I was a teenage socialist and then a visual art student in my late twenties. When I was younger, networking and mentoring seemed to be something completely divorced from me and all I stood for. I saw leadership as some kind of mildly distasteful and mysterious thing that happened in corporate Boardrooms among entitled, suity men. I didn’t know what mentoring meant. It seemed bound up wth nepotism and secret handshakes, that sort of thing.
And then one day I found a mentor, just like that. My mentor was not corporate or suity or a man. She was the late and most wonderful Autistic women author, artist, musician and advocate, Poly Samuel who was also called Donna Williams. Our mentoring arrangement happened organically, a seemingly unintentional relationship which gave me more than I can begin to quantify. Our relationship essentially gave me the life I have now. Writing was involved – Polly was a many times published author and I had never written anything save high school short stories and university essays. Polly told me to write my own story. This appealed to that incredibly strong motivation of mine to do good for the world, to atone for poor choices and poor behaviour in the past. I wrote the thing. It was like nothing I had done before. Polly was there, always available. She was a very hands-on mentor. Her style was more based in friendship and encouragement than conscious leadership. More than anything I remember days in her art-filled home talking about autism, the universe and everything. Polly owned her home. I lived in public housing. Homeownership was a dream beyond my imagining. Polly’s little wooden studio at the bottom of her garden was magical. We painted there together a few times. She had her books and art everywhere. There was a mobile of sensory marvels which had been part of a documentary about her for Japanese TV. Polly was a strong leader in the autism community and she showed me a side of life and autistic identity which I loved and aspired to.
Sadly it took many years before I realised how precious a gift Polly had so freely given me. I can only say I thanked her before the end but this was not enough to my mind.
That book I wrote with the support and mentorship of Polly was published over eleven years ago. My life now mirrors Polly’s in may ways. I have a list of publications with my name to them, I own my own home and it is filled with art and objects from my advocacy career too. I am an established Autism advocate, speaker and author. And I too mentor some Autistic people, mostly young women. I have a semi-official mentoring relationship with five people at the moment. I am rarely as hands on as Polly was by I think my mentoring style also starts from the position of friendship more than leadership. Some of my mentees live locally and we are in regular face to face contact, others are further afield and we connect online or when I am visiting the places they live – or they come to Canberra. I absolutely love that when I suggest someone comes back to Whimsy Manor that so many people are happy to come and spend time with Mr Kitty and me in my lovely home. My house is Autistic space. There is no intentional judgement, you can do or say whatever you wish as long as it is not hateful or blaming. Art, Neurodiversity, stimming, genuine conversations, passionate interests, pets and space are regular – and welcome – topics of conversation. If you – or I for that matter – have a meltdown it will be met with support and kindness and the offer of some time out with or without Mr Kitty. I wonder if I modelled my recent life on Polly’s world and mentoring. I love what I have here at Whimsy manor and in the autism community and hope that my mentorship can support others in a similar way as Polly’s did for me.
Some thoughts around mentoring and leadership are:
- Mentoring is not instruction. I see it as a supportive but reciprocal relationship. I learn as much as anyone that I mentor does.
- The aim of leadership is to create more leaders. Supporting mentees in their work is a given. I want them to achieve everything they can and if that means they surpass my accomplishments then I will be a very happy person.
- I tend to think everyone can benefit from a mentor, a coach and / or a ‘critical friend’.
- If you see somebody doing things you admire and aspire to and they are open to the suggestion, consider asking them to be your mentor.
- Tall poppy syndrome, jealousy and competitiveness are counterproductive in terms of gaining skills and finding a mentor. Successful / fulfilled / accomplished people got that way for a reason. If they can share some of their thinking and advice with you that is awesome but this is very difficult if one or other of you is jealous of the other!
- There is always going to be someone better at doing the things I do than me. This is good. If I can I will connect with that person and share ideas and ‘pick their brain’.
- A mentor is not only someone who can help your career. A good mentor can support you managing your life well and building things like resilience and independence and confidence.
- While most of my mentors in recent years have been Autistic, there is no rule that says your mentor has to be Autistic if you are yourself.
- Mentoring is a lovely thing to do. It is reciprocal which means both parties are getting a benefit. It also essentially builds more and more leadership skills within the Autism community which has to be a good thing.