The Mentorship Deficit

When I was towards the end of medical school, I had a bout of last minute questioning about my choice of specialty. I had put in my application for a specialty that offered a stable prosperous career, but there was another that was currently less attractive but which might be upstream of some interesting technological developments in the next few decades. I couldn’t very well bring this question to the senior doctor who I had already asked for a recommendation letter, and my med school friends were equally uncertain on the issue. So, I turned to the internet, where I found no wise counsel but did find a database of the salaries of all California state workers. Instead of getting advice on whether or not it’s worth taking a chance on interesting technology emerging, I got the salaries of every doctor working in those two specialties in public hospitals in California.

Well, I eventually came to a decision after much soul searching, but I still remember the incongruity of that image. Here I was, swimming in an incredible ocean of data, but data that was only tangentially relevant to my goals and with no guidance on how to contextualize it. Even now, when my uncertainty about my specialty is a distant memory, that moment stuck in my mind as a perfect example of the modern paradox of data abundance and human-judgment scarcity.

It’s all the more memorable because it’s emblematic of a decrease in mentorship in recent decades. People have fewer confidantes from older generations. Multigenerational households are no longer common. And even the white collar professions that in theory hold on to an apprenticeship model – such as medical residency and grad school – have largely morphed into bureaucratic entities rather than institutions dominated by a personal master-apprentice relationship.

And yet this change doesn’t seem to coincide with a decline in the desire for advice and mentorship. Consider the explosion of the self-help genre. Millions of people are seeking advice in books and television specials, and willing to pay in time and money to learn from their preferred gurus. And I don’t think there’s any slackening in elders’ desire to mentor either. I’ve been repeatedly struck by how willing older people, whether veterans of my profession or just friends and family, are willing to take time to answer questions and talk about their own hard-won lessons in life, even when a deeper mentorship relationship is not on the table. And so we’re stuck with this mystery where the supply is steady, the demand is still there, and yet the market itself cratered. What’s going on?

One approach is to meditate on the difference between a mentor and a self-help book. Namely: a mentor can have a legitimate claim to make you do hard, aversive things, like quitting smoking or studying harder than you’d otherwise do. Self-help books, on the other hand, are sold on the marketplace. You choose what self-help book you want to buy, and if you don’t like the advice you’re given, you can buy another.

In modern times, we tend to be very sensitive about rooting out coercion and exploitation. We prize autonomy and pleasantness, and while there’s still some appeal to the notion of a grueling training montage that leaves us stronger at the end, our sympathies tend to strongly support people who give up midway, saying they can’t take the pain any longer. A grad student complaining about being worked to the bone is likely to find sympathy, a coach known to produce some disgruntled students is not, no matter what defenses he trots out about his training methods making them stronger.

As a result, we’ve effectively placed a price ceiling on mentorship. Mentors can still teach individual skills and recount old war stories, but they are no longer allowed to be highly demanding of their protégés. And without a credible way to promise hard, dependable labor, it’s harder for would-be apprentices to justify their demands on the master’s time and efficiency. The supply of intensive mentoring dries up. And so people turn to self-help books, seeking guidance through the very choice-based mechanisms that rendered mentorship untenable.

Note that I’m not suggesting that people in general are leading cushier lives, only that specific mentors are no longer allowed to be as demanding. Whatever price ceiling we put on mentorship seems to have a loophole for institutions like school and bureaucratic workplaces. It seems perfectly normal for grad school to require five years of grueling work. But having a single authority figure, like a PI or boss, go out on a limb and demand that you do five years of grueling work under his personal authority in exchange for his occasional helpful comments feels strange and coercive. That difference is a measure of how much of a ceiling we’ve put on mentors’ demandingness.

The mystery of the institutional loophole - why we're okay with submission and hard labor as long as it's to a faceless bureaucracy rather than a fully human authority figure - is worth pondering as well. But that'd be a post for another time.