It’s easy to speak to mentoring and peer learning when there is a clear pathway to reaching out to someone. There will be times when it’s not as easy as that. You will have a situation that is so complex that describing it requires providing someone with a short-course. You will have times where you are dealing with sensitive information. While briefing someone can be a difficult task to relay all of the information fairly and effectively, it can be done. The challenge of seeking guidance on sensitive information is that you might not have access to someone within which you can confide. Sensitive information can benefit from speaking with someone in confidence, but you need to have a few degrees of separation between your confidant and the issue at hand. This becomes a huge challenge when you are working within a small community, whether a population area or the community of people within your discipline. Since you are seeking wisdom for something sensitive, it’s likely that you will look for someone who shares your background. If not many people share your background, or you are in a place where everyone knows everyone, it just might not be an option.
The realization is: there will be times within our lives where we can’t access the wisdom of other people. How to make up for this? Perhaps the two components are to ensure that we have a balanced life in order to have the ability to absorb the unknowns and difficulties of having to sort through things on our own, and/or becoming skilled at working with our networks to find the parallel wisdom that might assist us.
Let’s identify two kinds of problems. The first one is a shared problem where you can speak to someone else who can understand the whole problem, and provide you with a complete package of advice. For example, your problem is that you can’t find a really good sushi place. The odds are good that someone in your network will have discovered the best sushi, or can at least upgrade your sushi experience with something better on your way to finding perfection.
The other kind of problem is a composite problem. You can’t go to just one person, so you will need to break that problem into pieces and seek input on those pieces. You will then need to assemble them on your own as you work to solve it. Composite problems are either complex in that they have multiple variables that need specific expertise, or you are in a situation where you need to break your problem down into pieces where you can seek input without compromising the sensitivity. You are not able to draw on one source for wisdom.
Break it Down
So, going back to our original issue of having a problem where you can’t talk to someone directly about it. You will need to establish whether your problem can be broken down into component pieces that you ARE able to work on with others.
A side benefit of this approach is that to be fully intentional, you stop and take the time to assess your concern (we don’t stop and think often enough). There will be aspects of it that you will need to solve on your own, but there may be components where input from others might be sought. It is likely that you won’t find any solutions, but you will find tools.
Solutions versus Tools
At a certain age, we stop finding and applying pre-packaged solutions. We’ve solved all of the easy problems, and our value exists in the fact that we HAVE conquered the easy stuff. Our value lies in the fact that we possess a suite of tools that allows us to adapt to new situations, and that we have the skills to seek and add new tools. When we encounter new problems, the reasons we consult with other people are likely:
- Confirm application of the tools we have: we seek validation that our assessment of the situation is reasonable, and that we have applied our tools in an appropriate manner, and
- A search for new tools: consciously or subconsciously, we engage with someone else to find the tools needed to work on a problem.
So, in a complex situation the first option above is likely not available. But, the second solution provides us with the ability to find tools that we can apply to our problem. The challenge is taking the time to understand the components of our complex situation, and finding the conversations/resources where we can seek parallel guidance and the tools that they hold. We can then take these tools and adapt and apply them to our problem.
I think the summary of this #6 of 100 Conversations was a realization that there will be some problems where direct application of mentoring is just not possible. I’m lucky that my world doesn’t usually have an overlay of sensitive information where I can’t identify someone that is removed enough from the issue that I won’t compromise confidentiality. When those do crop up, I know that it involves me adapting the tools I have to a new situation. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t (learn, adapt and try again). At a certain point in your career, mentoring will no longer assist you in teasing apart the world’s problems to find clarity. At some point your problems may each be new and unique, and only for you to solve. You will be alone for brief periods of time. But… you talk to your friends to blow off steam (and read this blog?) … and be reminded that you’re not crazy. As Run DMC said, life’s like that.