As a lifelong learner who takes pride in self-directed learning, the importance of mentorship has not always been readily obvious to me. When I completed my residency and embarked on a career in academic medicine, little did I realize how important the mentorship of my then department chair, Dr. Janet Townsend, would be in terms of my career progression. In addition to supporting my commitment to staying clinically active while being on the full-time faculty at what was then a brand-new medical school without a faculty practice, she supported my numerous external interests, including my time as an external scholar in both the Fulbright and the Erasmus Mundus programs, enabling me to spend time as an international scholar in Nigeria, France, and the U.K. She also nominated me for various awards, including the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Nickens Faculty Fellowship, which I received in 2012.
The role of a mentor isn’t limited to giving advice. A mentor can connect the mentee with colleagues with similar interests and provide information about career opportunities. In addition to being a mentee, I have also had the privilege of mentoring students at various levels of training. Most of these were informal relationships and consisted of me providing advice based on my own experience and knowledge.
The importance of mentorship cannot be understated in terms of career growth and development. As Dorie Clark writes in the Harvard Business Review, we will likely need more than one mentor in our career. This is especially true for those of us who have a broad range of interests, both within and outside of academic medicine. Clark recommends building a mentor “board of directors,” as opposed to trying to find one ideal mentor. Interestingly, a recent experience highlighted the importance of mentorship when it comes to extra-professional interests.
I started taking piano lessons about a decade ago. (I had lessons in elementary school for less than a year and had played on and off on my own without instruction in the decades that followed.) At some point, I decided that sight-reading was too hard for me and I wanted to focus on learning to play by ear.
While I learned the basics of music theory and began to understand how I could simply play chord progressions without reading music, I found myself still being drawn to sheet music, even trying pieces that were quite challenging, given my lack of formal training. At the beginning of last year, I started working on a classical arrangement of the Christmas carol, Angels We Have Heard on High. It wasn’t very complicated, and I figured since it was early in the year, I should be able to play it by Christmas! I spent months practicing this piece on my own before asking my instructor for guidance. When I finally did ask, he gave me advice on the fingering to use in certain sections of the song to make the transitions easier. By the time Christmas came around, I was playing the piece, but still making mistakes.
By comparison, in September of the same year, my piano instructor suggested that I start working on an arrangement of another Christmas song, Good King Wenceslas, in the style of Pachelbel. I looked at the sheet music and protested that it was too hard. He told me he thought I was capable of playing it and encouraged me to try. This piece was much more challenging than the piece I had been working on all year, but by the end of the year, I was playing it through! That’s not to say I didn’t make mistakes, but I made much quicker progress on this piece than I had with the first piece. The fact that I had worked with an instructor from the beginning made all the difference. The guidance I received included using the appropriate fingering from the very beginning, and having someone point out my mistakes in rhythm and timing so I could correct them early on.
Whether it is in professional life or a hobby, having a guide or mentor can make all the difference.
Olapeju Simoyan is an addiction medicine specialist.