Mentor, rather than imprint

In many recent talks on #mentoring, I’ve continued to distinguish effective and progressive mentoring from many other forms of support that we offer, particularly in academic environments, and often under the banner of “mentoring”.

We frequently offer advising and call it mentoring. Advising is distinct from mentoring in that the former is advice that is helpful for anyone on a specific path. For example, all students completing a particular degree must take certain courses, perhaps participate in particular internships, or accomplish other specific goals. Mentoring is specific advice and input based on personal knowledge of a particular individual.

We also frequently engage in imprinting and call it mentoring. I’ve described imprinting based on the common understanding of a mature individual “training” less experienced individuals in navigating safely through a context based first and foremost on the mature individual’s experiences or behavioral norms of a group. One of the most common examples is a “mother” duck leading ducklings, who “fall in line” behind her.

Imprinting has its place, for example the ducklings learn (hopefully) how to safely navigating their environments, in order to survive, grow and persist.

However, mentoring should not be imprinting.

I have met resistance (and not infrequently so) to my suggestion that mentoring should not be centered on imprinting, which the objectors perceive as simply helping one learn how to navigate safely through an environment. Moving wholesale away from imparting principles for navigating an environment is not exactly what I’m suggesting when I indicate that mentoring ≠ imprinting.

Instead, I’m suggesting that mentoring can’t (or shouldn’t) focus on an individual learning to “replay” exactly the moves that a mentor has made to pursue success. Rather, the advice from a mentor should focus on why specific moves were made – i.e., “to what end” specific moves where made. Then, a discussion can be engaged as to what specific ways a mentee may achieve a particular end.

This perspective focuses on the “why” rather than the “what” and acknowledges that individuals may have distinct ways or motivations to approach the same destination. Alternatively, the individuals may be navigating the same “training space” as the mentor with a completely different destination in mind upon leaving the space. Imprinting doesn’t always allow for these realities.

So imprint if you desire, but understand that it’s not mentoring…and it may be self-serving and self-affirmative.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM