The Odyssey and mentorship today

Opinion by Yoo Jung Kim
Oct. 27, 2016, 12:05 a.m.

The Odyssey features Odysseus in a 20-year journey to return to his beloved home, Ithaca, following the conclusion of the Trojan War. Throughout it all, he faces the wrath of Poseidon, the allure of sirens, an island full of narcotic flora, the death of his crew, a trip to Hades and a very clingy nymph. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, his household is besieged by boisterous suitors who think him dead and seek his wife’s hand in marriage, much to the chagrin of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom, disguises herself as Mentor — Odysseus’ old friend and Telemachus’ tutor — to convince Telemachus to oppose the suitors and to go abroad, where he meets his father. With his son by his side, Odysseus makes a triumphant return to Ithaca, slaughtering the suitors and getting his happy ending.

Homer’s epic has made an indelible mark in the English lexicon (and high school reading syllabi), providing the inspiration for the names of Cornell University’s hometown and Honda’s line of minivans. Moreover, through Athena’s role in the story, the word “mentor” came to describe anyone who shares his or her knowledge to guide a less experienced individual.

As a medical student, I find myself beholden to a number of advisors, professors, physicians and peers who have helped me to get to where I am. However, despite my ample experience working under the aegis of mentors, it wasn’t until my first year in medical school that I realized I had somehow become one myself. Apparently, being admitted to medical school was reason enough for people to start asking me for advice.

My first experience as a mentor was with eager community college students interested in health professions. At that point, I repeated the usual platitudes passed on to pre-medical students: Get good grades, find clinical experience, be a decent human being. I came away from the experience wishing that I had more insightful things to say.

Since then, more people have asked me for advice pursuing a science major or being a pre-med, and I have eased into the role of a mentor. Now, rather than leaning on typical advice, I employ radical honesty. I tell my mentees about the disappointments and the setbacks that I experienced as a college student, in hopes of helping my mentees overcome the challenges they may face in the pursuit of their goals. I talk about the B-minuses that later became As, the failed experiments that would lead to published papers, the rejection letters from literary agents and publishers that would be replaced by a book contract, and all the help that I received along the way. By focusing on my previous rejections and failures, my goal was to persuade my mentees that doing anything worthwhile is not easy.

This past spring, I was delighted to find that other, much more accomplished individuals had come to the same conclusion. Dr. Johannes Haushofer’s “C.V. of Failures” — a detailed list of rejections to degree programs, academic positions, awards and scholarships, research funding and manuscript submissions — went viral on the Internet. Dr. Haushofer attributed the original idea behind his C.V. of Failures to Dr. Melanie Stefan. In a 2010 column in Nature, Dr. Stefan explained that “we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others.” We often sweep our setbacks under the rug so that all we allow the public to see is a continuous string of accomplishments. Because everyone else does the exact same thing, dealing with our failures become an intensely private and lonely exercise. Many who face rejections make the mistake of being overly harsh on themselves rather seeing the setback as an integral step toward future successes.

Although Dr. Stefan’s message was primarily aimed at her fellow scientists, the message rings true for anyone. For students who have excelled throughout high school, not getting the grades, club positions, internships or awards that they wanted in a college filled with other smart and accomplished peers may be a new and disappointing experience. However, by laying bare our personal failures alongside our successes, we can help colleagues, mentees and ourselves to face rejections in a healthier and a more efficient way.

In truth, a mentor is no Athena, who was born fully-formed and possessing innate wisdom. A mentor better resembles Odysseus, overcoming countless challenges to get to their destination, with the added responsibility of imparting what they’ve seen, experienced and learned to others who seek to make the same arduous journey for themselves.  


Contact Yoo-Jung Kim at yoojkim ‘at’

Yoo Jung Kim is a medical student and a biweekly columnist for The Stanford Daily focusing on the intersection of science, medicine, and education. She is also the co-author of What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press), a guidebook for students pursuing STEM majors. You can contact her at yoojkim 'at' with questions or comments.

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