💀 Do your "mentors" deserve the benefit of the doubt?


Do your "mentors" deserve the benefit of the doubt?

May 6, 2019

I am still working on understanding the role of "mentorship" in my life in which my socializing happens largely online where content's cheap, conversations are short, and everyone is busy. At least for now, I call "mentors" -- not to their face, or in conversation -- a few people across various disciplines who I read deeply.

I have never met Eric Elliot, but at some point I discovered that I was often returning to his articles about functional programming and javascript, and discovered after adopting much of his thinking about programming to my own and adapting it to my work with positive results that he occupies a similar role for me that Epicurus did for Seneca. He is, from all I can tell, a master of his craft, which is a craft I practice.

In On Discursiveness in Reading, Seneca advises Lucilius to choose to read just a few masters deeply, rather read widely and shallowly. I made a deliberate decision to read as much of what Eric Elliot writes about programming as is available, and return to it on a schedule, until the point where I have sufficiently learned as much from Eric as I can or my thinking about programming has diverged enough where I actually believe my arguments against his thinking to be sound.

Keith Rabois is another of these figures for me around the topic of management. Recently a retweet gone viral took hold of my tweeps where he had tweeted something seemingly insensitive, crass, and short-sighted about how if you teach everyone to code in Silicon Valley no one would be unemployed. Well, to my eyes, this looks uninformed, and people I follow -- and I only follow people whose opinions I respect -- tore this tweet up. It casts Keith in a negative light.

At the same time, I think highly about his opinions on management. I have internalized a lot of his advice to, I think, positive effect. I trust that his observations about certain topics are better informed and practiced than mine.

My immediate reaction to his tweet, though, was closer to those of my friends' reactions: I disagree, and this rings -- not "untrue", but -- unwoke?

How does one best rationalize a statement from a "master" you think is wrong? Should you re-calibrate your opinion of this person? Does this "wrongness" infect this person's other advice? Does this stain of perceived wrongness from other people you respect have value?

Honestly, before you give this rabbithole any further attention, you should first determine whether a person's opinion about a particular subject matters enough to you to give it your time. Life is short. You're doing to die. How much do you really care that someone has a different opinion than you?

The person's role in your life and mental framework plays a big part here. How much do you derive your identity from them? The Stoic pursuit is to decouple one's identity from other people and external circumstances outside of their control, but we're all at different milemarkers on this path. I argue that the value of learning from experts is that their expertise is bound to a subject, and that it is important to to embrace that - say - an expert in design is not necessarily an expert in other subjects.

Do I care what a person whose advice about management I trust has to say about gardening? No. End of decision tree. This "mentor" hasn't forfeited their status.

If I do, then before reacting I must still put my emotion to the test. How does one know a person is wrong? Is your sense of this person's wrongness the wisdom derived from due diligence in study, or the feeling derived from pattern-matching intuition? How can you tell?

This is a valid exercise not to discount the value of experience-informed intuition that something smells off about a statement or belief system, but it's necessary to consistently put our intuition to the test in order to suss out cognitive biases.

What's more, if you find you don't have the time required for this pause to reflect, then you probably don't care enough what this person has to say about this subject, and you should go do something more enjoyable. Life is short.

In the event that this person's statement is outside of their subject of expertise, and it does nothing to redefine this person -- in your eyes -- by a lack of virtue, then your sound disagreement holds-up, but I'd argue it doesn't diminish the value of their expertise to you in the subject you care about. You remain better by continuing to learn from them and to seek their opinion about their craft. This can feel counter-intuitive, because it's difficult to distinguish character from value, but the criteria for their mentor-like status that matters is whether you continue to improve.

Disagreement within their area of expertise can signal a leveling-up. Congrats. You're killing it. However, if you decide that, toe-to-toe, this person's area-expertise sufficiently outranks yours, then I think here they deserve the benefit of the doubt. You can of course raise your disagreement publicly, but expect -- and assume -- that this is a teaching moment for you, not them. Why do you disagree? Does this person know something you do not? Your disagreement should raise further questions.

At some point through practice and study and experience, the person's impact on your decision-making framework diminishes naturally. I should mention that your becoming aware of their flaws in character (that actually matter to you) is still a natural diminishing, just as it represents observational growth on your part.

It's useful when coming to this realization to acknowledge that you no longer need this person in a mentor-like capacity. Ever grateful for their role in your betterment, you begin the search for their replacement.

Craft virtuously,

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