There are two types of people in the world: those who use guidebooks when they travel, and those who don’t. I’m firmly in the guidebook camp – I want to see the best, taste the best and drink in the best that a city can offer. Of course, those who poo-poo travel guides argue that you discover “the best” exactly when your nose is not jammed in a map or book. Admittedly, there’s a delicious element to happening upon a memorable destination, much like turning over a rock to uncover a tiny world. But in my experience, travel is better, richer and more fun when you have a guide, or at least a few recommendations. Life often functions the same way.
Several weeks ago, I attended Storyline Conference. Created by bestselling author Donald Miller (of Blue Like Jazz fame), Storyline helps people experience more meaningful lives. It’s based around the classic story arc, which Miller defines as “a character who has a problem who meets a guide that gives them a plan. This plan results in either a happy or sad ending.” By providing tools and a bit of oomph, Storyline sets up its attendees to structure their lives in a better narrative arc.
What interests me most about this narrative formula is the presence of a guide. We’re not supposed to be the hero of our own story and surmount obstacles alone. Yes, the protagonist of any decent story must want something, and want it bad enough to walk through fire, but she is not expected to plow through obstacles on her own. We shouldn’t, and more importantly, we can’t. We need guides.
A mentor is the guide in your story. Like the best travel book, a mentor guides us through new terrain and shows us that an unknown city is, in fact, known for killer cocktails, a speedy metro system and bluegrass music. Allowing a wise guide who’s walked before us to double back and point out the way clarifies and enriches our experience. Mentors make obstacles seem a bit smaller and less daunting; after all, they’ve faced their own demons and continued on their way. More often than not, we just need someone to point out what we can’t see for ourselves.
Allowing a wise guide who’s walked before us to double back and point out the way clarifies and enriches our experience.
Six years ago, I sat alone in a prayer chapel in Antigua, Guatemala. The tiled walls softened under candles and the room rested in profound quiet. I sat stiffly in the serenity, glaring at virgin figures. Peace evaded me. Internally, I thrashed to make sense of a new self. The two weeks in Guatemala had shifted me, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it meant to be so affected by a brief experience in an unknown place. I needed a guide.
Kelly was the trip leader, as well as a mentor and pastor. She helped me sift through my emotions and lift out the valuable pieces to carry along after I left Guatemala. Throughout the trip she had required our team to process through writing. We were submerged poverty, close-knit community, and other facets of a world we knew little about; we had much to learn. Those mornings on the patio — when I dug for words to interpret what we were learning — made me wake up to the experience freshly. Kelly pointed out that maybe I should write more, that maybe I couldn’t adequately respond until the words drizzled out onto paper. I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to learn this for myself, but I do know that a guide made all the difference.
That’s the other thing: the most transformative mentor relationships happen within the context of knowing. A good mentor knows and understands what matters to you. This requires real honesty on the side of both the traveler and the guide. You might fear the exposure, but step forward; it’s both necessary and rewarding. Friends of mine have sought out mentors for every season of life, including the newlywed season, the job search season, and the out-of-college-and-flailing season. I so admire that. Mustering the guts to ask, Will you mentor me? is unfortunately reminiscent of asking someone on a date. “What if it doesn’t work out?” asks Peter McWilliams. “Ah, but what if it does.”
You might fear the exposure, but step forward; it’s both necessary and rewarding.
Someone once told me that a mentor is someone who fights for you. I want someone like that on my side. I like to believe we’re never too old to be mentored and never too young to be a mentor – there’s always someone standing behind us, or someone who’s walked ahead of us. Mentors help you pick your way through rubble and quicksand. Like a trusty, tattered guidebook, they whisper tricks for making the most of your trip. They make the story better, richer and a lot more fun.
Where are you right now? Do you have a guide who’s done it before and is teaching you the steps? Could you guide someone else, lending knowledge, high-fives and hard-earned wisdom?
Image via Milena Mallory