Hard advice and mentorship

This is the second part of my thoughts on surviving the seismic changes in the economy and staying relevant at any age. The first part is “Skills and the fight against irrelevancy“. But I have learned that even wielding the most updated skills is not enough if you do not get good advice on a constant basis.

Recently, my children asked me over dinner why I have a blog and why do I write all these articles (690 posts since 2005!)

I said : “Firstly, this is a record of my thoughts and ideas for you. Kind of like the fancy ‘memory crystal’ that Jor-El hands down to Ka-El in the Superman movie. So if I die tomorrow, you cannot complain your father did not tell you anything.”

“Second, this blog is a repository of my experiences and ideas, so my friends and readers can read what I would otherwise spend a long time telling them. ”

The kids shrugged and went back to eating their dinner and quarreling with each other.

Oh well.

Channelnewsasia recently ran a very sobering chapter of Talking Point, on how many PMETs in their 30s and 40s are hardest hit by job losses. It’s a long 23-min episode that is worth your time to watch (I didn’t embed it here because the video uses the obsolete Silverlight plug-in, so just click the link).

In both the video and my previous post, there is a lot of discussion about changing mindsets, obsolete skills and skills upgrading. The usual shebang of dealing with being 40+ and jobless.

But people make the mistake of thinking it is just about skills.

I’ve seen that the root of the problem (of becoming irrelevant) goes deeper than that, and starts at the beginning of one’s working life (or perhaps even during the schooling years).

To stay ahead of the curve, to fight irrelevancy and to survive, we need to seek out hard advice and mentorship. This is a practice from the beginning of time, but many people reject because they find it too hard to do (when it isn’t).

In my 20s, I met a lot of guys in their 40s complaining about being retrenched and having no job offers. I will hit the big Four Zero next month, and I refuse to make any excuses about becoming obsolete. You either give up or you get better at what you do.

When chatting with a few friends born in 1976 like me, they brought up how many people they meet get neither advice nor mentorship, which leads them to make regretful choices in life. Many of our generation also did not have enough career guidance when we were young.

“Otherwise we’d all be landlords today!” quipped one friend. Indeed, property is always a safe haven of passive income if you have excess capital to play with.

Some things I have learned, and have experienced myself the hard way (ah, all the mistakes I have committed….) :

  1. Most people do not seek advice from older and more experienced people. They would rather listen to what their peers tell them.
  2. When they do get good and tough advice, they often ignore it and follow their own assumptions. (Remember, “Ass-U-Me”)
  3. Even if they accept the good advice, they lack constant guidance and correction from mentors.
  4. Mentors themselves are not infallible and were successful in a different era, so they may not always give the most balanced or up-to-date advice. But there are universal truths they can pass down, regardless of the times.
  5. The Internet has all the information on earth, but people fail to search beyond their personal bias.

Bottom line : Accept hard advice to discover more options and knowledge, seek one or several mentors to provide feedback and correction, and keep feeling paranoid that you may get obsolete anytime. Once you start to fossilize at any age (20, 30 or 40), it becomes hard to learn new things and change your path. This happens to too many people.

Apprenticeship under a grandmaster

As someone who was into drawing and art, I learned this fascinating fact when I was younger :

Most great artists often spent years or even a decade as apprentices under their master before they could strike out on their own. 

lifelong mentorship and advice
The Baptism of Christ, by by Verrocchio and his student Leonardo da Vinci. (1472-75)

Michelangelo spent four years understudying Ghirlandaio and sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni.  Raphael spent about six years under Pietro Perugino.

The most famous example of apprenticeship was Leonardo Da Vinci, who spent 10 years under Verrocchio :

Leonardo apprenticed as a garzone (studio boy) to Andrea del Verrocchio, the leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day. Other famous painters apprenticed or associated with the workshop include Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, and Lorenzo di Credi. Leonardo would have been exposed to both theoretical training and a vast range of technical skills including drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics and carpentry as well as the artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting and modelling. – Wikipedia.

Like Jedis and Sith Lords, the same need for deep apprenticeship goes for any high-performance athlete or successful businessman.

If you read stories about any big-name personality, you’ll always find that they’ve had a long association with someone more experienced or with an intense focus guiding them from the rear flanks.

The mentor can be anyone from their parent, their wife, their talent agent or their ex-boss. Knowledge is always best passed down from one person to another. Here’s a little Google search tip:

Mentor Finder = Just search Google for “your favorite role model” + “mentor”

lifelong mentorship and advice
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Image from LA Times.

For example, in the NBA, Kobe Bryant was mentored by Michael Jordan, who was in turn mentored by his coach Dean Smith. Each generation learns new tricks and techniques, while building upon the learnings of the past.

In the music arena, the late artiste Prince was a mentor to many young singers (or were they his muses?). Even Lady Gaga, whom you’d think would chart her own path, has found mentorship in Tony Bennett.

I applied the Mentor Finder formula to Jack Ma and found his mentor’s story online too.

As the examples show, it is not enough just to hear wise advice. There needs to be someone to kick your ass or tell it to your face in a regular, consistent manner.

For example, it is easy to read the sayings of Proverbs in the Bible or the Analects of Confucius. But they are almost always forgotten the very next moment because you will not be reminded of them nor do you put them into practice.

Great mentors are hard to find, and those who are known are often in high demand. But nobody knows you need a mentor until you open your mouth to ask, so go do that today.

Who not to listen to

Proverbs 13:20 contains this interesting verse:

Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.

You need to hang around with people that you would like to become, because otherwise you will not know how they do the things they do.

In a way, that’s why there is educational streaming in schools, but the flip-side is that streaming creates elitism and class divisions over time. Worth another discussion there, but I digress.

Obviously you should not hang around fools, but young people should also be cautious of seeking advice from their peers.

I share a lot of things with my old school mates and seek their opinions on many things today.

But when we were younger, in our teens and 20s, asking them about important life decisions was not terribly useful as they were as clueless as I was. I was the first among the bunch to have kids, and my friends simply could not help me figure out the best ways to bring up my son or daughter.

Still, over time, we gained experience in our different fields of work and our marriages, and became more able to offer fresh and different perspectives.

Social media does not help either.

We tend to only follow the posts of friends who are similar to us, and read/like FB groups that are aligned to our existing interests. Social media may actually shut us out of new experiences and perspectives, despite the dubious promise of connecting everyone.

Thus, the better advice often comes from anyone more experienced (and not necessarily older) than you. Or just research for it online and get experts to weigh in on what you have read to validate the truth.

Shaped by many people

For me, I have been blessed to have had many role models and a few great mentors in my life since I was a student.

They included several teachers in school, my dragonboat coach, my army commanders, my final-year university lecturer and every single one of my managers at work (even those I did not get along well with).

As my father died when I was young, I guess I treated each of these seniors like a father figure, learning their strengths and weaknesses along the way, and deciding what sort of father, worker and citizen I would be.

Perhaps, that is also a possible reason why I do not go along with the rest of the “kiasu parents” crowd, because my values and principles have also been molded by people who do not accept the status quo.

Each of my role models emphasized the need to evaluate a problem on its own terms, and not what someone else said about it. They were not shy to sock the raw truth to me if I was not performing up to scratch, and while the advice hurt when I was younger, my skin got thicker with repeated feedback.

Funny enough, even the worst managers have some good things to teach.

In the SAF, I met an army major who wasn’t very smart, but spent his time blaming junior officers (like me) for his own mistakes. He taught me what I shouldn’t be.

Some of the best advice I’ve received

I’d also like to share a few lines of advice that have etched deeply in my head, and I hope they prove useful to you too.

#1 “As far as possible, do not do anything that will let others say bad things about you, even if it is very minor.”

On the very first day of my journalism internship in 1998, my manager Augustine Pang (then a senior journalist in The New Paper, now an NTU lecturer) told me this line and I was intrigued.

“Why, boss?”

“Because this guy will tell another person and exaggerate some details. Then the 2nd person will then tell another 3rd person and embellish the story further. Before long, many people would have heard an increasingly bad story about you and your original small mistake will be spread to others as a massive one.”

“OK, got it, boss.”

From Gus, I further learned how he had such a huge network of contacts to draw upon, and he showed me how to think laterally to attack a story from different angles.

#2 “Make the smallest assignment an award-winning one.”

The man who gave me the opportunity to become a professional photojournalist was Philip Lim, the photo editor of TNP.

He said : “Most days you will get boring photo assignments, so what are you going to do about it? Put your utmost effort to make each photo you take an award-winning one. Don’t care how lousy the story is. Who knows, you might just get an award.”

And he was right. I did go on to win in-house and national awards for photos taken during mundane assignments. He taught me that you have to make opportunities happen at all times.

#3 “How do you get from good to great?”

My current boss Ben Tan has been my mentor and friend for nearly a decade. For all this time he has taught me many things and encouraged me to vastly improve my way of working and thinking. I owe much to him.

The most critical bit he has been sharing with me for the longest time is about how we as teams and individuals “go from being good to great”.

It’s not an easy process, I’m still working on it, and you can also find out for yourself by checking out the book Good To Great by Jim Collins.

(Sorry, there’s just too much to share on this topic for me to even summarize in a paragraph!)

#4 “Teach others everything you know, so you can learn even more.”

From other senior SPH photographers like Jonathan Choo and Mohd Ishak, I learned how to stay young at heart by not hoarding knowledge.

Jonathan said to me: “We will teach you everything we know about photography and you should learn it all, and then pass it on.

“Because when we were young, our senior photographers never wanted to share their skills or secrets. They wanted to press us down but with the Internet today, nothing remains a secret anymore.

“Now go out and compete with everyone!”

3 Replies to “Hard advice and mentorship”

  1. Great post!!

    Ian, for this tip–

    #1 “As far as possible, do not do anything that will let others say bad things about you, even if it is very minor.”

    But this can’t be helped; sometimes people just cherry pick or make things up just because they buay song leh. As we all know, great brands and personalities will always polarize. How would you deal with such things then?

    1. It can be helped. It’s about being transparent about how you work and sooner or later, people will find it hard to say anything inconsistent about you.

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