Every year I plan my own birthday party, though admittedly they have become a lot less elaborate as I ease into my mid-thirties. I’ve discovered that despite my carefully imagined plans (excitement, great outfits, strong drinks, tears-producing laughs, friends mingling easily, and the most fun had by all), at the actual event I am often distracted by my anxiety that my birthday vision be executed precisely. I do not always enjoy myself fully and have a familiar sink in my stomach when my expectations prove to be higher than the result – I’ve set myself up again.
You want to know when I really have the best time? Other people’s birthday parties. Free of the planning, anxiety about others, and my own expectations, I can relax and enjoy being with people in whatever shape the event may take. It can be about them – celebrating a friend who I care about and participating in the celebration in the manner they have chosen. Perhaps it would not be the party I would plan for myself, but it’s not about me.
Last month I attended the college graduation of a wonderful young woman who I’ve known since she was thirteen and in the eighth grade. I consider her a mentee and dear friend, even a family member. I’ve been honored to be considered her mentor and to be allowed into her life for the past eleven years. I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about mentoring in the process. I do not consider myself to be any kind of mentoring expert, despite the fact that I work for a large mentoring organization and spend most of my days thinking about mentoring. In fact, I feel that mentoring has exposed me and brought to light so many wrong-headed ideas I didn’t even realize I had. If mentoring does not make you feel like a failure at times, I submit that you’re doing it wrong.
I don’t take for granted what we achieved in our mentoring relationship. We come from two incredibly different backgrounds and our worldviews were shaped by our distinct experiences. We bring the weight of racial, cultural, and socio-economic differences to the relationship. And yet – it still feels like a miracle – somehow trust was built and true friendship constructed despite my bumbling efforts and mistakes. Despite the many days when I regretted my choice of words in whatever bit of advice I had given, or when I offered an opinion when I should have listened more and asked questions.
Mentoring brought me face to face with my motives, and it wasn’t always pretty. Motives are rarely uncomplicated and never pure. Deep down, did I want to turn my mentee into another version of myself, and make all the same choices I had? Did I somehow believe, fundamentally, that my way (and in essence the way of middle class White America) was the best and ideal way of doing things? How do I honor all the voices of influence in her life, accepting that I am just one voice and often not the most important one?
What I have come to know, and am still learning, is that mentoring is done best when it’s not my own birthday party I’m planning. There is no room for the imposition of my own expectations. It’s not about me and any self-gratification I achieve through my mentee’s success in her life journey. I get the honor of an invitation to another person’s birthday party, so I am along for the ride. I am there to celebrate, support, and enjoy the unique way in which that person designs their party. I will learn, I will be out of my comfort zone, and I will experience joy when I am free of the anxiety of hoping it all goes perfectly. It will be the most fun when I let go of my vision and show up with true openness and humility, in sincere gratitude to be invited.
Dorothy Yoder lives and works in Philadelphia. She has worked at youth and community organizations in Oakland, CA and Philly. She likes to run in the park, eat good meals, read, and play tennis at near-professional levels. In general, she has better things to do than write for our blog, but she did it anyway. And that is admirable.