Characteristics of a Good Mentor: A Doer, Life Experience

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Scott Santibanez introduced his series on 5 Characteristics You Probably Didn’t Know to Look for in a Mentor with the below request for advice and a consideration of Someone Who Differs From Your Preconceived Notions.

Dear Dr. S, I am an incoming medical/public health student. I recently read one of your papers. From your faculty profile, I see you’ve pursued a career that integrates many of the things that I want to do! I’d love to meet to explore potential opportunities and discuss any career advice you think would be helpful.

In today’s post, he explores the importance of Someone Who is Doing the Things You Want to Do and Someone with Life Experience. We pray that you will give these recommendations prayerful consideration as you take next steps in your vocation. To God be the glory! ~ Tom Grosh IV, Assoc. Dir., ESN

Characteristic 2: Someone Who is Doing the Things You Want to Do

Finding a mentor who is doing the things you want to do seems straightforward, but it goes deeper than looking for a person with a research focus or career track that you find interesting. To find a good mentor, it is important to have a strong sense of self. You need to know who you are, and what kind of person you want to become. If you don’t know who you want to be, you run the risk of being tossed about by the wind, unable to maintain a consistent course in life.

It’s okay if you don’t have it all figured out, but it is good to at least be in the process of exploring who you are and what your purpose in life should be. This will help guide your search for a mentor.

For example, if you see yourself as someone who is dedicated to fighting racism and prejudice, look for a mentor who works for reconciliation in his or her community. If you are woman who is trying to prove herself in what has been a male-dominated profession, you might benefit from having a strong female role model, or someone who is working for women’s rights. If you come from a blue-collar, working-class background, seek out a mentor who appreciates hard work and perseverance, and is giving back to help others with similar backgrounds to succeed.

An important caveat is that sometimes the people who are most living out what they believe aren’t necessarily publicizing their deeds. Theologian N. T. Wright says that most people he knows who give up their time, money, and energy working with the elderly, the handicapped, the dying, and the very youngare practicing Christians.

“Many of them will say they’re not very good Christians,” Wright says, “meaning that they’re aware of their own moral failures, of many things in the Bible they don’t understand, and so on, but something in the lifeblood of the church has stirred them to offer help where help is needed.” [1]

In contrast, there are some people who promote causes primarily to make themselves look good. Still others of us have an ongoing struggle between humility and pride. This is where discernment is important. It’s helpful to observe for yourself what people actually do, not just what they say. It is kind of like when John the Baptist’s followers asked Jesus was he the one to come or should they expect someone else? Jesus replied:

Go back and report to John what you hear and see:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor (Matthew 11:4-5).

Above all, look for a mentor whobeyond his or her academic and professional credentialsknows who he or she is in Christ. This is someone who models their own walk with God through prayer, spiritual reflection, studying the Bible, and serving others. This is someone who can help you to find and nurture your own identity in Christ.

Characteristic 3: Someone with Life Experience

In the era of short attention spans and social media, we are conditioned to flip through YouTube videos, giving each video a few seconds to impress us. It’s a great way to find funny cat videos, but not the best way to find a substantive mentoring relationship.

Mentorship involves a relationship with a real person, flaws and all. He or she is not a product that you purchase or a superstar or celebrity that you put up on a pedestal. It takes hard work to build and maintain the relationship. A good mentor has practical life experience that you may not yet possess, typically gained through trial and error, from making mistakes and learning from them. It is important to respect and be sensitive to this.

Although mentors have valuable life experience, they may be unwilling to share it initially. They may be reluctant to open up until they see that you value the relationship and take what they have to share seriously. Both mentor and student need to respect one another’s time, honesty, and commitment to the relationship. A mentor may not be aware of how best to communicate what he or she knows. You might need to draw out their life experience and knowledge by asking thoughtful questions and being a good listener. For example, you might ask, “Have you ever experienced a situation like this one? What happened? Looking back, is there anything you would do differently if you could?”

Life experience extends beyond academic achievements. If having a family may be in your future, look for a mentor who, through experience, has learned the importance of having a healthy work-life balance and good financial habits. Model your spending on a married couple where both partners have learned to approach life and finances as equal members of the same team, not as adversaries.

Lastly, look for someone whose life experience has fostered spiritual maturity in them. You probably know of highly successful people who have risen to the height of their professions, but no one wants to work with them. Like Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, they are perpetually grumpy, with a temper that can go from zero-to-sixty in seconds. In contrast, a spiritually mature mentor has made peace with his or her past, or is in the process of doing so. Pride can lead people to hold on to past times when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. This can rob us of our hope and optimism. People who are spiritually mature followers of Jesus have learned to accept God’s grace and extend forgiveness to others. They aren’t holding onto grudges or seeking apologies for past offenses. Forgiveness allows a person to move forward with life experience that informs, but does not control his or her future.

Stay tuned for 2 more characteristics that are useful to look for in a mentor!

[1] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. (1st ed. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 236.

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Scott Santibanez

Tito Scott Santibañez is an adjunct professor at Emory University and Trinity School for Ministry. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.

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