I have been very lucky to have a number of wonderful life guides over my (many) years, starting with my father, who set me up for being an ethical member of the community. A mentor is defined as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.” That someone who takes you under their wing, guides you, encourages you, and watches your back that you have what I believe to be a true mentor. Yes, it can be a family member, but that’s expected of them.
Dad was a strong authority figure in my life, as were Dave Hutchinson, Akaila of my Cub Pack, and Harry Venables and Dick Madely, the leaders of my Scout Troop. But my two biggest mentors for single, specific pursuits, were Eileen MacIntosh and Peter Burian.
Eileen ran the badminton club in our church parish hall, and when she saw that I wasn’t going to be winning any tournaments on the court, she eventually guided me into officiating, teaching me the rules and starting me off slowly, as a linesman and umpire at our own club. When I showed interest and aptitude, she got me registered in the courses to turn me into one of the youngest Regional Umpires and eventually into the second youngest Provincial Umpire, and I was damned good. With Eileen’s help, I was a teenage kid soon working as a linesman at the Canadian Open with some of the best players in the world. I also got some very choice gigs at some of the smaller, but elite invitational tournaments in the province. Eileen was a successful umpire as well, and I became her sidekick and protegé.
The peak of my umpiring career was selected to umpire at the 1978 Ontario Winter Games in Kingston, Ontario. I did well enough there that even at 18 I was invited to officiate at the Canada Winter Games. Unfortunately, because I was a teenage boy, I turned down the opportunity in order to avoid one girl and hang out with another. Trust me when I say that it is a decision I have regretted for over forty years. Shortly after that I graduated high school and moved away from Toronto, so I was unable to continue with my badminton officiating. But Eileen’s trust and guidance helped guide me beyond the court, and although she passed away a number of years ago, I am forever in her debt.
My second major mentor was Peter Burian, whom I met through his work in Photo Life Magazine. Peter is a wonderful photographer and author of more photography guides and camera manuals than you can shake a 72mm ND filter at, including a definitive guide to nature and travel photography for National Geographic (in which I am pictured canoeing on the lake above in the same red jacket).
Even though Peter lives in Ontario, not far from Toronto, he traveled out to Alberta at least once a year to photograph the animals, mountains, and lakes of the Banff, Jasper, and Yoho National Parks. Since I happened to live in Banff National Park mere steps from one of the most famous and amazing natural views in the world, when Peter came to Alberta, I became his guide. Back then I was an enthusiastic, yet unpublished photographer, but Peter took the time to teach me everything from how to better use my camera, to the best light to shoot in, how to frame an image best for publication, and which subjects are in demand. Thanks to his guidance, I was at one time the most published photographer living in Lake Louise, with images in many books, calendars, postcards, posters, playing cards, and magazine covers. I even sold an image to National Geographic.
Although that was over twenty years ago, even to this day you can find at least one product sporting an image of mine in any tourist shop in the Banff/Lake Louise area.
Which brings me around to the area of my life where I needed a mentor the most, but didn’t have one… writing. Very briefly, back in the late 80s I was critiqued and guided by Barbara Novak of London Ontario when she was the wonderful Writer-in-Residence at our local library; but Barbara worked with my writing, not my career, which is what I needed as much if not more guidance with back then. Unfortunately, I eventually moved from Ontario to Alberta, and then Barbara passed away from cancer, so the one person I might have turned to for guidance when I got serious about my writing was gone.
My writing languished. This was the pre-internet early 90s, so I couldn’t simply reach out and find some critique group or mentorship program. Maybe I could have found someone through a local library or college, but I lived a mile up in a resort village and the nearest library was forty miles away, while the closest post-secondary institution was over two hours away. That’s when I turned my attention to photography and let my writing take a backseat, despite a couple of early successes.
I started going to writing and fan conventions and have found kindred souls, but didn’t find a true mentor. I found inspirations and made friends and received endless hours of guidance, but never found one person who had the time to take me by the hand and guide me, which is what I believe we all need when we start out in a new endeavor.
So, if I were to give you a single piece of advice to use for yourself or to pass on to the young people in your life, it would be this: once you find your passion (sport, art, business, personal, etc.) seek out someone who has succeeded in that field. Someone who is willing to advise and guide you using the lessons they themselves have learned the hard way, through experience. A mentor’s experience can’t replace your own but it can certainly save you some time and headaches. If I had had a writing mentor, I might not have waited until I was fifty-four to publish my first novel.
Find a mentor. That’s all. But know that not everyone has the time, the patience, or the interest to be a mentor. It’s not an easy job. Most of us who look like mentor material are still trying to figure things out ourselves. I’m still such a rookie at writing that my guidance would barely last one conversation over coffee. But there are others out there. You just have to look. Good luck.
Ciao for now,