Monday, December 13, 2021

Mentoring, Small Group Theory, and Me

Tyler Cowen recently offered two pieces of advice on how to achieve anything:

1. When working on any kind of problem, task or question, embed yourself in a small group of peers with broadly similar concerns.

2. Get mentors.

These are extremely common pieces of wisdom tossed around in our age, and on a personal level I find them both very mysterious.

I have learned a lot from older people, but I am not sure that anyone was my "mentor." I suppose this is partly because of the zig-zagging nature of my career. As an undergraduate I studied mostly modern history, switched to medieval and early modern Europe in graduate school, and now I make my living studying North America. I keep having to pick up new subjects on the fly. Anyway I think that since I graduated from college I have learned more from peers and books than from teachers.

Lately I have been trying to publish novels, and so far as I know I have never met a single person who has written the kind of book I am trying to write. I have gotten a lot of help on my books from my friends but they are not novelists themselves so I don't think they can really be called mentors. 

As for small groups, I don't think I have ever been part of a group working together on a problem. I have a few times stumbled across an area of scholarship that seems to have been mainly generated by a small group who knew each other, for example studies of colonial probate inventories; but though I drew on the research I never interacted with any of the people who produced it. All archaeological projects are team endeavors, but mostly these are the sort of teams where each person does his or her job, not the kind where people make a collective effort to answer one question. It does happen sometimes but it is not central to what I do.

Here is more Cowen on small groups, in response to the question of what to read about them:

I suggest reading about musical groups and sports teams and revolutions in the visual arts, as I have mentioned before, taking care you are familiar with and indeed care passionately about the underlying area in question. . . .

I have a few observations on what I call “small group theory”:

1. If you are seeking to understand a person you meet, or might be hiring, ask what was the dominant small group that shaped the thinking and ideas of that person, typically (but not always) at a young age. . . .

2. If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change. . . .

3. Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.

4. The bizarre and the offensive have a chance to flourish in small groups. . . . 

9. What does your small group have to say about this?

This makes me feel strange and lonely. I have heard other people bewail the lack of mentoring in their lives, and I imagine that some people, reading this, would think, "Where can I find a small group to join, one where we learn from each other and bring about change?" But this is so foreign to me that I cannot even imagine what it would be like. 

I don't mean to say that I am alone or lonely, but as it happens my friends mostly don't work in my field, and even the ones in my field are mostly doing their own things. Honestly the mix of things I do in my job is quite strange and idiosyncratic – archaeology of everything in Eastern North America, colonial history, Civil War history, African American history, project management, coping with mergers and corporate reorganizations, cultural resource management, National Park Service policy, etc., that I would find it really weird to meet anyone who does the same thing. I suppose one could belong to a bunch of different groups focusing on each one of those things, but on the other hand each of them is such a small part of my work that I don't think it would add up to what Cowen envisages.

So I am wondering, is my rather lonely, self-directed path through my career the more normal kind, and the sort of connectivity Cowen describes unusual? Or the reverse?


szopen said...

Not sure whether usual or unusual, but in my scientific career, if I ever can call that my pity excuse of job, I never had a real mentor. My boss kind of just asked for results, and the only time he had a time to help me was last few months of writing my Phd thesis - and my gosh, that really DID help me more than few previous years spent alone or just with my peers.

HOWEVER as a newbie writer (freshly published :D ) I did encounter a lot of older writers, of both genders, who had helped me _enormously_ to improve my writing skills - I have never even realised what I missed before they started to comment on my pieces. So I believe that yes, mentorship in the sense of having someone more experienced, whom you are not affraid to ask and who is ready to help you can have big role.

Shadow said...

"HOWEVER as a newbie writer (freshly published :D"

Congrats, szopen.

John said...

Yes, congrats. What have you published?

David said...

Indeed, congratulations! Please tell us what you've published!

szopen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karlG said...

"Get mentors" reminds me of Steve Martin's bit about getting a million dollars and not paying taxes on it: "First, get a million dollars."

David said...


Congratulations! I feel honored to share a comment section with you.

Why will you delete the comment?

David said...

On John's point, I share his experience. Now, talking with more experienced people in the field, sharing work and exchanging ideas with others and getting their comments, have all been influential on me and important in making me who I am. But, in the humanities at least, I think the heart of the matter is one person working on one text (either reading or writing). Some wonderful stuff can be produced by co-authors or teams, and doing that can be a bracing, vivifying experience. But at the student level especially, I find the increasing resort to group work at all levels distressing. My experience of the results is that it often leaves students mainly sharing each others' mistakes, or learning how to efficiently reach a bland, lowest-common-denominator consensus. But then at this point I think I officially qualify as an old fart.

szopen said...

@David thanks, I appreciate your kind words, however it's really nothing - this is very small publishing house and I would be surprised if the number of copies sold would even reach 500.

As for why removing the comment, well. It's very easy to find my real name and to connect it to my net nickname, however I would rather make it more difficult for lazy people. The "szopen" nickname is rather common on Polish internet (it means "chopin" written the phonetic way) so not everything written by "szopen" anywhere can be assumed to be written by me; but still I use this nickname for years and I am not proud of everything I wrote. I would rather prefer for my writing to be evaluated based on writing alone, and not on some random comment I wrote some year ago on some fringe left-wing or fringe right-wng site.

Re groups, there was this paper quite recently finding the obvious: that groups are better in solving the problems if they are cognitively diverse (diverse in a way they process and gather information). In context of my specialty (computer science) mixing students and using small groups usually yields good results and even better when you track their progress and provide some guidance (i.e. small groups+mentoring). The extreme programming, once very popular fad, even postulated that all programming should be done in pairs, citing many (contested) data about how great it is for productivity. Plus another advantage of working in groups, in a setup with mixing lone and team work, it's that it's easier to spot someone's errors than yours own.

BUt "mentoring" is qualititav... qualitatively.. damn it. Really different from just working with your peers. The insight you can get from someone more experienced in their field, I presume especially if they are not WAY WAY WAY above your potential, is invaluable - they can quickly spot your errors, flaws, show shortcuts, show how something should be really done and what's more improtant - WHY it should be done that way.

szopen said...

I wish there would be a way to edit a comment, because I forgot to add one more thing on the small group - with writing, this is almost exactly what happened with me. First I thought I have good writing skills and I was frustrated I got no answers from publishing houses. Then I joined relatively small writing forum, frequented both by diverse group of aspiring writers AND by few veterans, including one of the most popular Polish sf writer. The last one was not that helpful BTW, but for the rest - getting feedback from other would-be writers plus advices from established writers was a wonderful experience. I know people who succeeded the first time without much help from anyone, so it's not like being part of small group is in any way sine qua non condition for being successful, but definetely it helps.

Katya said...

Small group: my gaming group has definitely sustained me intellectually over time.