through magic—falling into the one job where he could read books, learn about science, and impress exactly the right person with his notes, leading to a connection to the ultimate mentor, Humphry Davy. But there was a logic behind all of this apparent magic and good fortune. As a young man he possessed an intense energy and hunger for knowledge. A kind of inner radar directed him to the one bookshop in the area. Although it was pure luck that the book Improvement of the Mind fell into his hands, it took someone with such focus to recognize immediately its worth and exploit it fully. Under Watt’s guidance, his knowledge became more practical. But that same radar that directed him to the shop and to this book now pointed him somewhere else. The knowledge he had gained was still too diffused and disconnected. He intuited that the only way to transform it into something useful was to find a living mentor.
Once he secured Davy as his man, he threw himself into the relationship with the same focus that he had brought to everything else. Serving under Davy, Faraday learned all of the secrets of chemistry and electricity that the Master had gleaned throughout his life. He practiced with these ideas in the laboratory—mixing chemicals for Davy and doing his own experiments. In the process, he absorbed Davy’s patterns of thinking, of approaching chemical analysis and experimentation. His knowledge became increasingly active.
After eight years, this interactive dynamic yielded one of the great discoveries of science—the uncovering of the secret of electromagnetism. Faraday’s own studies and what he had learned from Davy became transformed into creative energy, a form of gold. If he had stayed on the path of self-apprenticeship out of fear or insecurity, he would have remained a bookbinder—miserable and unfulfilled. Through the alchemy of intense mentorship he transformed himself into one of the most creative scientists in history.
Certainly religion played an important role in Faraday’s education. Because he believed that everything in the universe was alive with God’s presence, he tended to animate whatever he encountered, including the books he read and the phenomenon of electricity itself. Since he saw these things as alive, he engaged with them on a deeper level, which intensified the learning process. This way of looking at the world, however, transcends religion and contains great power for all of us in our apprenticeships. We too can see the subjects that we study as possessing a kind of vital spirit with which we must interact, and which we must understand from the inside out. As with Faraday, this attitude will intensify our level of engagement with what we are learning.
To initially entice the right Master to serve as your mentor, you will want to mix in a strong element of self-interest. You have something tangible and practical to offer them, in addition to your youth and energy. Before he had ever met him, Davy was aware of Faraday’s work ethic and organizational skills. That alone made him a desirable assistant. Considering this, you may not want to go in search of mentors until you have acquired some elementary skills and discipline that you can rely upon to interest them.
Almost all Masters and people of power suffer from too many demands on their time and too much information to absorb. If you can demonstrate the ability to help them organize themselves on these fronts to a degree that others cannot, it will be much easier to get their attention and interest them in the relationship. Do not shy away from anything menial or secretarial. You want person-to-person access, however you can get it. Once you establish a relationship, you will find other ways to continually hook them through their self-interest. Try to see the world through their eyes and ask the simple question of what it is they need most. Keeping their self-interest involved will only enhance any emotional connection they feel toward you.
If you work on yourself first, as Faraday did, developing a solid work ethic and organizational skills, eventually the right teacher will appear in your life. Word will spread through the proper channels of your efficiency and your hunger to learn, and opportunities will come your way. In any event, you should not feel timid in approaching Masters, no matter how elevated their position. You will be frequently surprised at how open they can be to serving as a mentor, if the fit is right and you have something to offer. The ability to transfer their experience and knowledge to someone younger often provides them with a great pleasure, akin to parenting.
The best mentors are often those who have wide knowledge and experience, and are not overly specialized in their field—they can train you to think on a higher level, and to make connections between different forms of knowledge. The paradigm for this is the Aristotle–Alexander the Great relationship. Philip II, Alexander’s father and king of Macedonia, chose Aristotle to mentor his thirteen-year-old son because the philosopher had learned and mastered so many different fields. He could thus impart to Alexander an overall love of learning, and teach him how to think and reason in any kind of situation—the greatest skill of all. This ended up working to perfection. Alexander was able to effectively apply the reasoning skills he had gained from Aristotle to politics and warfare. To the end of his life he maintained an intense curiosity for any field of knowledge, and would always gather about him experts he could learn from. Aristotle had imparted a form of wisdom that played a key role in Alexander’s success.
You will want as much personal interaction with the mentor as possible. A virtual relationship is never enough. There are cues and subtle aspects you can only pick up through a person-to-person interaction—such as a way of doing things that has evolved through much experience. These patterns of action are hard to put into words, and can only be absorbed through much personal exposure. In crafts or in sports this is more obvious. Tennis instructors, for example, can only reveal many secrets of their skills by demonstrating things before their pupils’ eyes. Instructors may not in fact be completely conscious of what makes their backhand so effective, but in watching them in action pupils can pick up the pattern and motion, exploiting the power of mirror neurons. But this process of absorption is also relevant to nonmanual skills. It was only through constant exposure to Davy’s thought process that Faraday understood the power of finding the crucial experiment to demonstrate an idea, something he would adapt later on with great success.
As the relationship progresses you can make this absorption process more conscious and direct, questioning them about the principles underlying their way of doing things. If you are clever, you can be a kind of midwife, getting them to analyze their own creativity for you, and mining all kinds of rich ideas in the process. They are often grateful for the opportunity to reveal the inner workings of their power, particularly to someone they do not perceive as a threat.
Although one mentor at a time is best, it is not always possible to find the perfect one. In such a case, an alternate strategy is to find several mentors in your immediate environment, each one filling strategic gaps in your knowledge and experience. Having more than one mentor has side benefits, giving you several connections and important allies to rely upon later on. Similarly, if your circumstances limit your contacts, books can serve as temporary mentors, as The Improvement of the Mind did for Faraday. In such a case you will want to convert such books and writers into living mentors as much as possible. You personalize their voice, interact with the material, taking notes or writing in the margins. You analyze what they write and try to make it come alive—the spirit and not just the letter of their work.
In a looser sense, a figure from the past or present can serve as an ideal, someone to model yourself after. Through much research and some imagination on your part, you turn them into a living presence. You ask yourself—what would they do in this situation or that? Countless generals have used Napoleon Bonaparte for just such a purpose.
Mentors have their own strengths and weaknesses. The good ones allow you to develop your own style and then to leave them when the time is right. Such types can remain lifelong friends and allies. But often the opposite will occur. They grow dependent on your services and want to keep you indentured. They envy your youth and unconsciously hinder you, or become overcritical. You must be aware of this as it develops. Your goal is to get as much out of them as possible, but at a certain point you may pay a price if you stay too long and let them subvert your confidence. Your submitting to their authority is by no means unconditional, and in fact your goal all along is eventually to find your way to independence, having internalized and adapted their wisdom.
In this respect, the mentor relationship often replays elements from our childhood. Although a mentor can be a man or a woman, he or she often assumes the form of a father figure—there to guide and help us, but sometimes trying to control too much and plot our life for us. He may take any attempt at independence, even later in the relationship, as a personal assault on his authority. You must not allow yourself to feel any guilt when the time comes to assert yourself. Instead, as Faraday did, you should feel resentful and even angry about his desire to hold you back, using such emotions to help you leave him. It is often best to set up this move earlier on so that you are emotionally prepared to make it. As the relationship progresses, you can begin to slightly distance yourself from the mentor, perhaps taking note of some of his weaknesses or character flaws, or even finding fault with his most cherished beliefs. Establishing your differences with the mentor is an important part of your self-development, whether he is of the good or bad parent type.
In Spanish they say al maestro cuchillada—to the Master goes the knife. It is a fencing expression, referring to the moment when the young and agile pupil becomes skillful enough to cut his Master. But this also refers to the fate of most mentors who inevitably experience the rebellion of their protégés, like the cut from a sword. In our culture, we tend to venerate those who seem rebellious or at least strike the pose. But rebellion has no meaning or power if it occurs without something solid and real to rebel against. The mentor, or father figure, gives you just such a standard from which you can deviate and establish your own identity. You internalize the important and relevant parts of their knowledge, and you apply the knife to what has no bearing on your life. It is the dynamic of changing generations, and sometimes the father figure has to be killed in order for the sons and daughters to have space to discover themselves.
In any event, you will probably have several mentors in your life, like stepping-stones along the way to mastery. At each phase of life you must find the appropriate teachers, getting what you want out of them, moving on, and feeling no shame for this. It is the path your own mentor probably took and it is the way of the world.
STRATEGIES FOR DEEPENING
THE MENTOR DYNAMIC
One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil .
Although you must submit to the authority of mentors in order to learn from and absorb their power to the highest degree, this does not mean you remain passive in the process. At certain critical points, you can set and determine the dynamic, personalize it to suit your purposes. The following four strategies are designed to help you exploit the relationship to the fullest and transform the knowledge you gain into creative energy.
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