“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”—Sir Isaac Newton
As you search for your mentor, you will be looking for someone who has the lived experience and wisdom you lack. It stands to reason your mentor will be found having lived through important moments in history, whether it’s the recent or more distant past.
So where do we start such a search?
First: Find a Great Book
Can someone you never met qualify as a mentor? I say, yes. In fact, it is essential that we look to the past so that we can learn from both the errors and triumphs of history. Sir Isaac Newton knew this when he assessed that his work could not have happened without the efforts of those who had come before. So, first, find a great book.
A great book or classical work typically has four simple characteristics:
- A great theme
- Elevated or noble language
- It has universality to speak across time
- It is worth repeated reading because it teaches us something new every time it is consumed
The Bible is such a book. There are great books in every field or endeavor. Over the past several years my wife and I began John Adams Academy, a K-12 charter school, and through that endeavor we discovered how easy it is to get the “classics” into our hands and homes. Many of these books are now part of the public domain, meaning they are free and available on the internet and can be downloaded to almost any phone, tablet, or computer.
It wasn’t always so easy. Historically only kings and queens, nobility or the aristocracy were afforded a great education. They were the ones who could read and had access to the great libraries of the world. Now, all of us can read. Are we taking advantage of that skill and the abundant available resources? Often things that have taken mentors a lifetime to learn have been distilled into a single book, and now you can benefit from that wisdom with the click of a mouse.
In Proverbs 2:3-5 we read, “Yea if thou criest after knowledge and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as sliver and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then thou shalt understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.”
Are we seeking great knowledge in the right places and with the enthusiasm for hidden treasure? The collective wisdom of the ages is waiting for us all and such wisdom is more accessible than it has ever been in the history of this earth.
Second: Find Mentors from a Past Generation
As we read great books it is important to discuss your thoughts and ideas with a living mentor or a friend. All great individuals have had inspiring mentors. There have been many mentors to us and our children over the years.
One such was a master woodworker who taught our son woodworking. While doing this he would discuss great ideas with my son. As part of learning and service he helped our son create bookshelves to install a library for Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Sacramento. He also assisted my son in building a replica of the desk on which Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence.
Another mentor was a retired premier agricultural scientist at UC Davis on plant genetics. We paid him a visit several years ago. He shared a copy of his journal that my wife and I took home and read with our sons. Our friend and mentor was wounded in WWII at the age of 19. He related, “There was a time when it almost seemed all was lost. I had been shot by an enemy German soldier. I had three bullets through the leggings of the left leg and one bullet through my heel. I could not walk. I knew I could not crawl and keep up with my squad. What was I to do? It was beyond being scary. The enemy soldier was only about 50 feet away from me. I did the only thing I felt I could do. I prayed to Heavenly Father. I poured out my soul. I felt a calm come over me. I knew I was in the Lord’s hands. Well, I started to crawl. I headed toward where the command post was. About two to three miles away. This doesn’t sound far, but it took me 24 hours to cover the distance. It was dark part of the time. There were Germans all around me. Artillery and mortar shells were landing all around me. I didn’t pray just once that night. I was in constant communication with Heavenly Father and He helped me through this time of my need. I could not have made it without his help.” So many lessons were learned from him and his journal.
My sons saw in these men someone who they could emulate and stated, “They inspire me to want to learn more, do more and be better.” These are inspirational traits of great mentors.
Another great mentor to our boys was their piano teacher Terecita Roig. Terecita grew up in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation in WWII. Her piano lessons were extraordinary. Our boys spent hours studying the lives of the masters, and then learning to appreciate and play classical music. She inspired them to work hard because her love for them and the music itself. My children loved music because she taught them the why and the how. And they, in turn, loved their teacher so much, they would not dare neglect practicing their lessons for respect and fear of disappointing her or themselves. A few years ago, we took Terecita back to her home in the Philippines for a visit. We visited Corregidor, Bataan, General MacArthur’s Museum room, The American Cemetery where their great uncle was honored; and became acquainted with a little nun, Sister Mary James, that showed us how she started a school for the poor and abandoned children in Manilla. At the time I remember thinking to myself, “If a little nun in Manilla can do this here you can certainly start a school in California!” What began as a musical education expanded far beyond, teaching them to forgo selfish interests or meaningless pursuits— all through the lessons and virtues they learned from a dedicated piano teacher turned mentor.
The world around you are full of great people who have completed much of their mortal sojourn and are brimming with knowledge, wisdom and virtues to help both you and me.
Why Mentorship Matters
In Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind he states, “People sup together, play together, travel together, but they do not think together. Educational TV is the high tide for family intellectual life.”
He goes on to point out, “Today’s select students know so much less, are so much more cut off from the tradition, are so much slacker intellectually, that they make their predecessors look like prodigies of culture. The soil is ever thinner, and I doubt whether it can now sustain taller growths.”
What do you think of Bloom’s observation? Are today’s youth reaching for a great classical book in search of wisdom from one of the voices from the dust, or seeking mentorship from an experienced individual from their own community? Or how about when we turn that lens on ourselves? Could our society today produce a Newton or a Mozart? It takes effort but the gains are great, and the risks of a future kept from the wisdom of the past are also great, possibly disastrous.
May I suggest you seek mentors for yourselves and your children? Many may be of a prior generation. Bring them into your circle of friends. They will enrich your lives forever. You will then be doing as Newton suggested, “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”