By JEFF GOLDSMITH (3)
For people starting out in their careers or contemplating a mid-career change, an honest conversation with a mentor can make a big difference. Mentoring seems to have gone out of fashion in a tech-driven world where nearly instantaneous feedback from wide networks of “friends’ seems to have taken the place of confidential conversation with older people. But reflecting on my own career, I can say with certainty that mentors made a huge difference. And I was lucky enough to have three of them, at different stages of my career. I am grateful to them for helping me navigate in a changing world.
As an undergraduate at Reed College in the late 1960’s, I became interested in social science research, specifically how institutions selected out types of people by their personalities and interests. While my academic work focused on classics and psychology, a research project on Reed’s brutal attrition rate (only a little more than a third of people who entered Reed as freshmen graduated in four years) that sought out the selection factors that predicted “success”, at least surviving the four years of a very intense undergraduate experience.
This work brought me in contact with Professor David Riesman at Harvard, whose 1954 book “The Lonely Crowd” made him a leading public intellectual and social critic (and landed him on the cover of Time). “Lonely Crowd” decried the erosion of individualism and the rise of the “other directed” personality in America. This work eerily presaged (by a mere fifty years) today’s obsessive internet-driven hunger for the approval of strangers. Reisman, who was then in his early 60’s, had come to Harvard, and had become a leading sociologist of higher education. I sent him my Reed research to see what he thought, and the correspondence led to a friendship that stretched over the next thirty years.