What The Last Jedi Can Teach Us About Mentorship

| 5 min read
#engineering #mentorship #leadership

We are what they grow beyond

I was supposed to spend this week writing about confidence and certainty, but then I got sick and that got sidetracked. I’ve got mentorship stuff on my brain, so I wanted to string some words together about it.

When The Last Jedi came out, I never stopped thinking about the scene between Luke and Yoda and the Jedi temple. Besides the fact that Yoda destroys some Jedi trees with forcing lightning in one of the best representations of chaotic good I’ve ever seen, it’s a poignant meditation on mentorship. It expresses the fact that you never really stop growing, and you never really stop feeling nervous or uncertain about yourself. Luke’s like the most talented Jedi in the galaxy, and he still needs guidance.

That resonates forcefully with my experience leveling up as an engineer. You’re so excited to get to the next level to escape your insecurities, only to find out that the insecurities come with you, they just change shape.

Leading up to this, Luke:

  • Over assumes how Rey will behave based on his experience
  • Views himself as a failure for being capable of teaching her the ways of the Jedi
  • Stays stuck within historical ways of seeing the world through the lens of Jedi teaching

And Yoda comes to comfort him and to take the burden of that responsibility off him. But he doesn’t do it with a pat on the shoulder or a “chin up, you must keep”. He gets at the heart of the flaws, limitations, and power of being a teacher.

“We are what they grow beyond”.

I literally have never forgotten that line. It encapsulates the beauty, optimism, and anxieties of the mentor/mentee relationship, while also gently nudging about how to think about being a mentor. Sometimes Rian Johnson just freaking gets it.

I want to reflect on some lessons on it, not because I think you’re going to like… get a promotion if you listen to Yoda or something stupid. I think it’s worth chatting through because the lessons will make you a better mentor and have more fulfilling relationships at work.

The Fear Never Goes Away

One of the most comforting parts about the scene, and something I’ve experienced a lot during mentorship, is that the fear never goes away. When I was starting out as a dev, I imagined becoming increasingly important and skilled and that reducing the amount of fear and uncertainty I dealt with. I didn’t know if I was coding the right way, or if I would accidentally do something that caused chaos or would get me fired. I am definitely less worried about those specific things. I’m confident in my ability to do stuff with code.

Boom, now I’m a Staff Engineer and I still face nervousness. But now I can feel the limitation of my viewpoint in a way I couldn’t at the start of my career, and that makes me act more cautiously. I can see the potential to use my position to accidentally constrain the thinking of the people around me. And yes, I’m occasionally worried about being lapped by the people I’m supposed to mentor.

The Growth Beyond

Especially in professional contexts, it’s easy to see the mentor/mentee relationship from the lens of the potential to level up further via roles, responsibilities, and pay. That encodes the mentor-mentee relationship in this sort of one dimensional hierarchy where the mentor is like a tugboat slowly pulling their mentee along behind them. We see this in the Star Wars universe with the growth from Padawan, to Apprentice, to Knight, to Master.

But Yoda’s point explodes the entire idea of teaching being one dimensional. Mentorship helps mentees grow to see the world in ways that you hadn’t, and that will push them past your understanding. And in doing so, they can then teach you. It’s one of the few places where fresh eyes can be informed by experience without being constrained by it. And instead, use that experience as a stepping stone to strive further.

That’s the magic, that’s the “force”, whatever you want to call it, that’s the cool thing that happens when you teach and learn. It’s not a dry knowledge transfer, it’s a multiplicative relationship that leaves both people better off.

Your Limitations Aren’t Theirs, and that’s ok

But that’s what makes the point of what Yoda does so beautiful (and what that phrase encapsulates). The mentor-mentee relationship isn’t about the limitations of one party or another. It’s not about the comparisons or the anxieties. It’s about the lenses that we get with age and experience, and being able to impart those lenses in ways that help our mentees accomplish wonderful things.

You don’t have to be free of doubt, uncertainty, or your own mental limitations to mentor someone else. You just have to be honest, open, and communicative. And trusting, and believing that they will get what they need from you, with the right attention and care.

Seeing it Happen Is So Cool

There is nothing more exciting that watching someone you've been teaching apply the concepts you've taught and then turn around and extend them in ways you hadn't even considered. It is at once humbling, invigorating, and exhilarating.

From Dall-E: a visual representation of the transfer of knowledge between a teacher and a pupil rendered like concept art from the original star wars From Dall-E a visual representation of the transfer of knowledge between a teacher and a pupil rendered like concept art from the original star wars

The line is also a good north star. It asks whether you're behaving like someone who is pushing the people you interact with beyond your limitations, or if you're holding them captive and reinforcing their need for you to be around. In that way it's a vision of servant leadership that is sincere and not bullshit.

The Human Side of Work Matters

I get so frustrated with LinkedIn speak sometime. Where concepts about leadership and ethics get flattened into these weird binary optimizations. These are the 5 best ways to be a mentor or, here are 5 takeaways for how mentorship can help your career. Yeah, sure, it can.

But, to flatten it down to something so simple is insulting. Mentorship is fraught, and challenging, and can be done wrong. The benefits of mentorship aren’t a flip you can switch, and there’s no guarantee that your mentee will get anything out of what you give them. And it can be very challenging to grapple with that idea.

But, mentorship is so rewarding is that it enriches our lives in ways that are challenging and personally meaningful, regardless of the career outcome. It really is magic. It takes all the knowledge that you’ve built up, and it doesn’t just hand it to someone else in some sort of additive transaction. It can slingshot that person, and in doing so, lift everyone around you. It will also enrich your lives in the way that gives it lasting meaning, beyond the daily positive and negative outcomes.

In one of my last :articles, I argued that you should give feedback (in part) because it would be good for your career. I don’t think you should think about your career when you mentor. You should mentor because it’s a rare magic, and good, and beneficial for society if you try to do it more, even if you occasionally fail.