Learning from Mentors
When I was a young man starting my career, I had a Chinese boss in Hong Kong who was a great mentor. Unlike a teacher who explains in detail how a particular principle works, however, he would just state the principle and leave it to me to work out the whys and wherefores.
At the time I found this frustrating and annoying, because initially I was unable to connect the dots between the principle and the specifics of the situation. I was annoyed because he didn’t take the time to explain.
In hindsight, I think he realized that if I was forced to work it out on my own, under pressure, the lesson thus learned would be more impactful than if he had explained it to me in detail. He was right. These were lessons learned the hard way, but they have always stayed with me.
I recall one case where I submitted a business proposal which he’d asked me to write, for a client which was a utility company, a business I knew absolutely nothing about. I didn’t think he’d given me enough time or background detail to write a good proposal, so I was not too surprised when he rejected my first draft.
In defending my performance, I began one sentence with “I assumed that…”
Right away, he cut me off in mid-sentence: “That’s exactly the point. Never assume anything.”
My next sentence began with “But I thought that…”
He interrupted me again: “That’s exactly the point. You failed to think. “
And then he walked away, telling me to rewrite the proposal. I was left wondering what he actually meant.
He left me no alternative but to rely on common sense and logical analysis in thinking about the business problems inherent in the proposal.
I put some serious thought into it, and submitted a completely revised proposal the following day. He clearly liked it, and commented “Ah. You really thought about it clearly and in depth this time.”
The client liked it too, and we got the contract.
In hindsight, good mentors don’t necessarily explain everything in detail. Sometimes a more indirect approach is the best way to force you to think the problem through.
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