(Originally posted in comments to Whitney Hess' blog, Pleasure & Pain)
My favorite mentor story is about a psychology professor I worked for during my senior year at Columbia. He ran the Vision Science Laboratory with three or four graduate students. I showed up on my first day and he threw me a small red book, called Programming in C, and told me to learn it so I can help "reprogram the stimulus on the Techtronix monitor and rewire the input box" for his latest experiments. Oh and then write a script or two to analyze the results.
I sort of freaked, because I had no idea what he was talking about. There were wires and metal button boxes and a huge TV monitor with several computer components connected to it. Behind was a box loaded with little switches and more wires. Somehow I was supposed to write a program that would make it all work. I hadn't taken a programming course since Apple Basic in 10th grade. The graduate students laughed at me a lot, but I read the book, got the hang of it and ended up having the most fun that year.
Second semester, the same professor challenged me to take another semester of Calculus. I hadn't taken the first semester Calculus since freshman year but he said I could do it. Well, I failed the first test, which was basically, “name the formula you use to solve the following problems.” But because I had that initial push and a lot of encouragement from a professor who showed me how to teach myself, I realized that I could get through it, though it was indeed a struggle. I ultimately took the pass/fail option and passed.
I always thought mentors and heroes had to be superstars. I admit that I have had my own little quiet conversations with Mozart & Washington a la HClinton & ERoosevelt, but if you do that too much, you end up finding yourself falling way too short in comparison. I don't need to write a symphony or win a country. Knowing I challenged myself and figured out how to get through it by myself was one of the best lessons I've ever learned.