There is a common phrase in medical education that covers all of the steps of successful learning: “See one, do one, teach one.”
First, you observe someone else performing a process. Then, you learn to do it yourself. Finally, you pass your knowledge on to others.
The third part of this process–teach one–does not get enough attention in business contexts. In particular, when we talk about mentorship, we usually focus on the benefits of having good mentors as you move forward in your career. We rarely talk about the benefits of mentoring for the mentor.
The first benefit is the role that mentoring plays in learning. In my book Smart Thinking, I talk about the illusion of explanatory depth, which is the tendency for people to believe that they understand the world better than they actually do. The cure for the illusion of explanatory depth is teaching. When you teach something to another person, you discover all of the details that you don’t completely understand yourself. That means mentors make themselves smarter in the process of teaching others.
A second benefit is social. The most effective workplaces function like a neighborhood. You have a good relationship with your colleagues, and you look out for each other. You take on responsibilities when you see jobs that need to be done, secure in the knowledge that your colleagues will take care of things as well. You have a covenant with your colleagues rather than a contract that specifies precisely what needs to be done.
The core of the neighborhood rests on the relationship among colleagues. Mentoring is an excellent way to bring new employees into the neighborhood. When you mentor, though, it also increases your feeling of connection to your colleagues and to your organization. The workplace feels like a more inviting place when you mentor someone else.
A third benefit is motivational. Even the best workplaces involve a lot of routine. There are tasks that need to be done on a regular basis, and that can become numbing. Mentoring helps you to see your world through fresh eyes. When you serve as a mentor, you have a chance to really see how much you have accomplished in your career. The daily work that you do can feel incremental. It is hard to see your big contributions amid the cloud of daily tasks. As a mentor, you get to compare yourself to someone who is just starting out. That helps to bring the things you have accomplished into relief.
Seeing your contributions in this way reenergizes your work life. There is a lot of research demonstrating that people are often highly motivated when they start a new project or job. Toward the end of a project, when there are big outcomes looming on the horizon, there is also a spurt of energy. In between, though, people’s motivation can sag. (That is why people are excited to go to the gym in January when they make their yearly “get fit” resolution, but have a hard time dragging themselves to the gym a few months later.)
Mentoring is a valuable source of energy when you find your own work motivation flagging. Because you can see your contributions and feel more connected to your colleagues, mentoring helps you to see your job as a calling rather than just a collection of tasks you perform in order to collect your next paycheck.