If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
– Isaac Newton

Last time we explored the wonders of the prefrontal cortex, the thing that makes us…well, us. This time we shall talk of mentoring, the art and science of sharing with others all that beautiful knowledge buried within our brains.

The role of mentor is one of the most valuable roles we can serve in professionally. By sharing our knowledge with others, we multiply exponentially how much work can be done with that knowledge. A great surgeon saves lives; a great teacher of surgeons has a hand in saving the lives of every patient her many students serve.

Unfortunately, just being knowledgeable does not mean one is skilled at sharing that knowledge with others. You may recall a college professor who was clearly an expert in their particular field, and could opine upon that field until they sucked the oxygen out of the room, but had no skill whatsoever in effectively transferring their expertise to students.

In psychology we use the four stages of competence to illustrate this principle.

The first stage is unconscious incompetence. This is when someone is bad at something, and they don’t even know enough to realize how truly bad they are.

The second stage is conscious incompetence. This is when a person is bad at something but they know it! This self-awareness allows them to learn and get better.

The third stage is conscious competence. This is when someone knows what they are doing and they are good at it, but they haven’t been doing it so long that it’s automatic. The individual still has to think through what they know.

The fourth stage is unconscious competence. This is when a person has been doing the work for so long that they can do it with their eyes closed. Great basketball players talk about being “in the zone.” They are no longer thinking about what they are doing, but allowing their well-trained unconscious to carry most of the cognitive load.

Unconscious competence is a great place to be as an individual contributor — these are the people who are the most productive with their own work — but it’s a terrible place to be as a mentor. It is difficult to teach that which now comes to us naturally. We tend to lack the patience necessary to share the knowledge, and we try to cover too much too quickly, drowning the poor mentee in an unstructured data dump.

To become successful at mentoring we must unpack our knowledge and actually go back to the third stage of expertise, the conscious competence. Only by consciously considering each step in the knowledge we wish to share, and only by recalling what it was like to learn that knowledge as an amateur, will we have the foresight and patience to share our knowledge in a clear, organized fashion.

In addition, despite what I have chosen to title this article, mentoring is not about making someone just like us. As the saying goes, if two people think alike, one of them is redundant. Instead of turning someone into a carbon copy of ourselves, mentoring is about drawing out the unique talents and passions of the mentee, and sharing our knowledge in a way that will help them build on their strengths rather than our strengths.

I’ve been surprised to discover that the biggest barrier to mentoring is not that people don’t know how to mentor, but that they choose not to. What often stands in our way is our own competitive mindset. We’ve all heard that knowledge is power. Our brains often extrapolate from that (often without our knowing it) and conclude, “Well, if knowledge is power then I don’t want to share it. I need to make sure I remain the most knowledgeable person in the room!” Of course, if I stop sharing my knowledge, people will stop sharing their knowledge with me. In addition, they will go to someone else to get what they need and I become a rock in the river; water flows around me and I don’t influence anything at all.

When I was studying neuroscience I had to take a variety of chemistry courses. I offer my undying gratitude to all the wonderful chemists out there who make our lives better in myriad marvelous ways, but I hate chemistry. While biology and physics and the medical sciences were a great fit for me, chemistry just never clicked.

That did not stop my perfectionist brain from insisting I get good grades in chemistry regardless. My brain wanted straight As, and grew rather anxious when, on the first day of my first chemistry course, the professor stood and said, “This class is graded on a bell curve.”

You know what that means. For me to get my A not only did I have to do well, but I needed everyone else in the class to do as badly as possible. So when I studied for tests, I always studied on my own because I didn’t want to help anyone else.

At the end of the semester the grades came out. Lo and behold, the ones who got the highest grades were consistently the ones who studied in groups.

That experience taught me the power of knowledge comes not from having the most of it, but from helping those around us to be at least as knowledgeable as ourselves, if not more so.

It’s worth doing, for there are a host of benefits that grow out of a mentoring partnership: benefits for the mentor, the mentee, and the organization. The organization gets teams with backup, which lowers risk. It also gets new hires fully functional in a much shorter period of time. A mentor grants mentees additional support learning new skills, helps them build their network, and reduces their personal risk by sharing best practices and other “unwritten rules” within the organization.

A study performed at Sun Microsystems found that the retention rate for those not in their mentoring program was 49%. For mentors it was 69% and for mentees 72%, a significant difference for the company. Of those who participated in the company’s mentoring program (mentors and mentees), 25% had a salary grade change versus only 5% of those who were not in the program. Furthermore, mentees were promoted at a rate five times higher than those not in the program; mentors were promoted at a rate six times higher.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits for mentors is the sense of personal satisfaction that comes from helping someone else succeed. Long long (long loooooooooong) ago I began my career teaching at a company called Kaplan, which prepares students to take graduate admission exams. If students were preparing to take the MCAT for medical school or the GMAT for business school, I taught them how to ace those tests. The first class I taught was for the DAT (dental admissions test). The course was 14 weeks long, and despite the less-than-captivating subject matter, I loved teaching it.

One day I was on a nearby university campus when I ran across one of my former DAT students. He had a big stack of envelopes in his hand.

I asked, “What are those?”

He said, “They’re my applications to dental school.”

Hearing that I couldn’t help but ask, “What did you get on the DAT?”

He scored in the 99th percentile. I was delighted. That was a much higher score than I myself had ever earned on the DAT, and I knew with a score like that he could attend whatever dental school his heart desired.

That remains one of the most satisfying experiences of my career, when someone I mentored did even better than I could have done in the same situation.

For those of you starting out in a new position or career, it is especially helpful to find yourself a mentor. To those who are experts, find someone to share your knowledge with, and rejoice when they usurp you!

For Your Consideration

  1. Examine your current job. Where are you in the stages of competence? Where would you like to be, and how do you plan to get there?
  2. If you are considering being a mentor, what specific things can you do to unpack your knowledge, to move from a level of unconscious competence to conscious competence? How can you most effectively transfer your expertise to another?
  3. If you are within the first two stages of expertise, who might best help you develop your competence? Talk to those who know you and your work and see who they might recommend. Many companies also have internal social networks; they might help you discover that perfect mentor.
  4. No one is locked into the mentor or mentee role alone. Great mentors know they are not experts in all things and seek out mentors for themselves. List your areas of expertise, then list areas in which you would like to build your expertise, then plan on which areas to find a mentor, and which to be a mentor to others.



University of Pennsylvania. (2007). Workplace loyalties change, but the value of mentoring doesn’t. Retrieved from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/workplace-loyalties-change-but-the-value-of-mentoring-doesnt/