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“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

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There are movies we watch that mean different things to us at different moments in our lives.  In watching them you come to realize something new and different – either about the movie or you, or both.  Most recently I re-watched the Karate Kid in its entirety.  The first few times I saw the movie I understood it to be about a coming-of-age young man learning how to stand up for himself.  This last time I watched it, because of where I am in my life, I “watched” from the perspective of Mr. Miyagi.

What was interesting about watching from this perspective is that we, the viewers, only know Mr. Miyagi as the karate master to Daniel (“Danielson”) – we aren’t privy to anything in his life.  As the movie progresses, we come to understand that Mr. Miyagi has suffered a great deal of pain and loss. It dawned on me that even though Mr. Miyagi suffered a personally, he never let his own personal history negatively  affect the passion and knowledge he extended to Daniel.  In every sense of the word, Mr. Miyagi was a mentor.

When I was about 15 years old and knew I wanted a career in architecture and design, I wrote to the only african-american female achitect I knew of at the time.  I painstakingly inked out a hand written letter telling her who I was, asking if she enjoyed her job, what my focus in school should be if I wanted to follow a similar track.  Although unsuccessful (I never got a response to my letter) this was my first attempt at seeking out a mentor.

Fast-foward to my first job out of school.  As graduating interior design students we were encouraged by our professors to “find a mentor”, and then as an architectural grad, our class was encouraged to “find a mentor”. Some design firms even have internal programs in place where there is a “mentor/mentee” relationship or on their own, junior design staff members will seek out more senior designers for their counsel and guidance.  Programs and relationships like these are invaluable because in addition to doing your regular daily design job (that you will inevitably learn from), those who participate in some type of mentoring experience receive a more well rounded experience.  Again, this is great if you can find a place that “grows” their younger staff members – but what happens if you happen to land a job in a firm that doesn’t do this?  Moreover, what happens if the person who is your senior isn’t a good communicator?  Or worse, a little “cra cra” and regularly allows the negative moments in their lives to influence their interactions with you?

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In my professional experience, I have worked for firms where mentoring programs were in place and where they were not.  Upon graduating from interior design school, my very first job was at a large, prestigious design firm in Atlanta, Georgia where mentoring was a priority.  The resources were amazing and I took advantage of every lunch-and-learn, product introduction, technical lecture and business discussion.  Not only did it help me do my daily job better, I could more easily speak as an intelligent and well informed young designer of the firm – I inevitably and naturally began marketing for the firm.  This positive experience set the tone for the manner in which I would run my design business, but on a much smaller scale.

As I got older and moved to a different cities and firms, I found that mentoring, of any type, wasn’t in place.  What was in place – if I am to very simply sum up my experiences – was a basic lack of communication.  This sounds small but can seep through a firm ever so slowly until it becomes their mode of operation – leading to everything from a lack of proper leadership at all levels to a lack of vision typically created by senior leadership to shape the direction of the firm.  This symptom, if you’re not paying attention, can easily turn your career into a job.

This is why mentoring, either personal or with the proper resources, is critical in the growth of a design career.  In design school, most of us had regular juries or critiques that let us know if we were on track, what our next moves should be and how to improve certain techniques tried.  Why does this not exist in some firms?   Bravo to the firms that do have some type of mentoring in place!  The firms that do not have some type of mentoring program are missing a tremendous opportunity to grow their individual staff into well-rounded, better informed designers and in general boost the morale in the office.

In conclusion, it is up to the individual to seek out their own opportunities for their won growth – this is true.  I can honestly say my first job made mentoring and professional growth a priority and because of this, it set the standard as to what I would look for in each job I held afterwords.  My very first job, although not perfect, was my “Mr. Miyagi”.

I am curious, let me know your thoughts on this issue…

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