Justin Lam graduated from University of Toronto Medical School in 2017 and is now a first year resident in Paediatrics at UofT and SickKids
Denis Daneman is Chair Emeritus, UofT Dept of Paediatrics, and Paediatrician-in-Chief Emeritus, SickKids
The Mentee: JL
I sat in front of my laptop, staring at an email draft to a potential mentor. I knew it was pointless trying to perfect it, but I felt I needed to read it just one more time. He was, after all, a legend in my medical world, a well-respected clinician and expert in the field, with a prolific academic career and an illustrious research career. Also, I had only interacted with him a handful of times before. I was reaching out to him because of what I perceived to be his ability to balance his career with a family. How had he done it? I hit send. His reply came not 10 minutes later. Our first meeting was set.
Before I knew it, we were meeting for the third time. It was during this meeting that I was given an article written by a psychiatrist about how he had chosen not only his specialty, but also between a “quiet life” and a “calling” , a process that I myself was going through at the time and had begun to explore with the help of this mentor. He told me that he felt we had managed to get past the surface level in our conversations so far, but was curious as to how we had gotten there. I am prompted to write about this mentorship project to share what I think it was about our relationship that allowed us to explore our careers – one already at its zenith, and another moments away from taking flight – in the hope that you will be encouraged to seek this kind of mentorship for yourself.
I had reached out to this mentor initially because I wanted to know how he had balanced it all. At our first meeting though, his response came not as a sentence but as a question: he asked me whether I thought medicine was a means to maintain a lifestyle or if medicine is a lifestyle in and of itself. I was slightly surprised, not expecting to be asked a question, but I gave my answer, to which he replied that for him, as for me, medicine had always been a calling. His questions became signposts for what he deemed to be important, not only to respond to, but to also reflect on. It was a way of showing, not telling, what was important. This kind of Socratic method, answering a question with a question, allowed us to explore and distill each other’s views and was a hallmark of what allowed us to delve deeper into our beliefs and values.
But asking questions was only one part of our exchange. Even before meeting with him, I felt that he had already invested in my professional growth as he had taken the time to talk with me about my summer research project, and to send me an article that he thought would be instructive. Because I felt valued, I was comfortable saying things strongly but holding them lightly, and approached each question with a readiness to challenge my beliefs based on our conversation. This relational foundation allowed for a conversation to unfold. We took each question in stride, regardless of its nature, not viewing it as outside the bounds of our conversation. There was a spirit of openness for allowing the conversation to go wherever it might go, for exchanging ideas as they arose. I felt increasingly comfortable with ambiguity and we were much more interested in discussing our ideas and experiences. This candor was possible also because as a mentor, he was a mixture of parent and peer – experienced enough to dispense advice but close enough to discuss ideas without fear of judgment. Our conversational space was one where ideas could be freely tested, mulled over, discussed, and affirmed or refuted. It was also free of expectations save one: that we would engage in conversation enthusiastically and genuinely.
So, we asked questions, responded openly, embraced unexpected turns and twists in our shared stories and conversation. I came to realize that there was a certain amount of reading between the lines, that often there was something to be learned even in a parable left unfinished because behind the veneer of every story lay a framework of core values, the lesson that came with the story. I think it also helped that after every meeting, I would write down as much as I could remember about our conversation. By recording our meetings and reflecting on the stories that were shared, I would discover newfound lessons. This written record was also a memory aid that I could reflect on further later because I knew what I remembered now would not be what I remembered over time.
This is but the beginning of our mentorship exchange. Mentorship can be hard to find, and good mentors even more so, but we also know that the best mentors are people who expand your world view, open doors that you didn’t even know existed, and guide you along your career and life. From this one foray into mentorship, there are several takeaways that you might find helpful in your own mentorship relationships. Namely, that a genuine interest in each other and a willingness to take turns asking questions over several meetings forms the basis of an exploratory relationship. Moreover, that an openness to new and unexpected ideas and a tolerance for ambiguity combined with a willingness to read between the lines for implicit lessons and a willingness to be vulnerable and feeling safe to do so, can be conducive to deeper conversation, not just between a mentor and mentee, but between anyone.
Of course, not every mentorship relationship will unfold this way or delve this deep. Some mentors you will meet with once or twice for advice, and then, you will fall out of touch. Others will linger longer, over a year, or two, or three before coming to an end. But when you do come across the opportunity to travel down this particular path to mentorship, I encourage you to take it, because I think you will be pleasantly surprised by what you might discover not just about your mentor, but about who you are as well.
The Mentor reflects: DD
Many individuals and organizations have reflected on the nature of mentorship: what it is, who needs it, what works best, and much more. After 36 years in academic medicine, 15 as a Division Head and Program lead, and 10 as a Department Chair/Chief, the only statement I can make without fear of contradiction is: No one size fits all. And a corollary: forced, formal mentorship rarely is the answer.
Mentorship is a continuum: from formal discussions with large groups on issues such as career choice, time management, academic focus, to much less formal, usually student-initiated interactions which, on occasion, reach the heights and depths of that described in this personal reflection. In my experience, this happens but a few times at most during any one academic career for a number of reasons: many students seek short-term, “situational” mentorship to deal with a particular issue; others use the mentorship to confirm their preconceived notions (“mind made up”), yet other fail because of lack of time, lack of sensitivity to or clarity of needs. Success depends on attunement of the mentor and mentee, and a genuine sense of involvement of the mentor in the mentee’s career with no expectation of “pay back” (e.g. name on a paper by the mentee). The more open-ended the situation, the more extended the time period over which the relationship develops, the more likely will both mentor and mentee derive the full benefits. And by benefits, I certainly do not mean answers to questions, but rather the challenging of pre-conceived notions, the raising of topics not previously considered, and the intellectual growth of the mentee and mentor.
Our Mentorship Project was a success because it was mentee-initiated, open-ended, mutually respectful, and challenging. My “pay back” is seeing the emergence of a young physician on the cusp of what I have no doubt will be a highly accomplished career in academic paediatrics. Recalling my relationship with two mentors over my career, I can only hope that we continue to evolve ours.