Are you doing something with your life that differs strongly from how everyone around you plans on living their life? If so, read on. This is for you.
READING TIME: 13 minutes
In a Post-Internet Age, no single person can mentor you
The word ‘mentor’ comes from a guy called Mentor, who was in the greek epic The Odyssey. Mentor was an older friend of Odysseus. When Odysseus went to war, he handed the education of his son Telemachus over to Mentor.
When I was in Southeast India last year, I befriended a guy named Ganesh who made sandals. I also met his father, whose name was Ganesh. He also made sandals. They were new to the sandal business, at a mere two generations. Another family I hung out with had been in hospitality for three generations. There was this potter who said his family had been in pottery for nine generations, and a metalworker who claimed thirteen generations. It used to be that Americans could expect to work an entire career in one company, and train their replacement to do their job. Will what your father did be a viable occupation in 2038? Will the things he physically did to do that job make sense for you to do?
A graphic designer does not cut and paste multiple media by hand, and maybe now they're just called 'creative director', 'information designer', or 'UX designer'. A lot of children want to grow up to be influencers. Influencers seem to come up from all sorts of specialties, falling into the influencer position by chance. This parallels the aristocrats and people with sinecures who birthed entire new fields of research in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ten years ago people scoffed at the idea of a set of algorithms taking over an attorney's job, and artists felt smug that no AI would ever come for them. When people make products for everyone, they ask about whether their grandmother could use that product. They do this to see if the product really could be used by everyone. This tells us about what some gaps might be between us and our parents. New technology may be harder for them to use, but is that the whole story?
I heard a mother tell her daughter that she didn't want her going down an unfamiliar path because she just didn't have the answers for any kind of questions that her daughter might have from going down that path. That's a common sentiment- children today live in a world that their parents are not prepared for.
In a way, twas ever thus, but imagine, for a moment, being the first urban-dwelling reader in your forager family. There are hundreds of actual people in this position today. Your parents, say, know all about life in a 50-man band- gathering plants, hunting animals, and living off the land or, closer to a city, the detritus of civilization. What advice will they have for you on building your credit to obtain a mortgage for a house in Sacramento?
The gap between pre-internet and internet native is at least as wide as that gap. It may not seem that way because we're right here in the middle of it.
Pick a Dead Person
The phrase 'What Would Jesus Do' contains everything you need to mentor yourself. What Would Batman Do? What do we know of what Benjamin Franklin did?
You've seen this before, in fiction. The force ghost of Ben Kenobi guiding Luke Skywalker in 'The Empire Strikes Back', all the way to the generations of all force ghosts empowering Rey in 'The Rise of Skywalker'. The lineage of Avatars in Avatar: The Last Airbender are there to counsel Aang and Katara. The Fa family's ancestors lend Mulan their total support and wisdom. The MCU Black Panthers receive a message from a dead family member when they enter the trance state from eating the sacred herb. This process is older than we can remember- it was probably the way we interacted with the dead for most of our illiterate history. In the same way that people feel phantom limbs long after the limb has been cut off, we feel the dead in how they reverberate through our minds. There's not much on who Shakespeare was, but we carry him with us. His art contained a piece of him, and now it lives on in us. So it's not just the dead- it's also those who were created by the dead. For the living, we call these relationships parasocial.
Parasocial relationships with the living present a difficulty- namely, the gap in expectation between their image and them. The resulting complications someone might run into include living life from the sidelines, feeling left out, and never taking a place among the pantheon of People Who Make Decisions. To get around that, we have the dead and the wholly imagined. Your own personal Jesus, who is more you than any Pope or Lee Man-hee would be.
I invite you to wonder about what you want to do with your life.
Given that mission, who would you want on your team? Who has the experience, the ability, the resolve to get what you want? These questions are how you will choose which people to devour into your mind.
Learn about those who are most likely to help you get your particular want. If you want to play soccer, then look at soccer players. If you want to bring stability to a large group of people, then maybe look at Octavian. If you want to hone your craft, perhaps look at Hokusai. You can also flip this- who would have been most likely to get in the way of what you want? Who gets in the way of soccer players? Maybe if you want to bring stability to a large group of people, you look at who seems to have created the most chaos. Who would have stopped someone from being an artist? You can also use someone that helps you get closer to someone living. Say you have a business, and narrow customer base. Does that customer base look up to someone in history? If they do, then submitting to that person would help you better understand your customer base.
Feel free to browse a place like Pantheon, where you can select from among the most memorable humans in our history.
Let the Dead Into Your Mind by Studying Them
By going through the most memorable people in history, we are guaranteed access to data about them. The closer we get to a primary source, or someone who knew them, the better. Autobiographies are like striking gold, but there aren't many of those relative to your choices. Video or audio recordings of their life are even better, but these are even more rare. You will also have to study their time, to better understand their context. What was life like for someone in their town? How long did they live? What did they eat? How did the people of that time relate to each other? Other animals? The sun? What were their everyday problems? What kind of crises did their groups expect to face? It's only when you have an idea of their context that you can extrapolate what they might say about your context.
Contemporary interpretations of primary sources change with trends, and archaeological findings keep streaming in to change our understanding of the past. Simply keep these things in mind as you read them- what does the author of what you are reading want to believe about the person you want to know about? What are their morals? Would their judgment color how they interpret what they know?
You may have heard of scifi stories and future speculations about AIs that reconstruct past figures from trawling through data about them. That is what you're doing, here. You are, however, doing this for your purpose- whatever that purpose might be. So the version of this person that you summon will be shaped by that purpose.
Once you can hear their thoughts as easily as you might hear an old friend's, they are ready to serve as an elder.
What Napoleon did in his time is not necessarily indicative of what he would do today, in your context, with your capacities. Make sure the Napoleon in your mind has access to all your information. This is another way that the dead are easier than the living- it might be impossible to get a living person the information you have. However, since this Napoleon is a part of you, it is trivial for him to have access to everything you know, and trust is more easily given.
Assemble a Council of Elders
As you study the lives of more and more individuals, you will be taken in by each of them. Along the way it may seem that this person had all the answers. There will be a part of you that craves rest, a part that wants one final tactic, method, strategy, belief, or moral path to rest on. No final tactic will ever exist. This lesson is learned by wanting something clearly and badly enough. Nikolai Bernstein researched what made the movements of experts unique. One of the things he found is something called ‘repetition without repetition’. The expert does the same thing a trillion different ways. Each time they do the same thing, they do it differently to adjust to the changing environment. You will find that the tactic that worked last time will not work as well this time, so you will find a new way because you really, really want the result.
So if an elder doesn't have the answer, what use is it to ask them for advice?
Imagine you are a ruler of a kingdom. The Marshal of your armies wants to go to war with your neighbors, who killed one of your people. The Steward of your treasury wants you to raise taxes and lower costs, so a war is the last thing on his mind. The High Priest wants you to construct a temple and walk around a sacred place eighty times to pray for your land. The Vizier wants you to pass laws to make it easier to arrest popular people who associate with your neighbors. Who do you listen to?
You listen to all of them. Let yourself be influenced, rather than copy what any single one says. Listen to all of them to get a broader picture of the situation. If you understand why they want you to do what they're asking you to do, and get what they see out of the situation, then they are serving their purpose as your council. None of them can know your purpose like you can, and none of them can enact your purpose like you can, but they can tell you about what they see, and that will be essential to understanding your affordances. That is, understanding what this situation might allow you to do.
Join Movement with What Your Elders Help You See
As soon as you've heard everyone on your council out, it is time to move. Let what the elders say inform your decision, but make that decision and move. The more you move, the more information you get. The more information you have, the longer it takes to decide. A moment pregnant with information will feel like one in which you are running out of time. To create time, make a decision- and this is where your Council of Elders comes into play. Hear them out, then decide. Information slows you down. Making a decision speeds you up. Keep moving.
You make a move to see what’s going on, and you see what’s going on to make a move. The elders inform you, you take their information and act. In the thick of the action they will be silent, but they’ll be right where you left them when you’re ready to pop your head up and check out the lay of the land again.
This is why it’s important to affect the physical world with whatever advice a mentor might give. A friend mentioned they might have a mentor that’s a city planner, and so they would be instructed in modeling cities, but it would never turn into more movement. That is, your phantom mentor may give you advice on how to build castles in the sky, and you may never attempt to build a castle in the sky, content to build castles in your mind. This is where it becomes important to act, to make a move. It doesn’t have to be big. It can be tiny. You can turn the model in your mind into a model in space. If you have a lot of legos, build a lego city. If you don’t have legos, pick up a city construction simulator game. If you’re a quant, build a basic economic model of your neighborhood that a local small business owner could use. If you’re a kid on a beach, take that castle in the sky and build a sandcastle. When you get energy from that action, use that energy to make a slightly bigger move. Perhaps shift from a sandcastle to a clay castle at home. Maybe shift from Sim City to computer-aided design software. Shift from seducing yourself to seducing your neighborhood.
Your action will attract more attention over time, no matter what action that is. Once you’ve turned this into a process, you will probably be ready to view anyone as a mentor. Viewing any person in front of you as someone to learn from, a master will probably recognize you. “A teacher will appear”, as that old New Age saying goes.