Editor’s Note: In this column, we will be continuing our series of offering bits of advice from 101 of our country’s most successful men and women. The advice was compiled by writer Vince Reardon into a book, The Pocket Mentor: Insider Tips from America’s Most Successful People which will be available for purchase next mont. After gathering all the advice, Vince concluded that it fell into five distinct themes: 1) be yourself, 2) be for others, 3) be a learner, 4) be persistent, and 5) be a risk-taker.” Here’s more advice that is most relevant for mentors to share with mentees:
Temple Grandinis Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, a best-selling author, an autism activist, and a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior.
One thing I figured out very early on was seeing doors to opportunity. Many years ago, early in my career, I got the business card of the editor of the Arizona Farmer Ranchman magazine, who I later approached about doing an article. I wrote the article for the magazine, and before long I had a press pass from the magazine, which got me into cattle meetings. So if you meet the right person, he or she can open the right door for you.
A lot of young people today don’t figure that out. If you want to get into a job, walk up to the guy who has the tech company ID badge around his neck and show him your work. If you’re a writer or an artist, you need to show off your portfolio. People thought I was a weird geek. No one wanted to talk to me. Then I’d show them my drawings [of signs and corrals for cattle ranches] and they’d say, “Ooh, you did that!” Then I started getting a little bit of respect. When I meet parents who tell me that their kids are really good artists, I tell them, “Well, get your kid’s art on your phone. You never know when you might meet someone who can open a backdoor.” But a lot of people today tell me, “I never thought of that.” I’m very good at finding backdoors.
A lot of kids don’t know where they’re going. I gave a guest lecture to an environmental management class at a university in 2013 and they gave me their questions on index cards. The big question was: “How did you get your passion for cattle?” I said I was exposed to them when I was a teenager. Kids are not going to get interested in things they aren’t exposed to. Schools have taken out hands-on classes. How are you going to find out if you like a musical instrument if you’ve never used one? If I hadn’t had art when I was in school, I would have gone nowhere. I had a wakeup call during this class [in environmental management] I was teaching. Here are regular students saying, “I don’t really know what I want to do.” I always tell students, “Before you go into an advanced degree, try on a career first. Make sure it’s what you want to do.” Many students today are not doing enough things to find out what they would like to do.
People have a real bad way of staying in their silos. One thing I’ve tried to do is get out and look at the neuroscience of cattle behavior and get involved in how to build stuff. Both construction and neuroscience are used in my work now, although they sound like totally different things. I follow employment trends. Employers in the tech industry don’t want a pure electrical engineer or a pure computer science major. They want computer science, a little electrical engineering, and throw a little mechanical engineering in there too. They like these mixtures. What I’ve done my whole life in my career is mix up construction work with neuroscience and animal science. But it all relates, and I use it all to work on the things I work on. Most people stay in their silos, and it’s hard to bust out of silos.
Ted Kooser is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006. Author of 20 books of poetry, he published Splitting an Order in 2014.
I was employed by a life insurance company for many years, and in the 1990s wrote a novel about a company convention in the Virgin Islands. I made fun of the foolishness of the salespeople as well as the home office staff who accompanied them. It was a sort of Animal House of the insurance business. I showed a section of the manuscript to a friend, Robert Knoll, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Nebraska, and he read what I showed him and laughed heartily at the funny moments, and then turned to me and said, “Ted, don’t be too hard on those people. Nearly everyone is doing the best they can.” I was then almost fifty years old, and it had never occurred to me that this was possible, or true, but over the years I’ve come to agree with my late friend. There are very few truly evil people in the world, and nearly everybody else is doing the best they can, often against terrible odds. I am very grateful for Robert’s wisdom. The novel has never been published, and I am grateful for that, too. I would have regretted it.
*Editor’s Note: As an added bonus, we thought we’d share one of Mr. Kooser’s finest works, which shows just this sort of compassion:
A Rainy Morning
A young woman in a wheelchair, wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain, is pushing herself through the morning. You have seen how pianists sometimes bend forward to strike the keys, then lift their hands, draw back to rest, then lean again to strike just as the chord fades. Such is the way this woman strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers, letting them float, then bends again to strike just as the chair slows, as if into a silence. So expertly she plays the chords of this difficult music she has mastered, her wet face beautiful in its concentration, while the wind turns the pages of rain.