Mentoring

a growth Medium for the whole mind

“Education is what remains when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

American psychologist B.F. Skinner

What Is Mentoring?

In Homer’s Odyssey, when King Odysseus leaves Ithaca for the Trojan War he puts his son Telemachus in charge of the island - and asks his trusted friend Mentor to be there as Telemachus’s moral, spiritual, and practical guide. (As we discover, Mentor is really Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, in disguise.) Mentor’s task is not merely to offer advice about particular decisions - it is to mold the younger man’s ethika, the character that informs his thinking.

 

Today ‘mentoring’ is a word used most commonly in business: executives hire mentors to coach them in leadership skills. Richard’s goal is different from this, and more fundamental: to bring all his experience as a teacher, professor, philosopher, and novelist to bear on creating deep changes in your meta-cognition - your thinking about your thinking - and thus to change the depth and effectiveness of your approach to your thinking, writing, and living in general.​​​

A tutor can help you solve specific problems. Mentoring is about growing and strengthening the whole mind. 

“The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas.”

Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu

Why Philosophy? (The Problem of the Buckets)

 

Philosophers like to say that all those other subjects teach you what to think and philosophy teaches you how to think. That's unfair to good teachers in other subjects, but it contains a kernel of truth.

 

Our educational system - like the tutoring industry that sits atop it like whipped cream on a cake - tends to treat each subject as a separate bucket, and education as the process of filling each bucket with information, to be retained and then poured out again at the appropriate time. 

 

Philosophy isn’t another bucket. It isn’t another subject at all, but rather a set of techniques for asking effective questions about the buckets. How are they filled? How are they related? Why do we care about them? Why do some urgent questions seem to lie outside all of them?  

 

Richard’s focus is not on more information, or more knowledge, but on working together with clients to understand what we think we know, what we really know, and how to think and write (and act) clearly in the face of life's outside-the-bucket questions. 

 

That process forges and sharpens powerfully general cognitive and communication skills.

 

The German word spielraum means scope, latitude, or space to move, but most literally it means room to play. It describes perfectly what happens when, instead of teaching a subject, one person opens their mind to the use of another and helps another think very generally about their knowledge, their beliefs, and their thinking. 


Being stuck in your own mental space, and experiencing the world as a torrent of information, is a common cause of claustrophobia and anxiety. With the space of two minds to play in, and a focus on the nature of the torrent, clarity comes and ataraxia (a Greek term this time: detached calm) can be achieved.

The best reason to take advantage of mentoring is that expanding your inner horizons is intrinsically enriching and enjoyable. But that enjoyment can lead to amazing changes.

Take for example a bright high school student who would like to get into - and, far more important, thrive at - a top college or university. 

 

Most college professors (and admissions officers) have a secret: it can take a few pages of reading or a few minutes of conversation to decide whether that student's level of preparation is poor, or mediocre, or or good. But if the student’s preparation is excellent, that fact tends to spill out in the first few minutes of a conversation or the first few sentences of a paper.

What’s the difference? Harder work? Higher IQ? Luck? Mainly, no.

 

It's all in the voice. Confidence without arrogance. Precision without unnecessary detail. The discrete but helpful signposting of what you intend. An engaged and engaging enthusiasm that has left performance anxiety behind. A sense of the larger intellectual landscapes that beckon, beyond those overflowing buckets. In short: a sophisticated understanding of how to talk and write about ideas.

 

That sophistication isn’t magic. It’s a set of learnable skills that happen to be absent from the curriculum.

“I never knew anybody, anywhere, who found life simple. A life looks simple

when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit.”

American novelist Ursula K. Le Guin

Is this therapy? Is it counseling? Is it coaching?

No, and no, and no - not in the dominant modern senses of those terms. Yet there is a connection with all three.

Psychotherapists and mental health counselors work with patients who are suffering from a psychological dysfunction - an inability to function within a desired “normal” range of behavior because of (to give a few examples) anxiety, schizophrenia, or OCD. The current DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), published by the American Psychiatric Association, list over 150 states that constitute a mental dysfunction. The therapist’s job is to identify the dysfunction(s), and then use a variety of methods - including exercises, talk therapies, and drug prescriptions, to mitigate or repair the dysfunction.

Life coaches and executive mentors are trained to overcome problems of a very different kind. They usually work with people whose problem is not a DSM-type dysfunction, but rather a self-diagnosed need for help with (for example) inefficiency, procrastination, poor planning, or lack of career direction. And the language of coaching is not necessarily, but tends to be, rooted in a very particular business / career paradigm. Key aims include goal-setting, efficiency, and effectiveness; the ICF’s definition of coaching is, in part: “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential... fulfilling results… help people improve their performance …..”

 

Some philosophers do call themselves "counselors" because they are seeking to retrieve the practice of ancient philosophical traditions like Stoicism, which helped people confront and manage practical life difficulties thousands of years before modern psychotherapy existed. One philosophical counselor has even described his work as “therapy for the sane,” which makes sense in so far as the word “therapy” comes from the Greek verb therapeuein - “to take care of.” And caring about the client’s mental flourishing is central to Richard’s style of mentoring.

But Richard’s model of mens sana (healthy mind) is centrally concerned with the enrichment of intellectual self-confidence for its own sake. 

“It may be that I am in the universe the way my cat is in my library.”

American philosopher William James

Questions, Questions

 

Richard talks with clients about (and teases out their opinions on) a vast range of questions you won't find on any syllabus. Thinking about these questions isn't just an interesting and worthwhile end in itself: it forms a vital context for deeper responses to all our necessary “bucket thinking”:

What is it for us to know something? To believe something? To have an opinion? To have a preference? 

 

What's the relationship between information, data, facts, speculations, and theories?

How much of what I believe comes from direct evidence, and how much from authority? Where do I get the standards by which I decide which authorities to trust?

 

​What is science? Where does it come from? Why (is it?) special? ​Is there a "scientific method"? Why are there important questions (such as the previous four) that science itself seems helpless to address?

 

Is history a science? Why? Why not?

What's the point of art?

In our century, the moderately poor are in many ways richer than Renaissance kings. Yet even the rich are often unhappy. Why? (Are we happier than people in the past?  What have we gained ... and lost?)

What would an ideal society look like? (And is aiming for an ideal society a good idea or not?)

Is there a useful distinction between "commercial" fiction (including movies) and fiction that aspires to be art?

(Picasso says that art is the lie that helps us see the truth. Why would you need a lie to see the truth?) 

It's my personal opinion that whales are not fish, that I should not base financial decisions on my horoscope, and that torturing people is wrong. Do I have persuasive reasons for believing these things? (And how similar or different are my reasons in each case?) Or are these nothing more than my personal opinions? 

What's better for happiness: a modern society in which theoretically you can choose to do or be anything - but many people are made unhappy by either their choices or their inability to choose - or a traditional society in which your birth determines everything and it typically does not occur to people to question their roles? 

(And is happiness the most important consideration? What gives my days, and my life, meaning?)

If it doesn't bother you that a hundred years ago you were not alive, should it bother you that a hundred years from now you won't be?

Are people really motivated by rational self-interest? Or by mistaken ideas about their self-interest? Or neither?

Do we have moral obligations to people who have not been born yet?

 

What is wit?


Think of your mind as a house. The tutor arrives with some new furniture. Richard, on the other hand, will show you how to rebuild the house. 

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard.”

American historian David McCullough

Words, Words

Often - depending on the needs of the client, but this is especially true of students - Richard's technique centers on intensive, rigorous, ultra-detailed attention to clear language.

 

This approach comes in part from the ideas that animate the "Philosophy in the Schools" movement, which has a track record of dramatically improving students' academic abilities across the board. 

In the UK, a randomized trial involving 3,000 children investigated the academic value of teaching philosophy to children. The teachers, often with no previous experience in philosophy, were given just two days of training. Yet students showed dramatic gains in confidence and self-esteem. Average reading, math, and writing skills improved by several months relative to peers outside the program.

At Duke University, a 5-year study of 10,000 children tried a beautifully simple experiment: teach children who do not test as "gifted" as if they are gifted. The result? Many children subsequently did so much better academically that they then did test as gifted.

Why are very bright people drawn to philosophy? Because it's where the hardest problems are! But all young people - and adults - can benefit from being invited to wrestle with big-picture questions about their own thinking and living.  

“It is no ordinary thing we are discussing, but how to live our lives.”

Socrates

PRACTICALITIES

 

Mentoring may work best as a long-term engagement, but even a few hours can make a big difference. 

 

Richard charges $70 per hour. The first hour (with a parent or guardian present too, for anyone under eighteen) is entirely free: it is your opportunity to get a taste of whether this is a good fit.

The best session length depends on each individual's interests, age, and goals. One-hour sessions are a good place to start. Sometimes 90-minute or 2-hour sessions are worth considering. 

 

Save 15% by committing to five or more hours ahead of time.  That's $595 for ten hours; for the price of a new coat, Richard can change how effectively you think - and communicate - about everything. 

“We don't yet know what we don't yet know.”

British physicist David Deutsch

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Copyright © Richard Farr 2020