Who Were Your Mentors?

Sometimes we get our best lessons not from books or teachers, but from the everyday wisdom of people we encounter in daily life.

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years." — Mark Twain

Seldom has mentoring been more important than in the utility industry today. Waves of retirements are happening, and someone needs to help groom people moving into the ranks. A good mentor can significantly help a younger employee learn what's needed to excel on the job, move up the ranks, and replace someone much more experienced.

The right mentor at the right time can do wonders, in a career or life in general. Don Gariepy would surely agree. He's a mechanic at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Utility Department's Franklin Water Treatment Plant and subject of a profile in this issue. He was named 2010 City Employee of the Year in Charlotte, both for his work at the plant and for his volunteer role as a mentor for troubled young people.

From my own experience, I could name a couple of former bosses without whose help I could never have done what I do professionally today. But often some of our best lessons don't come from official mentors like teachers or trainers. They come from people we happen to encounter at a given moment who turn out to be wise, or happen to say just the thing we need to hear at the time.

Sometimes that's a parent. I've always loved the Mark Twain quote above, and it rings very true for me. Other times it's someone we meet almost at random. Example: When I was 29, not long after my first daughter was born, I was at a gym playing basketball and happened to chat with a guy a few years older.

I confided how my wife didn't care for me playing basketball two nights a week now that we had a baby at home. In a bit of macho bluster, I added, "That's too bad — because I'm playing and that's it." He looked at me and said, "You know, she's right. You're not a kid anymore. Maybe you should be spending more time at home." I took it to heart. I didn't give up what was, after all, my favorite sport, but I dialed it back and was never sorry.

Making utopia

I got another lesson back in college when I took a course on Utopia during the January interim session. (This qualifies as a lesson from an unofficial source because interim courses often had less to do with learning than with finding a way to earn a course credit while saving the maximum time for drinking beer.)

The idea was that our group of 20 students would read books about different visions of perfect societies, then use what we learned to devise such a place for ourselves. I started with a pretty clear idea of what Utopia was, and it included a culture that relied to the minimum on mechanical, energy-consuming devices.

As we began shaping our Utopia, I realized that mine was a minority view — that my classmates weren't much interested in a place where people cut wood to heat their homes, got about on bicycles, and washed clothes by beating them on rocks. In other words, there were more ways of looking at the world than my own.

I came away pleasantly humbled: The experience helped me shake off a sort of dogmatism I badly needed to get rid of. And I suspect that was just the outcome our wise young professor wanted for us. Years later, I took the opportunity to thank him.

Learning the ethic

Another lesson, this one in the work world, came from a crusty old lifer in a soda pop plant where I worked for a summer during college. Back then I looked at work as something I was forced to do to earn money. I did what I was told and put in my time (often not cheerfully), and that was it.

One day after lunch, after hearing me grumble at the break table, the old-timer pulled me aside and essentially told me I needed to get my mind right. "If you're on their payroll, you need to be on their team," he said. "Take an interest in your job. You'll be a lot happier." Of course, he was right.

And that brings up a favorite work story of mine. In the 1890s, a gang was working on the railroad tracks out west when a train pulled up and out stepped the president of the railroad. He gave a short speech, after which an old track worker raised his hand and said to the president, "You and I started work on the very same day 35 years ago. How is it that you're up there and I'm still here?"

The president replied, "That's easy. You went to work for 90 cents an hour. I went to work for the railroad."


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