All the attention given recently to the life of Senator John McCain leaves no doubt that he was a great influence to many. The wonderful stories about how he touched the lives of those around him reminded me of the people who have been my great mentors.
Although we are not aware of why we do it, I believe we pick these teachers because they connect us to a greater consciousness. Their example lifts us to our highest selves.
My mentor list
William Schmidt was my American History teacher in high school. His lectures were outside the box for a secondary school professor. He was brash, funny and a great storyteller. His style of teaching could engage the most disinterested crowd of teenagers in an early Monday morning American History class. Not a showoff; he cared for his audience and knew how history’s fundamental lessons had the capacity to teach young people how to create a better world. Faced early in in my engineering career with the need to explain complex projects, I wanted to be like Mr Schmidt. After failing a few times, I realized that presenting something successfully was not about entertaining and audience; it was about honoring their need to understand and absorb information on things that would affect their lives. I picked up from Mr. Schmidt how to be warm, concise, interesting and open-minded to any audience, even when they were shouting at me.
Bob Clevenger was my boss at the Colorado Department of Transportation for almost eleven years. Bob was a caring father figure who trusted me and was always there to offer support when times were tough. He taught me the joy of working together for something greater than myself. Under Bob’s tutelage, I was transformed from a self-seeking individual who worried mostly about the next promotion into a dedicated public servant. Bob taught me that providing great things for one’s community is a mission of love and care that leaves one feeling fulfilled.
Governor Roy Romer taught me about leadership. I was fortunate to be part of Romer’s cabinet, especially since I had turned him down on three previous occasions. I did so at a cynical time in my life when I believed all politicians were slimy creatures that emerged from a shit lagoon. Governor Romer was everything but that. He was committed to doing the right thing and expected us to do so even when it did not benefit him politically. He had a gift of connecting with people, one moment he could find common ground with seniors in an assisted living facility and the next he would feel solidarity with a group of unwed teenage mothers. I learned from him how to value every individual as you do yourself and to commit to doing the right thing no matter the consequences.
Mentors Don’t have to be perfect people
One curious thing I learned about mentors is that, although they can be people of unmistakable character, they don’t have to be perfect people for you to learn something of value. My mother and father are good examples. Most people saw my mom and dad as good people who overcame great difficulties to give their children a better life. This is true. They also sacrificed everything for my brothers and I; the greatest act of love I have ever experience. But dad was a demanding, emotionally withdrawn man. Mom was mentally ill and incapable of controlling her emotions, specially her temper. My brothers and I grew up walking on eggshells around those two. Yet, my father taught me the value of working hard and how to persevere when life is handing you lemons. I learned about the importance of making people laugh from my mother. She also taught me how to be a good storyteller, a handy skill to have when you are a writer.
Mentors don’t have to be people you know personally
People you don’t know can also be your mentors. Rosa Parks is one of those people. She taught me about how, when the pain of staying in a bad situation becomes greater than the fear of making a change, you get the courage to say, “fuck it, I’m not putting up with this bullshit anymore” . I know this is not what Rosa parks actually said but, after having had enough, she took a courageous stand against the oppressive discrimination of the Jim Crow era. I’ve been in oppressive situations that need to be changed and Rosa Parks taught me that speaking up can change the world.
Muhammad Ali is another one of those personal mentors I never met. I loved him as a boxer to be sure, but the lesson he taught me was about how we must stand against injustice even when the price is the loss of everything you have. I have not had to experience the overwhelming loss “The Greatest” was subjected to for his stand against the War in Viet Nam, but I have been able to follow his example in speaking out against injustice even when that brings me great criticism.
Through my most difficult life transitions, Dr. Wayne Dyer has been an invaluable companion. Before I heard of Dr. Dyer, I did not understand how life transitions were created to break the hard shell our ego manufactured and allow our spirit to come out in the open. Because I was not aware of this truth, setbacks and disappointments often led me to a dark and unbearable depression. After reading Dyer’s book, the Power of Intention, I was transformed by his loving and supportive explanation of one’s inner life. I have read and re-read many times all of Dyers books and I appreciate how his gentle advice always goads me along my spiritual path. As I continue to bear witness to my spiritual transformation and use it to teach others to find and follow their own path, I rely on the same love, respect, acceptance and kindness I learned from Dr. Dyer.
We also learn from those with bad behavior
Ironically, we also learn from people who taught us the invaluable lesson of how not to be. I will not name anyone here to protect their reputations and their families. Just like me, they were doing the best they knew how to do. An example that comes to mind is that of a colleague whom I labeled a “grenade thrower”. This individual caused nothing but chaos. In almost every situation, he pitted people against one another rather than help solve the problem. He was also incapable of valuing a solution if it was not his idea. The grenade throwing metaphor came to me after observing the chaos that remained after he left any meeting. The rest of us had to stay behind to clean up the damage he had caused.
The ancient Buddhist quote, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”, reminds us we are not alone in this life, we get help along the way. This is who mentors are. Some call them teachers or guides. Some even refer to them as angels, but they are ones who opened your eyes to a greater way of being and feeling fulfilled.
Presenting mentors is one way the universe conspires with each one of us. When you reflect on your past, you can often that serendipity brought you a mentor or a lesson. I have grown accustomed to this process that brings jewels of wisdom and bearers of truth my way from the most innocuous sources.
It is important to identify your mentors and emulate the lessons they taught you. Just as you can choose your thoughts, you can select who to follow. Choose wisely, for your selection will provide the building blocks on how full your life can become.
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