During the pandemic, Bengaluru-based author and motivational speaker Shekhar Vijayan got a call from a parent who was worried about her teenage son, an academically bright and high-achieving student who was going through a slump.
“On meeting and speaking with him, I understood that he was a child who simply could not focus or channelise his energy the right way,” says Vijayan. “He was looking for a challenge outside of academics. Over many conversations, I began to understand him better. He told me about his plans for college and the difficulties in his relationships. I encouraged him to write more because he had a talent for that, and also motivated him to keep a journal. He went on to do very well and now studies in the UK."
In this case, Vijayan’s specific skills as a mentor came into the picture. “I wanted to take him to a point where he was able to choose which direction he would want to take, on his own,” says Vijayan.
When our teens and young adults are confused about careers, we seek a career coach. When they struggle with behaviour or relationships, we call a counsellor. In life, however, personal and professional dilemmas intertwine, and our teen needs a trusted advisor or guide. This is where a mentor comes in.
While coaches and counsellors are immensely helpful, mentors offer something different. They are experienced and trusted advisors who build a long-term relationship with a mentee, guiding them every step of the way in their development.
In his book Learn, Don’t Study, Pramath Raj Sinha, who is also one of the founders of Ashoka University, devotes an entire chapter to the power of mentorship. He gives the example of Siya Sood, a bright student who was part of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women. During placements, she received an offer for a PR position and she was keen to take it.
Sinha, however, saw what Sood could not see—that the job would not allow her to challenge herself and truly shine. Instead, he suggested a public policy position in a global business advisory firm. To this day, Sood cites Sinha’s mentorship as one of the most instrumental moments in her career.
In the book, Sinha also quotes the Journal of Advanced Medical Education and Professionalism, and its study of a mentorship program in Kerala in 2020. The study found that mentorship had a significant impact on students.
But how is a mentor different from a teacher or a coach, and where do you find one?
“The fundamental difference I see between coaching and mentoring is that mentoring has no specific agenda,” says Anant Gangola, director at WeLive Foundation. “Coaches and counsellors have very specific agendas. In mentoring, the goal post is not decided. A mentor is someone you can count or fall back on, and he or she is a lifeline that is available to you."
Gangola futher adds that there is an informality to mentorship, and therefore the absence of an agenda. "A mentee can turn to a mentor with both personal and professional problems. Young people, in my understanding, need someone older to them, who is also outside their family circle. They need to find someone they can trust.”
With more than 30 years of experience in the education space, Gangola does not believe in preaching or giving solutions. “I truly respect the agency of the person I am mentoring,” he says.“I suggest ways and methods they can use to think about a problem. I help them process these problems.”
Teens can find mentors even among members of their families.
Bengaluru-based entrepreneur Mahesh Vorkady is the founder and lead designer of Dhool, a company that makes environmentally friendly products. Vorkady mentors his 18-year-old daughter, Vibha, who is also pursuing product design as a career path.
“I talk to my daughter about the signage, window dressings. and retail merchandise I created in my previous companies,” he says. “But I never tell her what to do because product design was very different twenty years ago when I began. We did not have 3D printers or CNC machines and everything was handmade. Instead, I mentor my daughter about the thought process behind making a product.”
Vorkady gives an example of a story that truly motivated his daughter to pursue design: “Around 15 years ago, there was a movie called Attahasa about Veerappan’s life. The director, who is known to my friends, reached out asking me to make trophies for the film cast and crew to celebrate the film’s success. I made a trophy that had the tusk of an elephant made from fibre glass. It looked so real that we were once apprehended by officials who thought it was actual ivory," he recalls adding that these are the conversations and ideas that get his daughter excited.
With the right mentor, a teen can kickstart his or her journey into adulthood in a formative way.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance journalist who lives in Mumbai.