When I was a kid, I loved to climb trees. I would find a tree anywhere in our neighbourhood that I could climb on my own – a sign of my fierce independence. It took me some time to pick one tree over another. While the branches of the maple were easy to reach, the bark was often too smooth for me to grasp. Older oaks were best experienced by sitting underneath their canopies, to gaze up at, because their trunks were too wide for me to hug and branches too high for my reach. While the younger oaks were better and still strong enough to hold me, my favourite were the birches. Birch trees had nodules and rough bark to grip to the soles of my sneakers, and strong enough branches that met my reach. Over time, I would pay frequent visits to the birch tree and clamber my way up with confidence, to enjoy the view and the quiet.
Coming down again wasn’t always as easy. If the branch on my favourite tree was just right and I wasn’t that far up the tree, I would risk the sprained ankle and jump down (and I now have the wonky ankles to prove it). But sometimes, I would climb to what ended up being too far up and then tried to figure out how to come down. There were times when I would get stuck and confused, and a bit scared too. It was those times when I would yell as loud as I could for my big sister.
She’d show up and guide me down to solid ground. Sometimes I followed her suggestions, and other times I made my own mistakes, and she let me. She was still there when I landed on my feet and we would talk afterward about what it felt like to be up that high, and what might have worked better in terms of finding my way down. In retrospect, climbing trees and finding my way down with my sister’s help feels a lot like the process of career mentoring. A few key lessons come to mind:
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Picking the right tree took time and deliberations. Picking the best tree, which was the right fit for me, took effort. I did not always factor in getting stuck, and I did not always know precisely when I had gone a bit too far up before realizing that it was time to come down. Although I tried hard to figure things out for myself first, eventually, I had to ask for help! There were times I probably should have asked my sister sooner, but I was glad to have asked when I did. If I hadn’t asked her, I might have been stuck in a rut for a lot longer. Her distance offered me perspective and her technical skill offered me options, some of which I had thought of already. Her ideas offered mine validation. She was also an excellent motivator and source of comfort and emotional support as well. Technical and motivational skills and the discernment in using them with empathy have been crucial to being a mentor in navigating careers.
2. Making mistakes is part of the process, and always, taking time to reflect.
As I made my way down the tree, my sister guided me and she let me make my own mistakes. Most important to me was that she stayed to listen to me tell her what had worked and what hadn’t. Maybe I had jumped down too quickly, not having judged the distance between the branches, the length of my reach, or the drop to the ground. As a mentor, I have learned to actively listen to a protégé before making recommendations. I ask questions after the protégé has taken some time to reflect. Part of mentoring is taking the time to check in with a protégé along the way and other times the conversations are longer with more detailed planning, using tools to aid in reflection.
3. There aren’t always shortcuts to achieving your career goals.
Getting back to solid ground sometimes took me more work than climbing up the tree. Even as a kid herself, my sister respected my independence and reminded me of the value of doing the work to find my own way and that it was okay to get her help, which offered me perspective. With practice and being diligent in my approach, I was able to get to solid ground.
Ultimately, my sister was my first mentor. She pointed out ways to make the process of climbing down the tree (and sometimes up) less scary than had I tried to do it on my own, and that opened up new possibilities. I translate that experience now to helping people navigate their careers, bringing clarity of purpose to their goals, and helping them find solid ground so they can seek new opportunities.
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