The essence of mentoring is to help another person abandon his or her comfortable skill, knowledge or attitude to which that person currently clings in order to embrace new but uncomfortable competences. That means the job of the mentor is to encourage the target of their tutelege to be daring.
When my son was attending a private New England high school, parents weekend included all parents going through a challenging ropes course with their son or daughter. The point of the exercise was that only by leaving your current comfort zone could you credibly challenge your teenager to leave theirs. One part of the ropes course was to walk a rope tied between two trees high above the ground. When walking the rope you held on to ropes hanging straight down above your head. However, the ropes were spaced far enough apart that you had to let go of the one behind you as lunged for the one in front of you while still remaining on the rope on which you were walking. It was impossible to hold on to both at the same time.
Even though you were safely belayed by someone on the ground below you, for many parents letting go of a safe rope to leap for one in front you were not totally confident you could reach was terrifying. However, the confidence gained from the cheering crowd of parents watching forced you to boldly do what you had witnessed others doing before you.
Karl Wallenda is the most famous aerialist in history. As the senior member of the Flying Wallendas, his antics on the high wire were as inventive as they were death defying. For years the family team was a main attraction of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1974, at the age of sixty nine, Karl broke a world skywalk distance record of 1,800 feet, a record that stood until 2008, when his great grandson, Nik Wallenda, completed a 2,000-foot skywalk at the same location. When Karl was asked why he so loved life on the high wire, he cleverly responded, “The streets are rough.”
“Rough streets” are today lined with archaic knowledge and out-of-date skills. They render people behind the times and thus less capable of effectively competing for their current work role and unqualified for a better one. They keep employees locked into a comfort zone that ultimately is accompanied by mediocrity and obsolescence. Great mentoring requires a spirit of experimentation born of a clear and present desire to help a protégé successfully reach the precarious rope of new and fresh.