It had been a while since I had spoken to one of my mentors. I had played phone tag with him for a while. On a weeknight last week, it was past 10 pm when we finally connected. It had been a while. But as is often the case with people with whom you have a genuine connection, the customary pleasantries swiftly made way for a meaningful conversation. I shall hasten to add that ‘meaningful’ mentor-mentee chats do not have to be dour and didactic. They can be in fun in fact. In what has been a running in-joke for the past two decades (!), he pulled my leg about a love-hate relationship of mine that invariably required third-party peacemaking efforts. Minutiae specific to a relationship can be meaningful in a sense, correct?
More importantly, I had shared a recent development in my life with him via e-mail. During our hourlong chat, he proceeded to inquire deeper in a manner where he effortlessly demonstrated the difference between sincere interest and superficial curiosity. Very mindful of the privileges that he had rightfully earned in our relationship, he asked about my finances and whether I was saving and spending in a ratio that would be deemed acceptable by him. (Let me just say that the answer rarely is an unequivocal, “yes!”) By the time I hung up after our one-hour conversation, I experienced a smattering of emotions. I felt…how do I say it? Let’s start with, I felt real. I felt grounded. I felt a little special. Real, grounded and special. Let me elaborate on the first two in a way that makes the third self-explanatory.
I have known this person since the day I was born. Let’s scratch that. I was probably kicking and screaming the day I was born. He knew me since the day I was born. But the virtues of longevity get washed away by the tides of time if there is not a sustained investment in a relationship. Reflecting on his impact on me over the four decades of my existence, I thought of how, at each stage of our relationship, there was something specific to that age that I could recollect about or associate with him. Be it the time in 1991, when he surprised me with a Jansport backpack because I loved stationery items. Or how, that same trip, he laughed when I asked him “who his company chairman was!” Or, when as a teenager, I told him, “I want to do a PhD like you” without knowing how to answer his next question: “PhD in what?!” How when I was in my undergrad, he minced not even one syllable when giving me a dressing down for poor grades in one semester “on account of being distracted.” How I took upon the task, as a twenty-something kid, of feeding his child cereal during a family function. How when I told him during a Masters course that “The class average is 85. I scored 90!” Only for him to famously quip, “The mean is fine. What was the standard deviation?!” How he once told me that I had put on weight despite seemingly having an exercise routine and my thinking to myself, “That is so thoughtful of him” instead of being offended. How he asked me to save up money instead of buying my "dream car" soon after getting my first job. There are many more instances than I can possibly list here. But the unifying thread that ties all these stray memories is the fact that they were all something real. And they meant something to me at every juncture in my life.
It gave me a strange but definite sense of pride in thinking that these were instances that were very specific to my relationship with him. Others might have had similar experiences in their relationships. But for me, reflecting on the snapshots of our relationship over time resulted in my piecing together a montage that was uniquely ours. The specificity of the details showed how much he cared to be something meaningful to me through the highs and lows of my life. The details may have sometimes been seemingly trivial. But they were real. They were ours. And only ours.
The other dominant feeling that I had experienced was that of feeling grounded. I feel that we all need a few people in our lives who will say things to us in a way where we know that they placed more of a premium on being honest with us than wanting to please us. I have been witness to people across both the professional and personal settings who, thanks to progress that they have made or success that they have experienced, struggle to keep themselves grounded. Hubris seems to knock humility out without much effort. As a result, they are sometimes unrecognizable from a previous, more likeable version of them that I had been fortunate enough to witness in the past. And I would remind myself of the dictum, “Don’t dish out something that you can’t take.” I remind myself of how certain people like my mentor have achieved great success in their professional life and have helped many like me in myriad selfless ways yet are completely humble about their achievements and their generous deeds. To them, goodness, kindness and an attitude sans arrogance are just second nature. They do not know another way of life. Reminding myself of them keeps me striving to be rooted in things that are meaningful, as minute as they might sometimes seem.
And special? Yes, of course. It is an incredibly special feeling to note that I have people in my life who derive joy from my smiles, who help me summon strength from within by being there beside me, who teach me little life lessons by demonstrating, not posturing, who hear with their ears and listen with their heart. Yes, we are all fundamentally more similar than we think we are. Yet we can choose to extract happiness from the ingredients that make a relationship unique, at least in our little microcosm of the world. For instance, that recent one-hour conversation with my mentor. You might have had similar ones with your mentor. And no, I was not there. But guess what, you weren’t in the one I had with my mentor. That hour was ours. And only ours!