Ru En

My mentors, or the 5 rules of choosing an instructor

I am frequently asked what I would advise to fledgling entrepreneurs. For myself, I have formulated three key principles:

  • you have to truly care about what you do;
  • planning for decades in advance and being consistent in your actions;
  • choosing the right partners.

I’d like to discuss the final principle in greater detail. The right partner also means those from whom you can learn something. In other words, your partners can be your mentors. Who is a mentor?

A mentor is someone who gives you a fishing pole not a fish

Very few of those who have reached success lacked good mentors. Personally, I can also say that I owe the core part of my success to mentors. I have had incredible luck in life with them. I don’t wish to say that I’ve continuously met people who told me what to do and how, and that, by following such advice, indeed I succeeded. A mentor is far more than an advisor, teacher or instructor. They neither teach lessons nor read lectures. Your mentor provides more than just knowledge. They provide you with a toolkit, helping you reach certain important discoveries about life and yourself independently.

In Homer’s “The Odyssey”, the educator of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, is called Mentor. Athena-Pallada, goddess of wisdom and guardian of Telemachus and Odysseus, often appears as the Mentor. This beautiful metaphor could be expressed in today’s realities thus: a mentor is someone who often helps us comprehend the world’s wisdom.

№1. Do not expect instantaneous effect

Quite often, you realize that a certain person has become your mentor after considerable time has elapsed, not right when you met him or her. Just as grain tossed on the ground does not sprout immediately, the thoughts which the mentor imparted to you can guide you to critically important conclusions years later.

My father

My father was a very principled person. For example, he, an architect and professor, never took bribes from students, although the family always lacked money. My father was even didactic in his principled stance. He taught me what is correct and what isn’t. In my youth I argued and expostulated with him, yet I later realized he was right. My father taught me always to strive for more, to be honest with myself, and not to seek reasons for failure externally. He said: there are three measures of self-assessment – compared to the past, compared to others and compared to the absolute. The absolute benchmark cannot be reached, yet should always be sought.

№2. Learn from those nearby

It is mistaken to think that those driven to succeed must engage with solely the wealthy and famous. Mentors are not always experienced, established people, already having reached success. Throughout life you meet different people who reveal to you something new about the world, expanding its boundaries. And through this knowledge of the world you find out more about yourself and can perfect yourself.

My older sister

My older sister is a composer and famous songwriter in both Armenian and Russian. Thanks to her I gained insight into creativity and art, and a new sense of the world. She taught me nothing specific, yet opened the world to me. I socialized with her friends, people 10 years older than I, read the books they read, and watched the films they watched. Thus my worldview was broader than that of my peers. I had the rare chance to experience the world of more mature people, to think and discern like them. Through this interaction, I learned what women are concerned with, what preoccupies them, how much women and men are psychologically different from each other, and what is important and unimportant for one and the other. All this enriched my world.

After my first year in university I, like others, was enlisted in the army. The head of the division I served in was Colonel Snegur. Always prim, he was, on the one hand, quite formal and remained aloof, meaning he didn’t acknowledge cronyism, while on the other hand he never disparaged his subordinates. He neither stole, although thievery was endemic in the army, nor drank. For us 18 year-old fellows, our division chief exemplified the true military officer.

№3. Be a realist

Two extremes should be avoided: idealizing the mentor and certainty that you can only learn from steadfastly positive people. People are not separated between good and bad. The taller the tree is, the bigger its shadow. So too with personality: the greater the scale, the more ambiguous it is. Never overlook the chance to learn important things because the person helping you to understand them is hardly irreproachable.

My grade school chemistry teacher was also our school’s vice-principal. I finished school in the 1980s, the zenith of corruption. A gold medal could hardly ever be won without money. That same chemistry teacher, our vice-principal, as we knew, was no bystander to this process. And yet, she committed to fighting for my gold medal, which I received without paying a single kopeck. My school teacher lived, so to speak, according to beliefs: in her understanding a man must remain a man in any situation. She explained the rules of life to me, and if I was wrong, she could say in no soft terms what others would never dare to say. One time the entire class scampered off from lessons. Among us was a boy who didn’t speak with us. He stayed there alone, and the entire class united against him. At the time, I was chair of the school’s komsomol committee, and the chemistry teacher said to me: “Well, why are you quibbling? Be a man!” This phrase affected me much more strongly than had I been yelled at. Because of it I learned a certain lesson in maturation.

Lee Kuan Yew

Former Minister Mentor of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, one of the creators of the “Singaporean miracle” ruled his country for three decades. It takes considerable strictness to defeat, in quite short time, corruption and turn a backwater island state, lacking oil, gas or other resources, into a country with a leading economy and one of the world’s best educational systems. I strongly embrace Mr. Lee Kuan Yew's belief that the impossible is possible, as well as his long-term vision. He was able to look decades ahead and take the necessary steps 20-30 years before a particular problem becomes especially acute. For example, he ascertained that in order to prevent Singapore’s lagging behind Shanghai and Mumbai, which could begin within two decades, it’s necessary to expand the group of countries whose focus may encompass Singapore. Potential investors may include the new entrepreneurs from Russia, and among them – the alumni of SKOLKOVO. I am very grateful to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew for agreeing to serve on our school’s International Advisory Board.

№4. Listen to and share experience

Mentorship is not a unilateral process. Mentors sometimes fail to realize they are your mentor. Simple communication with certain people may allow you to grasp something which previously, perhaps, evaded you.

Primakov. Evgeny Maximovich

Some things you understand and accept with time, just as a cup is filled gradually, drop by drop, or like the karate movies, where teachers instruct their students to grab their coats from the floor and hang them up repeatedly. At first the student understands nothing, but it turns out they have perfected to automation the defensive block. This is one thing. Quite another is when you simply communicate with someone, like, for example, how I communicated with Primakov. Evgeny Maximovich actually taught me nothing. We just discussed it all: how he saw a given situation, what his relationships with friends were like… As a result, you understand a lot. Crucially, this is a bilateral process.

№5. Know how to receive criticism and be open to new information

According to a Chinese fable, a student asks a wise man to be his teacher. The wise man responds: “You aren’t ready for this. Your glass is already full; you’re saturated”. So too in life: you must be ready to receive information. Not only do we select our teachers as students, teachers choose students, and they have to believe we’re ready to receive the knowledge they can impart to us. It can often turn out that you went past and didn’t even notice that you had a teacher, since at the time you were either unprepared or occupied with something else.

Ronald Freeman

I’ve known Ronald Freeman for years. Previously he served on the Board of Directors and was Partner-Advisor at Troika Dialog. Ron has tremendous experience and clout in the international business community. He has assisted me greatly in business, and still criticizes me if I’ve done something poorly or incompletely. I view this criticism like a gift.