I have been lucky to have many wonderful mentors in my life, but for this post I’m going to choose someone who we will all be familiar with: Tim Gunn. Currently, he is hosting a spin-off show called Under the Gunn (pun intended, it’s Lifetime people). The format is similar to Project Runway, but with a twist. Three former winners of PR serve as the mentors for 12 new designers. If a mentor’s design team is all elimanted, the mentor is eliminated as well.
What I like most about this spin-off is that I get to see a lot more of Tim Gunn’s own mentoring skills at work because he is teaching other people how to be good mentors. Gunn is an amazing mentor, a skill that is difficult to hone and something I am becoming increasingly involved with as I move forward in my career.
Before becoming famous through Project Runway, Gunn taught in and chaired the fashion design department at Parsons New School for Design for several years. He brought a lot of experience as both a teacher and a mentor to the reality TV show, which gives it a lot more credibility as something that moves people in their careers far beyond just a taped competition.
One of the hardest things to understand is how mentoring is different than teaching. Teachers are dispensing information and knowledge and evaluating their students’ abilities to retain information and improve skills. I noticed in the very first episode that one of the mentors, a teacher at FIDM, was too hands-on with his designers. He was teaching them as if they were in the classroom, demonstrating skills and making up for any shortcomings by injecting his own perspective and voice into the design. His group did not do well on the runway.
Why? Because teaching and mentoring require different approaches. Here are five reasons why I admire Tim Gunn as a mentor:
He encourages creativity. Gunn knows how to recognize what makes people different and unique. More importantly, he leads people to accept the things that set their work apart and to build upon their strengths.
He is practical. Gunn also knows when to point out areas that need improvement or established rules that should be followed (don’t use muslin in the unconventional challenge, do use the Oxford comma!) We all have weaknesses and Gunn is able to guide people toward developing better skills without losing their strenghs. Below is some of his best advice, applicable to both fashion design and U.S. History students:
He let’s people fail. This can be a hard thing to do; you always want your mentees to succeed. But sometimes the best way to learn is to make a mistake. Gunn is wonderful at encouraging people to take his input and advice, but if they remain adamantly against it he let’s them go forward. Many times that means the mentee falls flat on their face.
He admits his mistakes. This can also be a hard thing to do; nobody wants to be wrong! But Gunn is always ready to acknowledge and take ownership of bad advice or missteps. Letting a mentee know that you are aware of your own weaknesses builds trust.
He is compassionate. We all have moments when we need someone to listen, to sympathize, and then to help us pick up and move on. And we all need someone to celebrate our achievements with genuine exuberance.
Are there other qualities that you think are crucial to being a good mentor? Being newer in the profession I have mostly been a mentee, but am increasingly taking on a mentor role. Do you think there is a way to bring mentoring inside the classroom side-by-side with teaching?
And above all how do you, as Tim Gunn would say, “Make It Work?”