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Do you double-guess yourself? Get a mentor!

Posted on: August 4, 2008

The puzzle of politicians and other ambitious people

Many years ago, a student of mine, Phil, asked a simple question: why do people elbow their way onto committees and into public positions, and then not do what they have yelled, screamed, kicked, agitated, mobilized to do?

Isn’t it odd to put so much energy into something and then not do it?

A study of student politicians

Phil’s study was simple.

Students spend a lot of time in queues. He used his queues to find student leaders who had promised publicly to do something for their club or society the very next day.

He was looking for

  • elected leaders (who had volunteered for that job out of all the public posts available in a University)
  • volunteered to their task
  • offered and promised to do it in front of other people
  • expected to do it and complete the next day.

He found his leaders as he queued for lunch or the library or whatever and secured their agreement to be interviewed fully that evening in their study-bedroom and then again, the following evening, after the task was completed.

Two interviews : one before and one after an action that they had promised publicly to a valued group.

Findings

This is what he found:

Success rate

  • 100% of students were totally confident that they would start and complete the task the next day
  • 100% began the task
  • 50% succeeded completely (yep, only 50%)

Effects on confidence

  • 95% turned up for the post-event interview and two who were late courteously left notes rescheduling
  • The confidence of those who completed remained high.
  • The confidence of those who had not completed had plummeted (as we would expect).

Reasons for success and failure

  • When we analyzed what had gone wrong, in every instance, students had tripped over their own naivety. They tried to buy 100 T shirts of the same color without a prior order, for example. Or they hadn’t realized that long distance calls need to be pre-approved.
  • It seemed luck whether someone tripped over a practical detail or not; and therefore, luck whether they had succeeded in their task or not.

Response to failure

  • Though it was essentially luck whether they succeeded or not, if they had tripped up, their sense of self-worth (or self-efficacy) plummeted. The students had no way to see the pattern of events and no way of knowing that their success or failure was down to luck.

Intrepretation

In the West, we are always being told to take responsibility for our lives. I am not sure I buy into this view. I think it is more important to understand cause-and-effect, and what can be influenced, and how.

In the case of these students, they had now way of seeing the overall pattern – after all that is why we were doing the research.  But, an experienced mentor or coach could help them interpret their own success or failure.

This is the advice that they would have got from an experienced mentor

  • If the day had gone well, good – enjoy the buzz of success and set a new challenge in the morning.
  • If the day had not gone well, sorry – you are feeling down, take note of what went wrong, Learn That You Cannot Anticipate Everything, and set a new challenge in the morning!

Without a mentor, life gets tough

How can we possibly distinguish between what is “down to us” and what is the normal ebb-and-flow of life without a good mentor?

Having good uncles, aunts, pastors, teachers, bosses, company-appointed mentors probably influences a youngster’s prospects in life more than anything else.

More than money, more than good looks, more than brains, more than personality. I didn’t put parents on the list because we might be too close to the action to advise young people well.

The big question that people might ask is where are the mentors today? Where do we find mentors as we go through life?

What is the process of mentoring in the UK today?  How do people following very different paths from their parents find mentors?

I’d be willing to argue that the strength of a modern society is our ability to mentor youngsters who come from very different backgrounds from ourselves.

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1 Response to "Do you double-guess yourself? Get a mentor!"

Hi Jo – just catching up on my reading and came across this great post. I have been involved in mentoring – both sides – and know the benefit. And I agree that challenging young people to take control of their own lives is less than helpful…a gentle guiding hand ( which does not equate to tellling them what they should do -parents and well meaning adults please note!!) can make the world of difference.

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