Updated: May 20, 2019
If you were to ask me to describe a “good” mentor, or one that engages in high-quality mentoring relationships, the words “warm”, “caring”, and “approachable” would probably enter into my description, which is one of the reasons why the relationship between Ta-Nehisi Coates, award-winning writer of Between the World and Me, and the late David Carr, a columnist for the New York Times, is striking to me. Carr was by many accounts a powerful mentor who championed young journalists; but, to put it mildly, he was a bit rough around the edges.
When Carr died in 2015, Coates wrote a moving article in the Atlantic describing their relationship and the impact Carr had on him when they were both working at the Washington City Paper and beyond:
“…a man who was as effusive in praise as he was damning in condemnation. I still remember stumbling upon him in another editor’s office having just turned in a draft of that eviction story, and David looking up and saying, ‘We were just here talking about your incredible fucking story.’ No one had ever said anything like that to me. I remember my mother calling the office one day to talk to me. And David, in his brusque, brutal way, grabbed the phone from me and said, ‘I just want you to know that your son is here working his ass off.’ No one had ever said anything like that to my parents about me. I was a fuck-up. I was a knucklehead. I was going to end up on the corner. I was going to end up in jail. I was going to end up dead.
And then I wasn’t.
David Carr convinced me that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young hopper, a fuck-up, a knucklehead, could bring the heavens, the vast heavens, to their knees.”
From this account, Carr seems rough, yet deeply real and incredibly supportive—an approach that resonated with Coates.
Carr’s take on Coates echoes this: “He’s a great writer but it required me walking around on one foot because my other foot was up his ass.” Carr’s approach reminds me that high-quality mentoring comes in many forms. And, how you show up for people doesn’t need to be warm and friendly to be meaningful.
The other striking thing about the relationship between Coates and Carr is that it seemed to be built upon something deeply personal. Coates describes:
“I think that David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful.”
Beth Humberd and I wrote about the concept of personal identification in mentoring, a process through which a protégé and mentor sees oneself in the other over time. One of the reasons we wrote the paper was because we thought that prescriptions for mentoring sometimes miss the real core of what draws people together. When one recognizes elements of oneself in another, this recognition can provide a hope for the future for someone junior and validation of growth for someone senior, especially when those elements are core to one’s identity.
A mutual recognition of “a life of fucking up,” with all of the messiness and roughness associated with it, can draw people together and hold them there because it is deeply personal. Yet, it would be naive to think that the mentoring relationship that resulted wouldn’t also be a bit messy and rough. In fact, it might have to be to enable the mutual learning and growth that we typically associate with high-quality mentoring.
If you haven’t read Coate’s full article about Carr yet, do. It is a poignant reminder of the power of mentoring in shaping careers and forging friendships.