Neil deGrasse Tyson and Yours Truly On Choosing Mentors

Mar 14

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Hi, guys,

I just heard Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about selecting roles models on NPR’s Science Friday and it was so articulate and on the money I wanted to share it with you.

Dr. Tyson said, “For me, role models is an overrated concept, because typically when you look for a role model you’re trying to find someone who looks like you or grew up where you grew up or had the same struggles in life. And if you have ambitions towards a profession for which there’s no role model as defined that way, then you can’t go into that profession. So I think it’s a self-defeating notion.

“For example, if I needed a black astrophysicist from the Bronx to be my role model so that I can be an astrophysicist, I would have never been an astrophysicist, and I realized this very early.

“So what I did was, I assembled my role model a la carte. So I found the scientist who I wanted to emulate, and the educator, and the person who had good moral fiber, and the person who had a good sense of humor, and I patched all this together to become a hybrid role model that I would then use.

“And in that way you’re not beholden to what might be personality quirks in one person or another. That’s why we say, ‘Oh, some people, we don’t want them to be role models ‘cause they’re using drugs, even though they’re a really great basketball player or novelist or whatever.’ Well, that’s because your concept of role model means you want to be everything that person is. And we’re all individuals here.

“You should pick your role models a la carte, and you’ll stand a much better chance of doing exactly what you want to do in the world, without requiring that someone did it before you. In fact, if you only do what people did who came before you, nothing would ever change in the world. The people we remember the most are those who did what no one did before them, and that takes courage and it takes some capacity within you to navigate places where no one has been before.”

Since I was a kid, I’ve recognized the huge importance of having mentors in everything I do. And like Dr. Tyson, I advise those I mentor to stich together the pieces of their mentors like Frankenstein’s Monster, a bit here and a bit there. For one thing, that means that no one person is responsible for your entire career and fate (except you).

In my own life, I’ve been blessed by many kind mentors and not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new from someone.

My first mentors were the writers creating the wondrous books and TV shows I grew up on – hell, devoured. As soon as I was in my teens I sought them out at science fiction conventions and author’s signings and writers workshops and classes. Many had written for my favorite TV shows growing up, STAR TREK and OUTER LIMITS and TWILIGHT ZONE.

In fact, in writing THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION, Rod Serling served as my first great mentor, even though he’d died two years before I wrote the book. By crawling through his attic and reading his scrapbooks and scripts and notes, by watching candid videotapes of him teaching writing classes, I was schooled at his knee – invaluable for the career as a writer-producer I was intent on creating.

Many of these great writers became advisors, friends, on occasion even collaborators – Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Ted Sturgeon, David Gerrold, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Dorothy Fontana, many more.

And in recent years, I’ve added others as advisors as I’ve learned new skills – J.J. Abrams, Guillermo del Toro, Michael Nankin, Neil Gaiman.

I’ve stitched them together into one uber-mentor, I’ve listened and learned, in awe of their talents… and comforted that even they, these Olympian Gods, have made mistakes too, are as frail on occasion as I.

So look around you, at your bookshelves, at your DVDs, at the names on them. And also at those around you who may know a thing or two. Even the people whose paths casually cross yours.

Open your mouth. Ask questions. Learn. Move on and repeat as needed, for a lifetime.

It’s a treasure and a thrill and a pure joy. Reach out. It’s there for the taking.

All good thoughts your way,

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