Don’t just be mentored. Be provoked.

“Make sure you find yourself a mentor.” 

Who hasn’t heard that phrase from a parent, a teacher or a supervisor? Sometimes it’s said as encouragement, and sometimes it’s said as an abdication. The search for the right mentor can take on almost mythic dimensions. If you find the right mentor, the assumption is that the gates of wisdom, insight and opportunity will open.

Maybe… but finding a mentor who just gives advice is bullshit. What most of us need is something different.

What most of us actually need are provocateurs.

Sure, there is plenty of value in a mentor’s advice. And there are plenty of studies that show the long-term benefits of mentoring relationships on both mentors and mentees. There are countless resources to help us develop mentoring relationships that are authentic and useful, not only for the individuals involved, but for the organizations they serve. Mentorship can foster collegiality and creativity, and it can also help support retention and advancement.

So sure, get a mentor. I mean, that’s the conventional wisdom, right?

Sometimes though, the best people to engage with aren’t only those who provide advice and reinforce conventional wisdom –they are individuals who provoke reflection and change. They are the individuals who ask you the really hard questions and challenge you to say the really honest words. They hold a mirror up to you, then they frustratingly smash the mirror on the ground and challenge you to find new ways of seeing yourself. They see beyond what you can see, and they instigate you to see it too.

They are provocateurs.

Finding your provocateur is not for the faint of heart. You don’t always get the warm fuzzies from them. More often, you get the cold hard truth. They are as good at helping you break something as they are at encouraging breakthroughs. They give you caffeinated words of caution rather than sugar-coated snippets of wisdom. 

Sure, they are helpers. But sometimes they help you by pushing against you instead of holding you up. Provocateurs are like messy mentors…they are equal parts advice and agitation. They are just as likely to serve up bombs as they are balms.

So why bother with a provocateur? Because it’s not easy for most of us to provoke ourselves towards our purpose on our own. We say we want to transform ourselves, but far too often we stay ensconced in a perspective (or a practice) that tends to be reinforced, not challenged, by those around us. 

So often is the case with our search for mentors too.  We look for people we admire and then ask advice on how to become like them. But rarely do we seek out a person who helps call forth (or, in Latin, provoke) the uncomfortable questions and personal reflections that really challenge us to grow through an insurgency against what we believe to be obvious.

Do you have a provocateur in your life?  To figure it out, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Can I recall a time when my thinking wasn’t just reinforced, but radically challenged by someone I trust? 

  • Is there someone who gives me the “hard truths” about what I do and what I think?

  • Do I have a relationship with someone who helps me see beyond my own vision in an honest, yet uncomfortable way?

If the answer to any of those three questions is no, then even if you have a great mentor, you might consider finding a provocateur. Otherwise, you might just stay in a comfortable bubble of advice, unagitated and less likely to grow into the person you are capable of becoming.

And now, with that, consider yourself optimistically provoked.