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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

7 comments

  1. My life would be completely different if I had missed out on relationships with mentors. They’ve changed as my seasons of life have changed, but each one of them has impacted specific areas of my life. I’m incredibly thankful for them.

    I’m glad I took the time to read this article- I haven’t thought about the value of mentoring for awhile. It’s got me thinking that I’d love to find someone to mentor. It would be neat to see it from the other side.

  2. I too attended the Storyline conference. What incredible inspiration was flowing in that place? As for mentors, what a beautiful way of putting this special guide relationship. I had a few very influential mentors during middle school and high school. Now that I have graduated college and work for a small start-up company, I’ve found it hard to meet new people in my field or in life that I can ask for as a mentor. I have been searching for a while now. They can be hard to find. Does anyone have suggestions as to where to look or get connected?

  3. I could not agree more with this article and with Connie’s comment above. Having mentors and being a mentor has impacted me more than I can say (or probably even realize). We were created for this kind of connection, vulnerability and sisterhood.

  4. This is a marvelous token of humility and inspiration. Not only must we set aside our pride and recognize the need for others, we must also acknowledge our ability to encourage and embolden. An insular life is not worth leading, whereas a life of mutual benefit and connection is priceless. A mentor is not a weakness but an unmatched strength by which one is pushed to succeed.

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  5. A few years ago, I was asked by a young woman who was taking a class about mentoring if I would be her mentor. The premise of the class was that the students needed to both find someone to mentor them as well as find someone that they themselves could mentor and then draw conclusions based on how it felt to be on both sides of that relationship. I was humbled to be asked, so I said yes. What it did was it changed our relationship: our friendship became solidified in a more concrete way. What it did inside me was suddenly I felt compelled to live a life worth imitating. I needed to be vulnerable with her if I was to be a really good mentor, so she could see what womanhood could be a few years down the road for her. So it made me more conscious about the decisions I was making and the way I was choosing to live my life. Her class is long since over, but we still have a unique relationship: and we are both reaping such wonderful blessings from it.

  6. Great article! I have come to a point in my life where I am comfortable being a mentor to others in my profession (physician assistant) but look to others as a mentee in other aspects of my life, i.e. being a mother of young children. Being receptive to the advise of those who are seasoned helps you avoid the mistakes that others have learned from before you.
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