A couple of months ago I had a conversation with a fellow employee – let’s call him Balgruuf – who decided to quit the grind and become a career coach. Shortly after I’ve witnessed them interact with our mutual acquaintance – Farengar – who was in a difficult spot in their career. Balgruuf was enthusiastically instructing on what are the exact steps Farengar must take, and in what order. It generally felt like Balgruuf had this whole career thing figured out, and Farengar just stumbled along. Needless to say, Farengar quickly changed the topic.

I haven’t stopped thinking about mentorship since that day. In the 10 or so years of my career so far, I’ve had a number of mentors - both formal and informal. I also get the opportunity to mentor people around me – both sides of the relationship really fascinate me.

I’ve had some mentors who worked really well for me - and some who didn’t. I also had more different level of success with mentoring people myself. And one of the defining factors in a successful experience was this: people conflate mentorship with giving advice – two different, but oh-so-close feeling things. Let me elaborate on the difference with a tangentially related example.

Sometimes my wife comes home and shares frustrations that inevitably arise after a long day at work. There’s little to no room for my input, because she needs somebody to just listen, or maybe a rubber duck to talk at. And sometimes my better half wants to hear my thoughts on the subject. Needing to vent and asking for advice are two completely distinct scenarios in this case.

Just like in my home life, sometimes people come looking for an advice. But more often than not, they’re looking for mentorship.

Giving advice is prescriptive, while mentorship is more nuanced, and takes more finesse from both parties.

In Relationomics, Randy Ross discusses a role that relationships play in personal growth. He talks about the harmful “self help” culture which discounts the value of human element in self-development.

This is the gap where mentorship fits in. There’s one huge “but” though, and that’s the fact that the person needs to be ready for the specific feedback they might be getting.

Mentor is there to guide the internal conversation, encourage insight, and suggest a direction. Mentor is there to identify when someone who’s being mentored is heading in a completely wrong direction, or not addressing the elephant in the room.

In fact, I’ve been noticing a trend at Google to avoid trying to use the word “mentorship” overall, to avoid the go-to advice slinging attitude of your everyday Balgruuf. And it’s been a helpful trend - since framing mentorship relationship around guidance and reminding mentors to let those who are mentored to drive the growth is crucial for healthy peer to peer learning.

Even if so-called mentor has some aspect of life completely figured out for themselves, the person who’s mentored must drive the whole journey. Otherwise there’s really no room for growth in that relationship.