Using Mentors To Help Achieve Your Dreams

by Noah Gift

I have been meaning for a while to write a post about how mentors have helped me to achieve my goals and dreams, but I have been so busy recently, that I put it off. This week I came across the video of the last lecture by Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch, who is dying from pancreatic cancer, and I was inspired enough that I figured I should write this post and tie it into my response to the video.

First, I would highly recommend that everyone and anyone watch this video. It is truly an inspirational and powerful video. One of the things he mentions in the video is, "How to Get People to Help You". He mentions five points:

1. You can't get there alone, and I believe in Karma
2. Tell the truth
3. Be earnest
4. Apologize when you screw up
5. Focus on others, not yourself

He also mentions, "Brick walls let us show our dedication".

I won't focus on everything he says in final speech, but I will get straight into how this relates to finding mentors in life. My first great mentor was Dr. Bogen, who I met at Caltech. He took in an interest in me when I was starting to form into a man, and, without a doubt, changed my life forever.

I remember doubting for quite a while if I was really intelligent or not, and then thinking that here was a guy that was in school until he was 37, a neurosurgeon, and a professor at Caltech, who found me interesting enough to talk with me every Friday from 8PM until 2 or 3 in the morning for a few years. Maybe I was smart? We talked about Philosophy, Math, Psychology, Consciousness, Religion, the Stock Market, Computers, Artificial Intelligence, and Bonsai Gardening, etc.

These talks and his wisdom allowed me to dream beyond what I thought was possible. He also introduced me to other powerful mentor/guru types. He also spurred a life long interest in the brain and psychology. Even though he passed away a couple of years ago, I still remember his words and advice almost like when Luke Skywalker hears the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi. "Noah use your brain, don't turn to the dark side.....". I am also very glad that I got the chance to tell him that I loved him before he died and that I got to say goodbye when he was in the hospital. It gives me great comfort that he knew that before he died. I still remember that day very clearly, I grabbed his bald head, like I now grab my son's head now, and let him know how much he meant to me.

I have met other different types of mentors, as well, in my journey through life so far. Another interesting person who I met at Caltech was Titus Brown. He has been a much different type of a mentor, but I have been asking him questions about computers and programming since 2000. He was the voice that kept gently whispering in my email..."so why don't you try Python?" I can honestly say that if it wasn't for Titus, I would never have touched Python or considered it. God knows what language I would be using at this point.

In March this year, at Pycon, I had dinner with Titus, who I hadn't physically seen in a while and I met Shannon Behrens. We ate some barbeque and started talking about Vim, LDAP, Python, etc. Before I knew it, Shannon turned into a mentor. His knowledge of Python is so vast, and his attitude is so humble, that he has made a huge impact on my knowledge of Python. As I have mentioned in many previous posts, Shannon is my hero. He is one of those rare people who will quite literally tell you anything he knows, and will not judge you for asking a stupid question, for this, he is my hero.

I have also met some incredible mentors in the various jobs I have had. What is interesting, is that each mentor has a different method to access their secrets, and different ways of teaching those secrets. In some cases I have even had "unwilling", or "hostile" mentors. A "hostile" mentor is someone who is scared to share what they know with you because they are insecure. A "hostile" mentor is a bit like someone who has turned to the dark side of the force. They feel that they can only succeed by working really, really hard and not sharing information with people or giving them false information.

It is still possible to learn from these dark lords, by just seeing through the insecurity and focusing on what you can observe to be truth. Yes, a dark lord can still be a mentor.

I met a really impressive, good, mentor at Disney named Greg Neagle who taught me many cool OS X tricks. I met another extremely powerful, yet incredibly humble mentor named J.F. Panniset, who is now in charge of engineering at a A52, while I was working at Imageworks. JF was scary smart, in particular, because he can write code, is an expert Video Engineer, knows Film production and Post Production inside and out, is an expert sysadmin, AND is about as approachable and humble as they get. All I can say about A52 is that they lucked out big time getting JF. He is a one in a million catch for a company. I was very upset to have had to leave Imageworks, but my wife and I moved out to Atlanta to start a family.

When I got to Atlanta, I was lucky enough to take a couple of classes at the Big Nerd Ranch and I become friends with Aaron Hillegass, the owner. He has been a great help and a very kind mentor as well. I am in a book club with him and we are currently reading Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms.

So, what does all this mean and why am I bringing it up? There are mentors and gurus behind every bush. It is very easy to tell a powerful mentor. The more powerful the mentor, the more freely they give information, help and guidance. I am now under the belief that there is a direct correlation with a person's mental power and their ability to mentor. The greater a mentor's power and wisdom, the greater they can give. After all how much effort does it take for a flood light to light up a dark backyard, compared to flashlight? These great wizards can spare the beams.

If you want to get better at something, you need to find mentors and find out how to get them to take an interest in you. In some cases it make take quite a while for a good mentor to think your serious. I would refer back to the quote by Randy, "Brick walls let us show our dedication". If you really want to learn from a good mentor, then if you put in the work they will eventually help you, unless they are a dark lord, but those guys are easy to catch. They say things like, "Old age and treachery will beat youth and skill, every time."

The soon to be released "Spotlight on FOSS", video podcast Pilot episode, features Mark Shuttleworth. (We should have a date announced for release very soon). He gives a tremendously, moving talk that is on par with the Randy Pausch talk. One of the goals that Jeremy and I are trying to achieve by doing this podcast series, is to take these mentors of the Free and Open Source Software world and to expose their thoughts, ideas and passions to a larger audience. I hope people take the time to watch our first show, and I am very excited that it turned out to be this powerful.

In closing, I am also on the lookout for a new mentor to learn new things. I am particularly interested in learning more about artificial intelligence in the next few years. If you are a guru, and are interested in taking an interest in me, I would love to hear from you. I am currently looking for another mentor like Dr. Bogen, although that may never happen again, as he was truly one of a kind, or one in a billion. Also, if you have Guru/Mentor stories, I would love to hear about them. Finally, all of the mentors mentioned here are mine, all mine, so get your hands off them!


Shannon -jj Behrens
2007-10-03 16:36:44
Noah, you're too kind ;) Thanks for the plug. As I said last time, "To be the greatest, you must be the servant of the least." I'm not the greatest, and you're not the least, you get the idea ;)

2007-10-04 01:14:31
To whom are YOU a mentor?
Noah Gift
2007-10-04 05:14:34
Anonymous/I hope I have been a mentor to some of the people I have worked with in previous jobs. I know that some of the core members of PyAtl, the local Python Users Group, and I are making an concerted effort to be mentors to new people. I strongly agree with Shannon's quote and I think it is a great goal to strive for. I think that the mindset that allows someone to learn from mentors is the mindset that allows a person to mentor. It is just a different manifestation of the same theme. Of course this relates to a person's willingness to ask, and answer, dumb questions.

linda m lopeke
2007-10-04 06:43:17
Dear Noah,

I really enjoyed reading your post (and I'm not just saying that because I am a professional mentor). You are very fortunate to have had so many wonderful mentors. I had a great many myself which is why I have chosen to honour them for their contribution to my life and success by creating SmartStart mentoring programs so young people everywhere may benefit from having access to specialized knowledge that can help them a great deal.

Here's how my mentors helped me: Johan Stockmann took me seriously when I told him I wanted to have a career in information technology. I was 11 or 12 when I told him that. He didn't think it was unusual that a girl was interested in this; he was more intrigued that such a young person knew definitively what she wanted to do with her life. He heaped piles and piles of code and flowcharts on me. Assembler, Cobol, all kinds of wonderful access to the inner secret workings of mainframe operating systems. He held nothing back. It was a test to see if I was really serious (after all, it was rather dry reading). But I was smitten. Because of his support for my passion, I was admitted into a computer science program at 13 or 14 and graduated at 16.

I met my next mentor on my first job, Bill Wade. He believed in me so much he risked his own reputation and the entire company's to have me lead a major technology implementation for a Schedule A bank. I thought I died and went to heaven (I was 17 then and set a world record in the history of banking that remains unbroken.)

One thing I learned from Bill was a role in management had to be my next step. In the early seventies, the very idea of women in management was scoffed at. He told me I could do anything I wanted and I believed him so I went after that next. And got it. Not long after, David Oldacre stepped up to the plate to make sure I wasn't just any manager, but a very damn good one. I owe my success as an executive leader to his intervention.

Shortly thereafter, along came Bruce Richards. He risked his career at Financial Post to put me out on the road to build their brand through seminars. It was a new playing field for me but I jumped in with both feet and managed to make a lot of money for them as my topic was well timed for the market and I found a second home on stage. I would never have known I had a "public speaker" in me but for Bruce.

A few years later, my accountant, Joe Brown, saw a different side of me I hadn't even considered and an author was born.

All of my skills were finely honed at the hands of my mentors. Now I am a recognized leading authority on how to succeed in the Fortune 500. But I know I would never have achieved that without the guidance and intellectual and spiritual generosity of these men. Their caring and support has meant more to me than any/all of the awards, attention and recognition I've won over the years.

My mentoring program, SmartStart, was created to do for others just starting their careers what my wonderful mentors did for me. Passing along my passion for excellence and knowledge of business was the best way I could think of to say thank you. My students seem to agree and I love sharing a world of unlimited possibilities with them.

I feel good about what I do. But I probably never felt as good about it as I did when I read your post. Because then I truly realized, a mentor can make a tremendous difference in a young person's life. If for no other reason, they convey that you matter. That you have something to offer the world. And that they believe in you, no matter what.

Thank you, Noah! Keep up the good work.

Linda M. Lopeke
SMARTSTART: Success-to-go for people working@the speed of life.