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Paying it forward through mentoring


[Mentoring] “teaching” per se; although, education is usually a part of the process. Mentoring is more the action of providing help or assistance in dealing with some problem or issue that the mentee is having difficulty in dealing with it.

Two weeks ago I received a very nice surprise in the mail (not email, but an actual written letter on paper), and no, it wasn’t a letter informing me that I just won the lottery. In fact, the letter was from a former resident of mine, who was one of my very first residents from nearly thirty years ago. (Just thinking it was from that long ago makes me feel old!)  However, this former resident, now a well-regarded practicing dermatologist and clinical researcher, wanted me to know how much he felt I had positively influenced his early career by offering him encouragement and assistance during his formal training and even beyond. He wanted me to know that the time and effort I spent working with him was “neither wasted nor forgotten” and that he was extremely grateful. He also noted that in an attempt to “pay it forward” he also had been counseling a number of students and residents during his own career and what a tremendous feeling of satisfaction he received from it. In fact, he often felt that he was receiving more knowledge from the mentees than he was giving them in return.

While humbled by the comments in his letter, what I believe he was actually referring to is traditionally known as “top-down mentoring.” That is, the mentor is more senior in age or experience and is offering his knowledge or skill-set to the younger mentee. However, when the reverse also occurs and the younger mentee imparts knowledge to the mentor, the situation is known commonly as “down-up or reverse mentoring.”  

I have found that the process of mentoring is often a two-way exchange of information. One example that I have personally witnessed has occurred when a senior mentor who had missed out on some of the aspects of the rapidly changing and growing digital world and social media environment was “reverse mentored” by a junior mentee who grew up in that environment. The mentee helped the mentor to understand how the whole complex system worked.  This is a classic “win-win” situation, and I’ve found that it occurs all the time during the mentoring process.

Many people, including physicians, have a mistaken belief that only “academicians” or professors are capable of mentoring. That is so far from the truth as to be ludicrous. I believe with the proper attitude, desire and patience virtually anyone can be a mentor. The only requirements to being a mentor are being available, and having a willingness to help another person learn or understand something that they don’t already know. In my opinion, this is not “teaching” per se; although, education is usually a part of the process. Mentoring is more the action of providing help or assistance in dealing with some problem or issue that the mentee is having difficulty in dealing with it.

Lessons learned

Throughout my medical career I have been blessed with a number of patient, caring and helpful mentors. Starting in medical school, I had the honor as serving as class vice-president and in that role I formed an important relationship with the Dean, Dr. Merlin K. DuVal. I cannot list all the issues he helped me deal with, but the most important one was demonstrating the importance of “listening.”

As I gradually learned to speak less and listen more, I discovered I could deal with many of the difficult issues I was confronting by listening carefully to the issues and introducing less of myself into the conversation. Once I understood the problem or issue I could more effectively deal with it. Somewhat to my surprise, it really worked! He also showed me how to run an efficient and effective board meeting without really showing how hard it was keeping the agenda on track and still giving everyone a chance to speak.

As a very junior faculty member I was confronted for the first time with having to “write up” the findings of an interesting patient for possible publication. Boy was it hard! Words just didn’t flow onto the page and what did appear was terrible. Fortunately, I was blessed by having a fellow junior faculty member, Dr. Walter H.C. Burgdorf, who already possessed a great deal of writing experience and volunteered to be my mentor. He warned me that he would help by using a red-inked pen (as this was long before the PC took over the writing process) as his way to offer suggestions where greater clarification or better organization would enhance my manuscript. With much trepidation, I proudly gave him my very first manuscript.

What a shock I got when he returned it to me the next day with more red ink than black ink! After reading his suggestions and taking his advice I rewrote the manuscript and gave it back to Wally for a second look.  This time, while there was still lots of red ink, there was less than before. This process went on more times than I can recall, but when I finally got back a clean copy (no red ink), I was very proud.

That persisted right up until the time I got my rejection notice from the journal to which I submitted this manuscript.  However, the skills he taught me went further than how to organize, describe and reference a case report, he taught me the value of being a mentor. He showed incredible patience, profound encouragement and great skill in sharing with me the writing knowledge he possessed. Believe me those attributes have stuck with me so that now after having published over 200 articles, abstracts, book chapters and books I can honestly say that I couldn’t have done it without his initial mentorship.

I’m not going to produce an encyclopedic list of all the mentors I’ve had throughout my career, but suffice it to say that there were many. To name just a few:  Dr. Dennis Weigand helped teach me about how and when to use or not use the electron microscope; Dr. Patrick E. Watson showed me the benefits of demonstrating patience while performing complex flap surgery that wasn’t closing the wound just the way I planned; Dr. Phil Bailin knew how to step back and not “hover” when the mentoring process was complete and give me the chance to operate on my own, while knowing he was always nearby to help if needed; Dr. Edward Gomez impressed upon me the value of academic intradepartmental communication; Mr. Tom Conway introduced me to the world of non-profit corporate structure and function as well as how to survive it; Dr. Robert E. Grove mentored me in so many ways, starting with leading me through the maze of research possibilities at Livermore National Laboratory and later introducing me to the world of corporate research and development as well as how to apply new technologies to improve patient care. 

Without the mentoring help provided by these individuals along with their encouragement, sometimes coupled with shoving, pulling and lifting me along my own career development pathway, I would not have accomplished what I have been able to do.

It is because of the incredible mentoring that I received from these individuals as well as many others that I have always been trying to “pay it forward” myself throughout my career. The best things about mentoring is that it is easy to do, doesn’t’ really cost you anything other than your time and a little patience and yet the “returns” in terms of personal satisfaction and knowledge you gain from your mentee can be enormous.

My suggestion is that if you aren’t already engaged in the mentoring process at some level to give it a try and see for yourself what good you can accomplish. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  

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