Maybe You Need An Elder Not A Mentor

I’m not sure where my chocolate business would be without a handful of mentors along the way who helped me avert danger and land safely time after time. Lately I’m thinking that having a mentor is not enough in business or life. Yes, we need mentors to help us navigate fill in the blank practical aspect of our business. But, maybe what we really need is one or more elders deeply rooted in our lives, and us in theirs, over a span of years.

What initiated my thinking on this are the elder farmers I’ve seen in rural Tanzania over the past decade, how they interact with others in the village, in cocoa cooperative meetings, and in family settings. Want to understand village mindedness? Watch the elders. During cocoa cooperative meetings the elders sit up front. They often speak first in meetings. When we have chocolate tastings they are first to taste. This is true for both men and women elders. I see younger farmers act with gentleness and patience toward elders who, at first glance, might not appear as “contributing” to the group. I’ve noticed the real “contribution” is not from these elders who have trouble walking, talking or even thinking clearly but it is the way in which younger members of the group behave toward these people who were once vibrant and now need them. In other words, this is an opportunity for the younger ones to exercise compassion and give dignity to those who need it.

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From the right, Tanzanian cocoa farmer elders Anderson Mwaliambwile, Ambikile Mwandalima, me, Rainald Mwakimbwala

Let’s swing the bus back around and point the discussion toward my hometown and yours.

What is an elder? An elder is not achieved by merely being old. It is an earned status that begins with many years in the rear view mirror. An elder has garnered wisdom and humility along the way. This is also true in Tanzania where age alone does not bestow the qualities that make other members sit up and take notice when they speak. Age alone does not an elder make. An elder is someone who’s been through some stuff, lots of stuff, and yet they still stand. They don’t hide their scars and even celebrate imperfection. An elder is not necessarily someone who achieved great notoriety in the community but perhaps notoriety on your street. An elder’s smile is creased with practice and their words are measured and kind. Even though they sometimes cannot see or hear perfectly you are drawn to them, you want to be close to them.

Why might you need an elder in your life? A mentor can tell you if you should expand your facility location or where to find a better deal on credit card merchant rates or if you should pay for business interruption insurance. An elder can tell you what it’s like when you might not have the money to meet payroll, what it’s like to grieve the death of a spouse or child, what loneliness feels like, or why walking everyday is important. They’ve struggled through darkness, been to the mountaintop, returned and want to tell you about it. Over time an elder will get to know you and feel free to speak with a directness that might feel unfamiliar. You will come to appreciate it even though it might be uncomfortable at first. You will also discover how open hearted you are in conversation with this person because guess what? They don’t care how many likes your last picture got on Instagram. They help us understand that embracing mystery, not pushing it away, is critical over the long haul of finding joy in our lives. We need elders in order to gain their wisdom, learn how to soften our edges and put life into perspective.

We also need relationships with elders so we can serve them when they need us even for the little things. A time will come when we can give something back to them as they start to see home a little more clearly ahead in the front windshield. This is mutuality.

Where are you going to find such a person? They’re all around you in churches, temples, fitness centers walking around the track, neighbors. Some you might know well enough to call and ask if you can meet for a cup of coffee. I promise if you look you will find one or more elders who will be more than happy to take you under their wing. If your standard is Gandalf or Mother Teresa then you’ve missed the point. Make it your intention, your prayer that elders cross your path that you can talk to, learn from, and someday serve. I am certain it will happen. If all else fails, ask your mentor if he/she can introduce you.

You can read more about how elders have influenced my life in my new book Meaningful Work.