Shortly after I graduated from high school, I took a job as a drill press operator in a funky machine shop where we shared space with a framing contractor. John Rainwater, an Amerindian, ran a company that only did the rough framing – studs and joists and rafters – for houses and apartment buildings in Southern California. One day out in the shop area, I kiddingly asked John to take me out on a job and let me strap on the tools.
“Take this rigging axe,” he said. “If you can drive this 16 penny sinker clear through this 2×4 in six hits or less, you can come out to the job site next week.” Testing me, John placed the coated nail right over a super-hard knot in the fir stud. Noticing that placement, I took the nail and moved it two inches away and proceeded to drive it through the board easily. Had I not moved it, the knot would have bent the sinker on the first hit. True to his word, John took me on as an apprentice with his crew and for the next year he personally mentored me in all phases of Skilsaw carpentry. It’s rough work that I love and I have been doing it on and off for the past 40 years.
Anybody who’s anybody has had somebody take an active, authentic interest in them. In organized families, it’s usually the parents and/or older siblings. They frequently apply The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience which is: It takes a more organized, integrated brain to help organize a less organized, less integrated brain. This organizing principle is responsible for much of the early development in our lives, including general intelligence. It is our parents’ more organized brains that help with organizing ours – mostly through contingent communication and by finding creative ways to soothe our discomforts and ease our anxieties.
But others can model the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience for us as well. An inspired example in action comes from The Grace Living Center, a retirement home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, located across the street from an elementary school. Don Greiner, the owner of the home, invited the school to put a glass-walled preschool and kindergarten in the lobby. Seeing the kids in there each day as they walked in and out, a number of the nursing home residents began to take an avid interest. Soon a “Book Buddies” program was begun, with seniors volunteering to teach reading one-on-one to 3-5 year olds. Much more than just reading happened – brains were reciprocally organized. Kids left the program reading at advanced levels, and the seniors’ need for medication was significantly reduced and they lived longer. A true Mutual Brain Organizing Society.
I Turned Out All Right
Most of us come to parenting with only our own parents and perhaps a few neighbors and relatives as occasional role models. Oftentimes, people will say to me: “Look at me. My parents didn’t do a perfect job, but I turned out all right.” And my response is simply: “Compared to what? How might you have turned out had your parents known then what we’re learning now about how the brain develops best? The good news is, it’s not too late.”
Locked into the narrow parameters of our own personal experience, it’s often a challenge to recognize that our household of origin might not have provided the best early environment for optimal brain growth and connectivity. Yes, most of our parents did the absolute best they could, often under very challenging circumstances, but it’s what they didn’t do, and didn’t know to do, that we can learn and apply as adults. As a result, we can offer our own kids greater possibilities for changing things up for the better.
Latch Thee onto a Mentor
Recognizing the power of being mentored in my own life, I’ve been mentoring carpenters and psychology graduate students for the last 25 years. British creativity expert, Ken Robinson, identifies the four elements of mentoring that I’ve been providing my students during this time. The first is recognition. Being seen repeatedly and accurately in a positive light by smart, kind, caring people in our lives makes a variety of the modules in our brains light up. As a Leo, I can attest to this from personal experience. 🙂
The next mentoring element: encouragement. Mentors are essential for inspiring us to take heart when we inevitably begin to lose it, especially when we’re aiming at complex accomplishments or taking on new and difficult learning. This was certainly true more often than not for many of the people profiled in The Person Who Changed my Life: Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors. (What they failed to capitalize upon however, is the possibility of being their own virtual mentor by constructing a personal Digital Avatar!).
Together with encouragement, the third element often comes simultaneously into play – facilitation. When the going gets tough, it’s more than a little helpful to have someone skilled and knowledgeable who can calm the waters or provide clear, accurate direction.
Finally, a skilled mentor encourages stretching. After all, the 10,000 hours that K. Anders Erickson determined it takes to become an expert in any field doesn’t show up from simply doing the same easy things over and over. No. Expertise comes about from growing new neurons and connections that result from addressing and resolving conflicts, and receiving skilled instruction and unfailing support that shows us how to improve those areas where we perform poorly. Think Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, working to perfect the ” Double McTwist 1260″ on the snowboard. Think too, that it is these four elements, as a part of the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience, that worked these last two weeks to bring home a record number of medals in this year’s Winter Olympics.