I am terrible at finding mentors. I accept this as it is primarily my failing. I am silently critical and judgmental of anyone I audition for the part. Not too intensely, but enough to tarnish the sheen which drew me to them in the first place.
I expect too much from a mentor. A mentor must have figured out all of life before I am willing to sit at his or her feet and await the flow of wisdom. I have never had harsh break ups with possible mentors, I simply never pursue the relationship past a certain point.
This is not to say I do not learn things from people. I study and examine decisions and approaches individuals have to life and career and pick and choose lessons from them all. I will learn anything from anyone who has something to offer
Yet, I can never quite slide into the role of mentee. I cannot quite let myself be vulnerable enough to to commit. That more complete learning relationship continues to elude me.
Invariably, I find something disappointing in any possible mentor. They may be highly successful in their field, but I always seem to find some flaw in their history or personality which leads me to slowly extricate myself from any burgeoning mentor-mentee relationship.
The reasons are numerous:
They have sacrificed more time with family than I am willing to.
Medicine fills them up enough, they don’t seem to have any other intellectual interests.
They aren’t philosophical or thoughtful enough.
They aren’t skeptical enough, too sincere and believing.
Despite all their success, they seem unfulfilled, not satisfied, sometimes even unhappy.
They are boring or uninteresting
There are many more.
Why Am I so Harsh?
Why do I do this? I don’t necessarily find myself yearning for a mentor, but I certainly think it would have been beneficial for me to find one at some point along the way. Yet, I cannot say I have ever had a long term and truly fulfilling mentor/mentee relationship.
I have come to an annoyingly Freudian conclusion: the mentor-mentee relationship is too close to a paternal relationship for me to ever be comfortable with it.
Unlike many young men with complicated paternal relationship, love and affection were never the issue.
My father is simply bad at functioning in the world on society’s terms. He has never been able to play the game. I have learned more about how to function in this world from his mistakes than I ever could from his example.
He struggles with his mental health and in typical boomer male fashion, avoided addressing it at all costs for most of my life. While loving, I also remember him being angry, impatient, and emotionally unreliable.
Additionally, I have inherited a certain amount of his difficulty with playing by the rules. Not the written rules, or the ethical rules, but the unwritten cultural rules which only exists to enforce group mediocrity.
And, I have found, it is the breaking of these rules which engender the harshest backlash because they are irrational, so the response to their transgression can only be similarly irrational.
Unfortunately, in practice, medicine is a life that punishes those who break from orthodoxy more fiercely than most.
I have come to terms with these things about my own father, but I cannot help but feel they are the root me being unable to be comfortable with a mentor. No mentor will ever be complete enough, reliable enough, wise enough for me to let my guard down.
I will always find some failing – moral, intellectual, spiritual, ethical which will sow doubt, and my walls will go up. Sadly, it has led to a rather lonely professional existence.
Mentors from the Page
As a poor substitute, I find myself turning to authors as mentors in situ. I can go to the arts and literature, the great stories to try and glean wisdom to apply. Occasionally, the inspirations have been specific to medicine, but more often they are general.
They are usually men, not surprisingly. Usually already dead, their story having reached its terminal moment, I can safely know the whole arc, analyze their decisions, inspect their psyches as best I can from the page.
They are Hemingways (who has been mentioned on this blog frequently), Edward Abbeys, Steinbecks, Anthony Bourdains. Their unconventional lives are a common thread. As noted above, I am drawn to the unconventional, unorthodox – not in my personal life, but in my intellectual life.
Deep down, I have always been a puzzle piece which doesn’t quite fit. Always a little uncomfortable in any given role or position. Always pushing moving, pushing, straining.
I may not have been well suited to a career in medicine because of this tendency. I am not saying poorly suited to being a doctor, but poorly suited to a medical career. All my sages tend to be tortured, horribly flawed, often kind of miserable shits, with some hole that can’t be filled. And, disproportionately men who have killed themselves.
Even in my imaginary world of mentors from the page, I seem to be able to learn only from their mistakes, from their character flaws, their weakness. Maybe this is because great art is inherently emotive, not intellectual. And only those who wrestle with great emotions can make art which makes you feel something meaningful.
Let me tell you something. Happiness is bullshit. It’s the great myth of the late 20th century. You think Picasso was happy? You think Hemingway was? Hendrix? They were miserable shits. No art worth a damn was ever created out of happiness. I can tell you that. Ambition, narcissism, sex, rage. Those are the engines that drive every great artist, every great man. A hole that can’t be filled. That’s why we’re all such miserable assholes.Ed Harris, as Ben in Kodachrome (2017)
I have learned much from some of these names. Their grand pursuits, their art, all seemed to stem from a deep unhappiness. And so I increasingly shy away from the addictive pursuit of art, accomplishment, money, career. They all seem to lead to a generally miserable life, punctuated by acclaim and accomplishment – but certainly not happiness.
Is it all a sham as Ed Harris’ character says? Is happiness a myth of the late 20th century which has visited upon us the curses of consumerism, the opiate epidemic, multiple other converging mental health crises?
Are greatness and happiness antithetical? Is is impossible to have a family, to be generally content with life, and work in the pursuit of something larger and more meaningful than oneself?
Who knows? I guess all I can do is keep reading, because I am pretty sure I am never going to let anyone show me the way.
Featured Painting: Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, François-André Vincent, 1776. Musee Fabre.