Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Mentor’s Worth: Breaking Things Down

Good mentors are worth their weight in gold for oh so many reasons: their experience gives them views into problems you’d never considered, their technical skills or domain knowledge lets them identify things you’d missed, and their longer careers may give them some calm perspective you’re too fired up to miss. They’re also exceptional at helping you step back from problems you’re too deep in to.

As I wrote recently, I’ve picked up guitar playing again and am loving how it’s stretching my thinking and learning in so many ways. I’m also finding great parallels between my experience as a mentor and how my guitar instructor guides me.

For instance, a couple weeks ago I was having serious difficulty on a piece around fingerpicking. It’s basic stuff, but well, I’m a beginner. I’d hit a total mental block and wasn’t able to get past some of the initial pieces.

John, my instructor, took out his pencil and quietly made a few marks on the page. “Do just these combinations first, forget the melody. Just focus on the chords.”

Wow. Well, wow and “duh!”

Stepping back and focusing on small pieces of the trouble is such a crucial problem solving skill. The problem was I couldn’t get myself to step back. I needed a guide to pull me back and show me the way. Break it down, simplify it.

This is the same sort of thing I really enjoy working with my mentorees/subordinates on. Got a problem? Let’s chat it up and see what it looks like. Then let’s step back and break it down. Dealing with a complex test matrix? Maybe we can figure out some common points, or look to some combinatorial pairwise magic. Got an overly complex, muddled test case? Let’s step back and think about what we’re really trying to test, then go after that test case with a scalpel to pare away everything that’s not essential.

It’s what mentors are great at: helping you step back and break large problems into manageable pieces.

Updated:Fixed busted image link.

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