The importance of being mentors

Guest blogger Joseph Pullen lives in New York City. He is a Director at GALEWiLL Design, a for-purpose company that designs social change programs, communications, advocacy and action. He’s also proud to be a mentor.

“Just wanted to tell u. Ur my favorite uncle. And thanx for everything u have done 4 me. All the weekends when I was little. All the movies. The bozo show. Some of my greatest childhood memories were becuz of u. So thanx for always being there.”

My nephew recently sent me this text message. Out of the blue. I was really touched by his note. Actually, shocked is more accurate. Usually his texts take the form of a request, or offering a bit of gossip about another family member. So this was a pleasant change.

But it got me thinking that maybe I’d unconsciously had some impact on his life – on his development, on who he’s become. Wow! For someone who’s not a parent (unless you count our incredibly cute, and very spoiled, dachshund), that’s a big pill to swallow. Suddenly I started tracking back in my mind. What might I have done differently as a mentor – or role model – had I approached it more purposefully? What could I have done better?

My nephew is no longer a child. In fact, he’s over 30 and he still seems to be searching for what inspires him, his path to happiness – his place in the world. I think about how Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, gave a $100-million gift to the Newark, N.J., school system. He was 28. Of course, that sort of comparison would cloud anyone’s perspective, yet I can’t help but worry that my nephew’s a late-bloomer. But I remain hopeful about his prospects to realize his own dreams and to be a contributor to society in a way that fulfills him. I've definitely watched him mature these past couple of years. Still, I wonder if I could have had a greater impact. Could I have helped to speed up the process for him? The reality is, I might have been more deliberate about mentoring him had someone told me upfront what I was doing was indeed mentoring.

I began to reflect on the time I spent with my dad when I was younger. I was five when my parents divorced. But my dad continued to come for a weekly dinner until I graduated high school. We’d watch TV (he liked old reruns of “Gunsmoke” or movies like “Cool Hand Luke”). We’d play chess, which I didn't much like. And he would talk to me – about his business, about religion, even about the Rockefeller family whom he admired for their philanthropy, such as funding universities (University of Chicago, Spelman College) and helping to create some of our National Parks (Yosemite, Grand Teton). Some Sundays we’d go to a movie, swimming, or out to dinner. Sometimes, at his place, he’d subject me to one of his fresh juice concoctions, like carrot and spinach. He called them “healthy.” I called them “nasty.” He would ask questions – about school, friends, issues of the day, and even about my mother (though they couldn't live together, I understood they still had love for one another). Sometimes he took me to church. I know he believed in a Higher Power, but I realize now he didn't necessarily believe in institutionalized religion. I think he was trying to give me the tools to one day decide my own set of beliefs.

I’d be lying if I said I had an appreciation for any of this when I was younger. Truth is, I found my dad to be an imposing figure and most times I would've preferred to be playing or hanging out with my friends.

My dad passed away in 2005. Over the years, we’d grown pretty close. In retrospect, I can’t imagine the time he spent with me as a boy didn't help to shape who I am today – I believe, in a positive way.

Mentors are critical. I’d say they’re essential to the development of our youth, no matter their cultural or ethnic background. It’s taking them to a movie, a restaurant, a museum, or the park. It’s exposing them to new things and maybe even environments that they might not necessarily encounter in their everyday lives.

Mentoring doesn't have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as playing Wii, Xbox, or watching TV together. It’s about having a presence in their lives, engaging them in conversation, and listening. It’s being the best person you can be while always bearing in mind that what you’re doing could very well help to mold the adult this young person will become.

I realize now that what I was doing for my nephew was exactly what my dad had done for me. Has the role I played in my nephew’s life made a difference? In some ways, I suppose it has. His text suggests I did something right.