A Humble Brag, Mentoring and Some Things I Learned From the Military

When life hands you lemons, humble brag. At least that’s what I was taught. Hey, blame the Texas State Board of Education. We’re ranked #39 in the nation, y’all! (Just be happy I can write words is what I’m trying to get across here.)

Clearly, in what is about to turn out to be the world’s worst analogy, the lemons are the pandemic. You know the one currently preventing me (fine, I suppose it’s preventing you, too) from having grand adventures and sharing them. Which in turn prevents me from having material to write about. (Aside: Really, does no one want to drive to Colorado in two weeks?!?! I have two weeks off! C’mon! We’ll have a great time. We’ll stay in a lovely Air BnB in the Rockies. You’ll remain mostly unseen and unheard so I can zen out properly in the cool mountain air, and we’ll do it together yet separately! How can you resist? Seriously? No one is on board? Bring a book. You’ll be fine.) So, back to the lemon logic trail where I offer my services as your humble, yet extremely knowledgeable guide – a Willy Wonka of lemonade adventures, if you will (please don’t drink from the stream and mind the Oompa Loompas – they’re rather fussy as it’s kind of hot outside). Basically, I’m saying that I’ve been forced to humble brag. You see that logic, right? The “if p, then q” of it all. Look, I don’t like it any more than you do. Ok, I lied, I’m the one humble bragging (or about to). So, who are we kidding here? I’m about to enjoy the heck out of it. Also, I’m kind of loving this stream-of-conscious rambling I’m doing. I wasn’t sure where I was going and suddenly, I found myself here with you. Hooray!

Story Time

Let’s start with storytime where we reach back into the past – a past where I was much shorter, thinner, arguably quieter, and much more studious.

I started tutoring/mentoring in 4th grade when I was paired with my first student – a 1st grader struggling with math. By 7th grade I had Tabitha, a fellow 7th grader, who struggled with reading comprehension. (By year’s end she had gone up from a 4th-grade level to a 7th-grade reading level. Go team us!!)

I dropped mentoring for a long while until a couple of years ago when I mentored this wonderful young 3rd grader (who grew into a wonderful young 4th grader) as part of a program to help kids who had at least one parent who was incarcerated. She was absolutely delightful, and we spent a good portion of our time together elbow deep in science projects (she had mentioned to me she wanted to be a scientist). I introduced her to the scientific method-lite – “Here’s what we’re going to do – what do you think will happen?” FYI – she was almost always correct when she’d hypothesize about an outcome, and let me just say I shouldn’t have doubted her when she sent up all sorts of warning that my water balloon project was going to fail. It actually failed so badly that a custodian had to get involved (whoops).

Each week we’d almost always had a collection of other kids around us as we worked and made gloriously fun messes. For the record, I’m now an expert on slime – I can make at least three different types (who knew there were so many), and I make the best ghetto volcano out of a paper bag, water, red dye, and a little baking soda (THE go-to kitchen ingredient for almost all at-home science projects – pro tip there).

(Complete aside: I’m suddenly wondering if “ghetto” is not ok to say anymore. Huge apologies if I just blew it.)

In looking back, I’ve always been fairly successful (humble brag) with students, and I credit my soft skills – my lightheartedness, my approachability (John, what are some other adjectives to describe my awesome? Humbleness? Humility?). I can project a certain warmth, and truly I get this from my mom’s family and from my Dad – each one of us has this to some degree, and in truth, I’m not the best of the family, but I hang in there.

Over the past few months, I’ve had an intern assigned to me at work – a young frat guy, former HS president, former all-state goalie named Elijah. A wonderful young man with a big heart, a big smile, and this wonderful staccato laugh – and very much a 20-year-old “dude.” My job, as outlined, was to get him used to working in an office environment. On day one, I explained my role, and every week thereafter we got together to talk about his projects, his challenges, and go over the best parts of his week.

Fast forward to last week, which was an awful week – just terrible in so many ways, and I received a message from John (the Tank Commander – former boss – you’ve heard about him once or twice – see two paragraphs above – oh trust me, he likes being called out – gets all giddy and tingly – yes, in that way) letting me know that Elijah was about to give his final presentation to our CIO and the entire department. I hop on the call and within minutes he’s up – grinning from ear to ear while wearing a suit (awesome – he got props for that from the CIO, too – he looked sharp – and he made his bed, too 🙂 ). I watched with my own matching goofy grin as he talked about his experience over the Summer, and then he flipped to a slide devoted just to me. Elijah smiled his big smile (he’s a charming guy) and basically gushed about how I was the most amazing person at the agency – that I was the person he could count on – that he felt comfortable coming to me for anything whether it was about work or personal issues, and that the highlight of his week was our meetings. I was so proud of our collaboration. You know that moment where you punch yourself in the shoulder and count it as a win. My team lead teased me relentlessly through our IM chats. I think it was jealousy.

The week prior I had told Elijah that I was so lucky to have had him as my intern – my mentee and that I wasn’t sure I would have paired as well with anyone else. Elijah thought about that a second and said, “No, you would have – you make people feel comfortable good – you would have done that for anyone – I’m just lucky to have had you.” Awww.

And my true humble brag, though not quite so humble, is that I am actually good at mentoring. My approach, which is fairly light-hearted, works well and I’m really proud – I’m proud of me, I’m proud of Elijah, and of all the people I’ve worked with over the years. (And thankful for my own mentors, who probably helped in there somewhere, but this isn’t about them, John. Stop trying to get praise. FYI, Elijah also did gush about John, too. John and I air high-fived in chat and then bragged about it later – in case anyone had failed to hear the praise. John is very smart, by the way – Elijah said so, AND Elijah mentioned John’s colorful analogies. Knowing John got a little concerned that Elijah would share, made that moment priceless.)

I’m going to change subjects real quick, but I’ll tie it all back in.

This is a bit of a random thought, but I put it in the title and we all know that backspace doesn’t work in titles.

I work in a field with a lot of ex-military folks, and a thing I’ve had drilled in my head is that my failure is their failure. By that I mean, if someone came to our unit and said, “Beth dropped the ball.” My team lead would get in front of me and say, “This is on me, not her” and then his boss would get in front of him and say, “This is on me, not him or her.” Then they will take all those lumps while you watch because they have failed you as a leader.

There’s absolutely nothing more horrific than seeing someone take a flogging over something you did. If you’re a normal human being, and you’ve seen that happen, and it was preventable, it will make you feel sick knowing they are standing there, barely flinching with each hit, and you caused that. Also, knowing someone will take that beating engenders loyalty. I know with absolute certainty that they will go to the mats for me, and they know I will go to the mats for them (though they would never let me). And the truth is that right now, in my current job, I don’t have a management structure, I have a command structure, and I love my leaders. It’s why I followed them to a new agency.

I also happen to know my team well enough that when they suddenly begin to embody their former ranks – transitioning from boss to “CPT” or “SFC,” I sit very quietly and attentively.

I’ve known this awhile and hadn’t realized I embraced it until this week with Elijah. I had received some feedback from some other employees that we needed to discuss and after considering his response, I found myself saying, “No, this isn’t your fault – this is our fault for not training you – it’s our job, and we let you down,” and in return Elijah said those magic words, “Beth, thank you for always having my back.”

In the broadest strokes, it’s what a mentor does. We teach, we lead by example, and we always have your back; it’s our job.