Late 2013, just another day in the office. I was standing at the copier scanning some document or other when S, the most senior staff member in my department, asked if I had a minute. S is a high-powered business executive, respected and feared in courts and boardrooms across the country. Aggressively intelligent and intolerant of fools, she is a classic type-D personality, and not the kind of person you keep waiting while the copier finishes.
I let her wait.
I had been told the previous week that my contract wouldn’t be renewed because, thanks to recent government funding cuts and the uncertainty of an impending restructure, the department couldn’t afford to keep me on. I accepted this fairly graciously – my position was created to cover someone who had gone on maternity leave, so it had always been a temporary arrangement. However, at the staff meeting the day before the copier incident, S had calmly announced that our group wasn’t losing any staff, that the cuts and restructure would have minimal impact, and no-one need be worried about their job security. That made me feel a bit shit. I had worked there for close to 6 years as a casual or on contract and it was the last meeting with the group I would attend. I happened to be sitting right next to S as she spoke. She conspicuously refused to make eye contact with me.
So I was a little bit shirty.
When I had finished with the copier, I knocked on S’s office door. She let me in straight away, sat me down and said, “I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to have this conversation with you, and seeing you at the copier just now made me decide to just go ahead. I hope you don’t mind if I’m quite direct?”. I shook my head – of course I didn’t mind! “Let me ask you something,” S continued, “What are you doing here?”
This, as you may imagine, was not exactly what I had been expecting.
S went on to explain that the REAL reason she had decided not to renew my contract was that I was wasting my talent and my time doing unchallenging work that I was painfully over-qualified for. She empathised with my position as breadwinner and young, working mum, and gently explained that she was trying to help me “leave the nest” so that I might at last fly on my own. I was moved. When S offered to mentor me through the exciting changes that no doubt lay ahead, I was flattered. Fancy, little old me, being offered a mentorship by one of the most influential women in the business… who’da thunk it?!
Over the following weeks, for the first time in my life, I actively sought professional guidance for decisions I was making about my ‘career’. And I had a taste of what S’s son must have faced his whole life – the best intentions, but just not enough time. After several unheeded emails and indefinitely postponed coffees, I understood. Although she may wish well for me, and although her offer of support was probably genuine, S was simply too busy.
At the time, I just rolled my eyes, shrugged and went back to the copier. I doubted I would’ve made much of a mentee, anyway, so it was no biggie.
But in the last little while I’ve thought a lot about that episode and the lessons I can take from it.
You see, my daughter is nearly 5. This is an age where she is open to the influence of her peers like never before – I have noticed that as her friendships have shifted this year, her favourite colour has changed from pink to yellow, her play has become more aggressive, and she talks about superheroes and tv characters I have never heard of. She is stepping out into her own little world of complex friendships, untried boundaries and limitless adventure, and I want her to face that world with confidence – the kind of confidence that I feel I am only just beginning to discover in myself. The kind of confidence that comes from having incredible people, who genuinely value you, to learn from and be inspired by.
Thinking over these things, I came to realise that for a long time S had been somewhat of a hero of mine – but she wasn’t any longer. She had stretched herself too thin, she no longer had the capacity to be there for her underlings, and I mainly felt sorry for her. I still see her around campus occasionally, and my pity deepens every time – she has given her life and her health to a heartless machine, and she is realising too late the things she has missed. This is not the kind of example I want to set.
I also realised that I have a number of mentors in my life already – but not one of them would presume to put that label on our relationship.
There is the gentle lawyer who always has time to be a sounding board, who can be stressed almost to the point of tears but still stop for a chat, who has offered me the most consistent, unassuming and genuine support without ever realising the impact it has had.
There is one of my nearest and dearest friends, whose unfailing patience and generosity are an inspiration to me every day, who works herself to a shadow with no complaint, who always finds a silver lining.
There is a newer friend who, although we are still getting to know each other, has shown himself to be honest and insightful, who is committed to bringing light to others’ lives, who fully embraces life with all its quirks and wonder.
These, among others, are my true mentors.
My mentors are the people who accept and encourage me without any familial obligation. My mentors are people who have met me as an adult and whose acceptance of me exactly as I am, whose unwavering belief in my potential, has lifted me up time and time again. My mentors are the wonderful people I am grateful for every day, and who I will continue to turn to for advice, support, love and laughter.
And I can only hope that they and others like them will shine their influence on my daughter’s life as well.