As a freshman in college, I had to live with my parents, which was not what I wanted to be doing. Feeling stifled and cut off from my peers, I came up with the idea that buying a car would give me (some of) the freedom I craved. When I broached the topic with my parents, I was immediately shut down. Since my dad was a professor at the university I attended, they thought transportation should not be a problem. Further, they did not think I could afford a car or was ready for the responsibility it entailed. Crestfallen, I moped around for a while. Then, my teenage defiance kicked in, and I started to look at used cars. My parents’ resistance subsided as they watched me tackle the obstacles on my own. Somewhere during this process, our next-door neighbor, Bill, started to help me filter the ads and get my arms around this major purchase. An engineer and super-nice guy with no kids of his own, he provided subtle guidance that buoyed my efforts. Eventually I found a car I could afford – a ’64 Ford Galaxy 500. When Bill assured me it was mechanically sound, I began to imagine the freedom this car could bring to my life. The problem was that the previous owner had stripped its paint, but not finished the job. Talking to Bill, I learned that without new paint the car would rust, but the cost of having it professionally painted would put it out of my price range. Then he offered a solution: he could help me paint it. Let’s be clear: I was a sissy … car mechanics were not my thing. Somehow, he coached me into doing the unimaginable. We worked together for 2-3 weeks that fall, sanding, priming, and painting my car. He had the tools, equipment, and skills to manage the technical aspects of the job. But more importantly, he had the patience and wisdom to make me the leader in the rehabilitation of my car. I discovered that I could operate a power sander and pressurized spray painter to transform this ugly, dull grey car into a shiny, turquoise symbol of my freedom. I earned my independence – and my parents’ respect – under Bill’s tutelage that fall. Plus, I learned valuable lessons about persevering beyond my self-imposed limitations to achieve my dreams.
At dinner with a group of colleagues a few weeks ago, “first car” stories floated into the conversation. Everyone had a story to tell … and they told these stories with such passion and energy that I began to ponder the significance of a “first car” in our culture. I realized that these shiny, expensive objects represent independence, freedom, and responsibility – and in hindsight, they evoke memories of youthful antics, innocence, and growing up. No wonder so many people love to talk about their first cars.
My first car story means all those things to me, but because of Bill, I also take away important lessons about mentoring:
- Let the mentee lead – Bill stepped into my goals and enabled me to achieve them. Never did he try to influence my overarching decision whether or not to buy a car. He left that to me (and my parents) to determine.
- Advise rather than direct – Bill coached, taught, and demonstrated. He never bossed me around. At 17, I was rebellious enough that heavy-handed direction would have sent me running the other way, especially with my reticence for car mechanics. Instead, he tapped into my underlying goal and fueled my curiosity and tenacity.
- Success has unglamorous beginnings – While I have never operated a pressurized spray painter again, Bill taught me some fundamental skills that transcend cars and painting. Success stemmed from a tedious and unglamorous process of sanding and preparing the surface for the new paint. Most major accomplishments result from a foundation built on tedious and unglamorous tasks.
- Respect boundaries – My parents could have squelched this whole project. If they had felt their authority and influence was threatened by it, an unpleasant drama could have ensued. Bill never tried to compete with my parents’ authority. He was happy in his mentor role – a wise and compassionate advocate for my independence – operating on the sidelines.
What is your “first car” story? What life lessons have you derived from it and how can you mentor others from what you learned?