Learning is important, and if we find effective ways to learn, learning becomes fun. In addition to a common, solitary perception where learning involves us sitting in a library cafe thinking alone, learning can be a social activity.
One case is mentorship; someone teaches others a particular subject. Mentorship happens everywhere, from a professor teaching students about a new subject, to a mother teaching her kid how to put on shoes. The goal of mentorship is sharing knowledge. It requires not only information exchange but a social exchange. How we perceive and practice mentorship is important. The following are a few patterns that I find useful.
How to perceive mentorship
In sports, the majority of the challenge is mental rather than physical. That holds true in mentorship. Before we engage in mentorship, our attitude towards mentorship can dramatically affect our learning outcome. I find a few ideas useful for mentorship.
We can always learn something from others. Having this mentality encourages us to look for things that we can learn from others. This approach also affects the person that we interact with, if we show a willingness to learn and discuss, the other person is more likely to open up.
We all have something to teach. We might feel that we know skills, but it’s not worth teaching. To others, those skills are valuable to learn. I have friends who know how to make great latte art, and know how to make amazing bbq ribs; both are excellent skills I would love to learn.
We can be and will be wrong sometimes. Even on a subject where we have expertise, there are things that we don’t know. If someone points out mistakes that we make, think it through, if we are wrong, admit it and thank people who provide the feedback. This approach enables us to learn new things. Other people will also think that we’re open-minded and are likely to help us get better in the future.
How to practice mentorship
With the right attitude towards mentorship, we will apply mentorship with good practice. Here are a few tips I find useful.
Actively find subjects to teach. The best way to learn a subject is to teach it. When we teach, we are forced to look at a subject under a microscope and clarify details that may seem negligible. To teach well, we must be able to explain a complex topic in simple terms, which helps us to understand a subject well. As Einstein said,
If you can’t explain a subject simply, you don’t know the subject well enough.
We don’t have to be experts to teach a subject. Often we feel like we know about a subject but have the belief only experts can teach a subject. In most cases, teaching requires preparation, rather than expertise. To teach a subject, we need to understand what we try to teach and what learners will get out of the session. Just like a school teacher does lesson planning, we should do lesson planning on subjects we like to teach.
For example, if I want to teach people how to build an iOS app, it’s ok that I’m not an expert iOS developer. I can start “lesson planning” by specifying a toy project, its basic features, and then take small steps to learn the pieces I need to know about iOS, and then I will test out what I’ve learned by building the small features. After several rounds of doing and learning, I can go back and reflect on the core concepts I learned in doing iOS and try to teach those concepts to others.
This “learn, do, learn, teach” cycle is discussed in the book soft skills, which I highly recommend. The pattern sounds simple, but applying it requires dedication and persistence. The idea of mentorship goes both ways — by mentoring others, we learn something new along the way.
Lastly, I want to talk about how we can actively seek mentorship around us. Besides work or school, there are many other resources to seek and offer mentorship.
Join a local after-work class. I am very lucky to live in Chicago where there are abundant of after-work classes that allow me to explore interesting topics such as comedy, writing, and design. A nice thing about those classes is that I met a lot of people who later on become friends, and I build an intellectual support around me because of that.
Join an online class. Web sites such as Coursera, Udacity have a broad range of college classes, some of those online education platforms also offer a cohesive learning bundle for a topic (e.g. Coursera specialization). A nice thing about online education is that we can learn about different subjects at our pace.
Go to local meet-up groups. Many local community groups that meet on a regular basis to discuss a certain subject. Attend a meet-up of our interest, and also try to speak at one of meet-up groups. A nice thing about meet-up groups is that we can get real-time feedback. By offering mentorship, we can learn about the subject better, and meet people who share a similar interest on the topic.
Mentorship is everywhere. If we consistently observe and refine the way we learn and teach, we will have more fun in learning.