M is for Mentoring

You can be and probably are a mentor about something or other. You can be a mentor about diabetes too.

Mentoring is the informal way of helping other people. At work we have formal relationships of bosses and subordinates. The guidance that we give and receive up and down the heirarchy there is seldom if ever mentoring. It is mentoring when it’s not something you tell people to do.

When your doctor tells you his or her way of controlling your diabetes, it may be great advice, but it’s not mentoring. However, when a friend or relative suggests something that works for him or her, it can be mentoring.

Nobody is just a mentor. We are always also mentees. Nobody knows everything about even such an apparently narrow subject like diabetes. I use the word “apparently” advisedly, because I know from immersing myself in it for the past dozen years that in reality it is a huge subject.

At first we are largely on the receiving end of mentoring, which for the want of a better word is called being a mentee. But as we learn, we can pass on that knowledge to others.

For those of us who make use of the Internet, we can get so much from it. That’s being a virtual mentee. We can give it back here too. That’s being a virtual mentor.

Many years ago Howard Rheingold was one of the first people to make the connection between the Internet and the gift exchange that it fostered. In his book, The Virtual Community, first published in 1993, Howard wrote:

Reciprocity is a key element of any market-based culture, but the arrangement I’m describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical transactions; different kinds of things become possible when this mind-set pervades. Conversely, people who have valuable things to add to the mix tend to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves when a mercenary or hostile zeitgeist dominates an online community.

When I was able to get on the Internet in March 1994, the Web was just beginning. But newsgroups were going strong, and my motivation to go online was to get some of the shared knowledge on the Internet’s first diabetes group, Eventually my mentors there and later on many diabetes websites taught me almost all that I know about diabetes.

Later, when I started my website in February 1995 I was able to give back in some measure. A few years ago in my keynote address to the Institute for the Future’s Health Horizons Program, I said that “I think of [my site] as playing my part in what Howard Rheingold calls the ‘gift economy’ of the Net: People taking what they need and giving back in some measure without expectation of profit. All my life I have been taking in information. Now it is so satisfying to be giving back what I can.”

Mentoring is teaching others, but it’s outside of the formal teacher-student relationship. It’s also similar to but different from the formal coaching relationship, as my friend Jeff Myers reminds me. Jeff has type 1 diabetes and was one of the few diabetes life and wellness coaches until last year when he because an executive of a leading diabetes company.

“Regarding mentoring in diabetes,” he told me yesterday, “my writing has been about the value of hiring a coach who understands living with diabetes, but not anything about mentoring per se. In my experience, though, I’ve found it very energizing to talk to newly diagnosed (within the past year at least) type 1’s and ask about what is going well and what is not going so well. These simple questions unearth a wealth of topics that the ‘mentee’ feels are important to them.

“By this point I usually start getting questions about resources and strategies, etc., and I enjoy sharing what has worked well for me and others I know, and pointing them to excellent resources that they haven’t been told about by their health care providers. When, for example, the person is struggling to solve a problem with their diabetes management or their future living with diabetes, I like to ask them questions to explore what is most important to them, such as ‘what are you most worried about not being able to do now that you have diabetes?’

“From here I gauge whether or not to offer encouragement, or ask how they met other challenges in their life, or ask them to brainstorm with me what it might look like to successfully do those challenging things.

“My bottom line belief in doing this is that these individuals can do anything they want with diabetes, and that helping them draw on their own ideas and interests is the fastest and most effective path to successful ownership and management of their situation.

The bottom line for all of us is that we can give back to the virtual diabetes community of the Internet. All of us have so much to share. We can be both mentor and mentee as we support each other and make our community so much stronger.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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