Mentoring is the informal way of helping other people. At work we have formal relationships of bosses and subordinates. The guidance that we give and receive up and down the heirarchy there is seldom if ever mentoring. It is mentoring when it’s not something you tell people to do.
When your doctor tells you his or her way of controlling your diabetes, it may be great advice, but it’s not mentoring. However, when a friend or relative suggests something that works for him or her, it can be mentoring.
Nobody is just a mentor. We are always also mentees. Nobody knows everything about even such an apparently narrow subject like diabetes. I use the word “apparently” advisedly, because I know from immersing myself in it for the past dozen years that in reality it is a huge subject.
At first we are largely on the receiving end of mentoring, which for the want of a better word is called being a mentee. But as we learn, we can pass on that knowledge to others.
For those of us who make use of the Internet, we can get so much from it. That’s being a virtual mentee. We can give it back here too. That’s being a virtual mentor.
Many years ago Howard Rheingold was one of the first people to make the connection between the Internet and the gift exchange that it fostered. In his book, The Virtual Community, first published in 1993, Howard wrote:
When I was able to get on the Internet in March 1994, the Web was just beginning. But newsgroups were going strong, and my motivation to go online was to get some of the shared knowledge on the Internet’s first diabetes group, misc.health.diabetes. Eventually my mentors there and later on many diabetes websites taught me almost all that I know about diabetes.
Later, when I started my website in February 1995 I was able to give back in some measure. A few years ago in my keynote address to the Institute for the Future’s Health Horizons Program, I said that “I think of [my site] as playing my part in what Howard Rheingold calls the ‘gift economy’ of the Net: People taking what they need and giving back in some measure without expectation of profit. All my life I have been taking in information. Now it is so satisfying to be giving back what I can.”