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Don’t Accept a Mentor, Be an Anteambulo

Mentoring seems to everywhere these days, in the workplace, in schools, in athletics, in civic outreach programs - everywhere. As a matter of fact, I recently taught a mentoring class for the last two years, so I’ve had quite a bit of time and reason to consider the notion that mentoring is a panacea for onboarding and growing newcomers to virtually any group or team. But I’m going to share a little secret - even as I was teaching and supporting an undergraduate course in mentoring where upperclassmen gladly and graciously gave their time and energy to mentor incoming freshmen, there was something about the whole thing that wasn’t quite gelling with me.

Part of my slight but real hesitation was that, honestly, as an undergraduate, I wouldn’t have volunteered to be on either end of the mentoring equation. As an upperclassman I was too busy to help freshmen get adjusted. As a freshman, I would have preferred to roll around in fire ants instead of admitting that I was clueless. I took pride in struggling along on my own to figure things out rather than depend on others for help. I get that on some level all I have identified is my own personal preference – which has pros and cons. But my discomfort with the notion of mentoring in general lead me to think, REALLY THINK, about the idea of mentoring; to consider it not just through my own eyes but from a more systematic and holistic perspective.

In hopes of growing in my understanding of why I was uncomfortable with mentoring, I decided I should further unpack my own personal feelings before making any attempt to understand other people’s thoughts. I acknowledged that some of my discomfort was because as a female faculty member in a business school the number of female students seeking a female mentor far outnumbered the handful of us that were available. The numbers just didn’t add up since roughly half of the undergrads in my school were female while only a small fraction of faculty were women. The ratio of “them” to “us” had simply created a disproportional load. I’m not suggesting that being the same gender is a mandate for mentoring, but it has been my experience that it is important to many mentors and mentees alike. Additionally, although there was a fair amount of lip service given to the idea of mentoring students, there was very little concrete incentives, support, or rewards for prioritizing this type of commitment for faculty.

Those truths still didn’t quite explain my concerns. There seemed to be something even more rudimentary than personal preference or a lack organizational support that was gnawing at me.

As I thought more, I realized that there seems to be a least a hint of a generational differences as well. Not long ago a friend sent me a video clip from the movie Rocky Balboa. He said, jokingly (I think…okay, maybe not), that Rocky reminded him of me in my basic life philosophy. After watching the famous clip ( I would tend to agree with his observation.

The gist of the message from Rocky to his son is that life is tough but that you have to be tougher and that you have to stand on your own two feet and “takes the hits if you want to keep moving forward.” I have rewatched and enjoyed the clip and message on numerous occasions since. I’m drawn to the premise of self-reliance, building resilience, and celebrating scrappiness as a way to thrive in a challenging and dynamic world regardless of what comes at you.

And then my quest to understand took a small pivot to a concept that made immediate sense to me. In a flash all the pieces started to come together.


Definition: 1) forerunner 2) One who proceeds another to clear the way. Let me expand on that.

“An anteambulo was an artist/writer with a patron. Ah, the glory days of Roma, when wealthy patrons took on artists and supported them - housed, fed, clothed them - so they could create. In return, the artist was expected to perform tasks for the patron. One of these was anteambulo, which means “one who clears the path.” The anteambulo walked in front of his patron, ‘making way, communicating messages, and generally making the patron’s life easier.’” (Pearlman, 2017)

It occurred to me that the successful, senior person, one who is most worthy of being an exceptional mentor, may not have the time and energy to be a mentor at all. This being the most typical situation would suggest that, perhaps, it would make more sense for the younger, less practiced person to avail themselves to the wiser more experienced sage in exchange for the opportunity to receive insights of the mentor’s world. Perhaps the relationship could be more balanced.

Let’s think about it rationally. The typical “mentee” is hoping for time/energy/insight from the “mentor.” Ok, that seems reasonable to be a reasonable desire from anyone starting out. But does it make sense for professionals at the top of their game to dedicate time to the less experienced person? Can you stay at the top of your game if you give away your limited resources to those around you just to be “nice”? Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps you can’t.

The interesting idea about the concept of being an Anteambulo is that the mentee/newbie/student can gain SO much by merely watching and being in the presence of the mentor that many, if not all, of their needs can be met by simply being in close proximity and perhaps helping out with minor, redundant, or specialized tasks. On the other side, the “mentor” who doesn’t really have the time and energy to dedicate to the mentee, could probably use a hand, a little boost… someone to ‘pave the way’.

Let’s review:

1) Novices can gain in numerous ways from mere exposure to more experienced professionals.

2) Seasoned veterans often don’t have an excess of personal resources that would allow them to volunteer their time and energy.

3) Creating more of a modern anteambulo relationship could better meet the needs of both parties whereas a more standard mentor/mentee relationship may be more one-sided than is necessary.

From my perspective this reimagined old concept still holds water today.

What are your thoughts?

Pearlman, Hope. (Feb 27, 2017). Annals of Success: Be an Anteambulo. Psychology Today.

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