I worked for a large international law firm that had offices in Asia including Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong. A large part of the firm’s practice was with Japanese clients and we had 38 Japanese speaking attorneys in our firm at one time. Over a period of ten years with that firm, I learned a lot about the Japanese culture and language. Recently, I was preparing a Power Point presentation on Mentoring the Next Generation, and was struggling to think of a visual way to describe what a mentor looks like to a generation of people who have not seen one in action. My daughter came up with idea of using the Karate Kid, a popular movie in which Mr. Miyagi plays the part of an older Japanese Sensei who teaches his protege, Daniel, the art of Karate. It was a natural one word description of a mentor that most people could grasp, even if they didn’t know what a Sensei was.
Sensei actually means “one who was born before another”. In most Asian cultures, age and maturity are esteemed values and characteristics. Less so in the western world.
In its use, the term Sensei has a deeper meaning of someone who teaches based on wisdom, age and experience. It has the sense of someone walking along side another and being a teacher or advocate. In Japan, an older lawyer was considered a Sensei and clients come to them for advice on matters other than legal issues. They respected the wisdom that comes from maturity. In the western culture, the terms Sensei is a good example of a mentor – someone who comes alongside another to impart wisdom that comes from his life experiences, education and training.
Most people remember Karate Kid for scenes where Daniel, the protégé was told to “wax on…wax off” polishing a car. He didn’t see the connection of the exercise which would help him become better at Karate, a martial art. It seemed senseless to him at the time, yet valuable later on. Another favorite scene is when Mr. Miyagi attempts to catch a fly with his chopstix and says that someone who can “catch a fly with chopstix can accomplish anything”. Daniel asks if he has ever caught one and his response was “Not yet.”
Through a Sensei, one can gather wisdom and perspective which is only gained through their experience. As Albert Einstein said:
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”
I met a young lawyer who was struggling in a profession that he was not sure is what he wanted to do in life. A Christian counselor introduced us. I told him I would be willing to spend time with him, but wanted for him to know one thing up front: I told him that it was a lot easier in life to learn from the mistakes of others, and that I had made hundreds and had a lot to tell him. You see, I had the lessons of hard knocks – the “tests” of life where I could reflect on what the lesson was afterwards.
When I talk to potential mentors everywhere in the world, they all seem to react with the same questions: “I’m too busy. “I don’t know how.” “I need training.” “Nobody ever asked me.” Or the best: “I don’t have anything to offer.”
My response is the same: if you have gray hair, you are equipped to mentor. You’ve been trained. You have experienced life’s lessons the hard way, and just being a willing sounding board to the next generation is valuable asset to them. You just have to be willing to listen which communicates several things: I believe in you. You are not alone. And most importantly, it can be done!
My challenge is for those who have not experienced being a mentor for whatever reason. Conservatively, 80% of the millennials and the next generation are crying out for you to show up and walk along side them. To invest in the lives of another is one of the most rewarding thing you can do. It is selfless, but the rewards are eternal.