Flavours of mentorship

edted by Ayaka Ando & Michele Veldsman

In academia, where a career means a journey, choosing the right mentors is necessary to steer yourself in the right direction. But, what can mentorship mean? According to the Google dictionary, mentorship is a guidance provided by a mentor, especially an experienced person in a company or educational institution. According to Wikipedia on the other hand, mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. Both these definitions are not very specific...


What first comes to your mind when you think mentor is probably a coach - a person which you can contact any moment when you have doubts about your current situation, or if you encounter dilemmas related to possible future steps in your career. Someone who can always cheer you up by sharing personal story of success, including failure and rejection on the way. But, is this what you need the most in your career? Would you be better off with a mentor who coaches you on a daily basis and works on your morale and motivation, or with a mentor who never speaks about emotions, but promotes your work to the environment instead? Also, is a friendly mentor telling you things you expect to hear, necessarily the best one? Or rather, is it better to have a critical person by your side, who can tell you the ugly truth? You will most probably need all of these qualities on your way to some extent, and often, it is hard to find them in one and the same person. Also, one common misconception is that, a mentor should be a form of a guardian angel able to predict the future. In fact, a good mentor will not necessarily tell you what to do. Rather, they work with you so that you draw your own conclusions and take your own decisions.


Anyways, many mentor-mentee pairs in the modern history have become particularly famous, and this can give us all a range of ideas for principles and tricks that can effectively motivate a person, and help them achieve even the most ambitious goals. What is interesting about mentorship in disciplines other than science, is that professional tend to have mentors, no matter how successful they already are. While in academia, the more senior you become, the more scarce is the personal advice you get from other researchers, in sports it is usually the opposite: the more successful you are, the bigger team of trainers and personal advisors around you. One could think: once you become a world champion in a certain discipline, who could still advise you? In fact, it is often the case that world champs have personal trainers who were less successful than themselves. It turns out that the most important aspect of mentorship on the champ level, is to grow a bond between a mentor and a mentee, to understand mentee’s emotions, and to be able to monitor the mentee’s state of mind and foresee any potential problems before they arise. Some examples are listed below:


[1] Sir Alex Ferguson and Cristiano Ronaldo: a parent and a child

Sir Alex Ferguson has shaped Cristiano Ronaldo’s career in football for 6 years when Cristiano was playing for Manchester United. As Cristiano’s father died early, Alex has become like a foster-father to him. It was a tough love though. Alex is known for his mean side and uncontrolled anger attacks. However, even though Cristiano was put in tears by Alex’ comments on multiple occasions, he respects this lifelong ambition of his mentor:

"He's still hungry, he still wants to win, he's still motivated to win trophies, to go to training at 62-years-old, 63, 64, 65, he still wants titles. He still wants the team to play good every week. So for me, it was a surprise."

He also defended Ferguson from critics towards his difficult personality:

“‘I still have contact with him. He is a great guy, great coach, great human being.”

Sir Alex Ferguson also speaks about Cristiano in warm words, openly admitting that Cristiano was his most talented mentee he ever worked with. Alex also used to defend his mentee from other players, which were attacking Cristiano for his vanity, saying:

“Dealing with an ego doesn’t bother me. You used to see [Cristiano] Ronaldo standing in front of the mirror loving himself. But it was a nice vanity”.


[2] Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh: friends and competitors

This relationship has become famous because Gauguin and van Gogh were both friends and rivals at the same time. Although van Gogh was only five years younger, he admired Gauguin and looked at him as a mentor:

“Everything which he does has something soft, calming, amazing about it. People do not understand him yet, and he is suffering because he has not sold anything – just like other true poets.”

Gauguin was very appreciative as a mentor as well. He addressed the following words to van Gogh:

“I’ve been keeping a close eye on your work, since we parted company. I offer you my sincere compliments, and from many artists yours is the most remarkable work in the Independent’s Exhibition. With things taken from nature, you’re the only one there who thinks…I’ve spoken at length about it to Aurier, Bernard and many others. They all offer you their compliments.”

They moved in together at some point, and collaborated very closely, comparing their work in the process, and discussing artistic ideas. However, life together was not easy, as they both had health issues yet used to work themselves to exhaustion in long sessions of binge painting. Their personalities differed as well: Gauguin was peaceful and rational, trying to plan his daily life and his paintings in detail, while van Gogh was an impulsive dreamer who preferred spontaneity. As Gauguin writes in his dairy,

“Between two human beings, he and myself, the one like a volcano and the other boiling too, but inwardly, there was a battle in store, so to speak.”

Eventually, the two drifted apart from each other as the relationship, indeed, became explosive: Gauguin turned ironic and harsh while speaking to his mentee, while van Gogh fell into madness and became aggressive and unpredictable to his mentor. At some point, both of them went separate ways and became successful painters in their own style.


[3] Ray Charles and Quincy Jones: teen peer mentors

When they first met one night in Seattle, Quincy Jones was 14, and Ray Charles was 16 years old - and they became lifelong friends straight away. Jones was amazed by Charles’ talent for music, and for how independent Charles was despite his blindness: he could navigate the world with little to no help. He was describing his mentor as follows: “He was like a father, he was like a manager, advisor, mentor, everything”. Charles also taught him how not to feel intimidated because of his race. Jones was an early bird, and would call Charles early in the mornings to get helped with writing music, and Charles would always get up to help, even after a working night. Charles was speaking about his mentee as follows: “He was just an energetic young kid, and he really loved music. He wanted to learn how to write, and of course, I knew how to write, and that drew us together–because I could help him out and show him some things about how to compose.”

Finally, they needed to separate as Charles had to leave Seattle go on tour with the blues singer Lowell Fulson and his band. He stayed friends and met again on multiple occasions. They went through hard times together, as they were both heroin addicts at some point. As Jones talks about Charles’ addiction in his memoirs: “He went 30 years with heroin, and then the police told him he couldn’t get his license to play clubs unless he stops…I’ve seen him shooting in his testicles, man… He had a guy do it. It was horrible.” They stayed friends until Ray Charles’ death in 2004.


[4] Steve Jobs mentoring Mark Zuckerberg: just one piece of advice can change everything

Every fan of Apple is familiar with a story of Steve Jobs going for a pilgrimage to the mountain Kainchi Dham Ashram temple in India in 1974, in order to search for a meaning of life. However, not everyone knows that Mark Zuckerberg actually followed this path, taking Steve Jobs’ personal advice to go visit the same sacred place. As he confessed in one interview:

“This is a story I haven’t told publicly, and very few people know. Early on in our history, before things were really going well, we hit a tough patch and a lot of people wanted to buy Facebook, and thought we should sell the company. I went and I saw one of my mentors, Steve Jobs, and he told me that in order to reconnect with what I thought was the mission of the company, I should visit this temple that he had gone to in India early on in his evolution of thinking about what he wanted Apple and his vision of the future to be.”

Zuckerberg says that this monthly trip was very refreshing, and helped him to see the future of Facebook clearer.


These examples are very different from a typical vision of mentorship in academia, which boils down to a series of regular mentor-mentee meetings by a coffee, in order to discuss personal progress in controlled conditions and friendly atmosphere. In other fields, mentorship can happen in multiple ways; the mentor-mentee relation is often complex, and can even be harsh - as what really matters is the final outcome: success.