Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mentors and Apprentices

We’ve all seen the Chinese martial arts movies where there is always a “sensei” or a teacher that is responsible for a small group of students, not only teaching them how to fight, but teaches them the art of it, and dives into his own experience to teach the students the true lessons. Formal education these days, in Egypt in particular, is all about studying what’s in the books, learning the science and the experiments, memorizing certain phrases and specific outcomes. In math and science, there is no room to learn (or even use) different techniques to solving problems, everything is too methodical for a student to think for himself. In the literary studies, you have to memorize and study a specific analysis in a specific book, anything else is wrong and out of scope. Philosophy courses are textbook material, and God knows what references they use in religious studies. The process of learning has become a shallow experience, with no room for research or improvement. We’ve been brought up in schools to write what we know and what we learn. We don’t stretch our knowledge to improve ourselves, not to mention we do not get any guidance. To teachers, it’s tedious to look beyond the textbook and kids who ask too much are considered annoying. So we grow up to work as we’re told to work, and study as we’re told to study. We grow up looking beneath our feet, never beyond the horizon and never with a sideways look at life.

This isn’t how it was before. In fact, it was never like that before. In the past, learning was an interactive process where the teachers, as well as the student, get involved in discussions to reach a higher level of learning. This has been how the great scholars and scientists of the Abassid dynasty were doing it. They weren’t teachers, bored of everything in life and have to finish up a lesson with a specific time schedule, they were mentors who taught the text, gave their own experience and views of it, and interacted with their disciples so that everyone comes to their own conclusion of the topic. Their purpose is to create thinkers and scholars, not drones who know one way of thinking and reject all other methodologies and ideologies.

In addition, when it comes to the crafts, especially in Egypt, it’s always been about having a mentor. There were no craft schools, a parent would take his child to a craftsman, and would confide him to the craft. The craftsman would teach the child, progressing from simple tasks to the most complicated depending on his ability to learn and advance. Later, the child, now grown, going from disciple to apprentice to craftsman himself, becomes ready to take on the world. The mentor who taught him all that is not jealous, he does not feel that the once ignorant child owes him his life’s work. On the contrary, he enjoys his apprentice’s success and his ability to create on his own. He encourages him to go on and do new things, take risks, explore the craft and add to it. In the end, it isn’t only the mentor of the apprentice who learn and advance, the whole craft is enriched with new people with new ideas, who are able to create, explore and reinvent the craft, stretching its limits through diversity.

Mentoring is not completely gone in this day and age, it is, however, badly twisted into something rigid and strict. Putting formal education aside, the true learning is found in the workplace. Instead of craftsmen, there are now managers, engineers, doctors, and executives. Juniors and fresh grads move into a new workplace, and they start learning the culture of the place they are in, they gain their knowledge from the people around them and this is how they grow. This is how everyone grows, not just juniors. A manager or a senior will work hard and invest in teaching the people working under him how the work is done. A good manager or senior who cares about improving the work will give knowledge from their own experience to the people around him provided they are willing to learn. In addition, he will always challenge them into doing something better than what they already do, polishing them as they grow. The problem is that even though this happens to some extent in lots of different places, there is something profound missing from all the above. Nowadays, knowledge is power. Seniors and managers do NOT teach the people around them everything. some are scared that they may be replaced, some prefer to be the only people with the knowledge and thus the only people powerful enough to stay in management. Very few are the ones that empower the people around them with knowledge and encourage them to explore and create. They are too scared of being replaced with fresh blood that they seem to forget that diversity is key to the growth of an organization, that it’s the fresh blood that looks at things differently and try to enrich them with new ideas.

The problem exists with the apprentices as well as the managers. A good apprentice grows with the purpose of spreading the knowledge and adding value, not for the purpose of just becoming another manager or replacing his mentor. In fact, the only way to be noticed and move up in a career is to come up with new and different opportunities than the ones that already exist. A good apprentice moves on beyond what they’ve learned and adds to it, adding to the industry and to the business. Shortly after, a good apprentice becomes a mentor themselves, and so goes on the cycle of knowledge sharing and growth.

My personal experience in mentoring, or being mentored to be more precise, comes from so many different people and so many different places. The most noteworthy to me is Tamayoz, a human development NGO that works on the less ripe young minds. The beauty of Tamayoz is not the content; the content is everywhere! There are a million different places one can learn soft skills and management. The beauty of it and why it has affected me so profoundly and changed my life in so many ways, is the amount of experience the instructors shared; personal experiences and situations. They gave us real and tangible lessons in life, not just textbook material.

To teach one’s experiences is the most value one could add. To learn and share the knowledge is how we build the world, to discover new things for the sake of learning and knowing is the ultimate success. To mentor is to achieve immortality.

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