Why if you want to succeed and be happier in 2023, something’s got to give!

Since writing Mirror Thinking and uncovering the incredible power of social learning, I’ve become more and more involved with mentoring. There are numerous organisational benefits and individual statistics on how impactful mentoring is, but there’s a quote from Oprah that sums it up far better than I ever could “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” It’s that magic that can really help unlock someone’s potential in a way nothing else can. Who wouldn’t want to give that gift to someone?

But one of the most common questions I’ve come up against when talking about mentoring is ‘How do you get the mentors? Do you pay them?’ At first, I was a bit dumbfounded by this – why would we need to pay them? But the question has kept coming up again and again. 

I then became puzzled because while I was getting this question over and over again, I was also seeing the opposite action. Finding mentors has never been a problem. People want to mentor. Often the only thing holding people back is a belief in how much they can actually help, not in the desire to help itself. 

So why the frequent question about whether mentors should be paid?

Mentoring is central to being human. It may not have been called mentoring in centuries past, but it’s what all of our ancestors did as they progressed through life – helped to shape the next generation by listening, sharing knowledge and providing words of wisdom. In fact, for most of human existence it was the only way to ensure knowledge was passed on to the next generation. Which is perhaps why our brain is actually geared to help others. 

When we help others, our brains release oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine – hormones that have the effect of boosting our mood and counteracting the impacts of cortisol (i.e. stress). One neuroscientific study even showed that giving had more positive impacts on someone’s brain than receiving. It seems like we are wired to give back. But this still leaves us with the same question. Why do people keep asking if we pay the mentors who are part of our programmes?  

When I was writing Mirror Thinking I had a conversation about whether we are ‘wired to give back’ with the brilliant Professor Marco Iacoboni (Head of Biobehavioural Sciences at UCLA). Iacoboni animatedly described a study that he and his team had carried out which could provide the answer. Participants were asked to divide a sum of money with another player at their discretion using an economic game called the ‘Dictator Game’. The research question – would generosity vary depending on the other players’ socio-economic status and their perceived need? Using something called ‘theta burst stimulation’ (cTBS) Iacoboni and his team interrupted activity in two areas in the frontal lobe of the brain. And they found that when the signals in the prefrontal area were interrupted, limiting the capability of the brain to carry out slow, rational thinking, the levels of generosity increased regardless of the other participant’s status or need. In other words when the participants were unable to use their prefrontal brain relying on more primitive brain impulses, they were more prosocial, cooperative and helpful to their fellow players. What does this tell us? Well it suggests that we in effect learn societal norms (which crudely put are associated with frontal lobe activity) to think we should be less generous than is actually naturally the case. So, although giving to others is innately human, it is drummed out of us through societal expectations. 

Perhaps this is what we’re seeing happening when people ask whether mentors should be paid. And how that is at juxtaposition of what we actually see – that we face no shortage of people wanting to help. We’ve been trained (although not knowingly) to expect payment in return for giving our time. Added to which our hyper busy, tech driven way of life often takes us away from what is naturally good for us. 

In fact, mentoring neatly fits into 3 out of 5 of the things that the NHS advises us to do in order to improve our mental health. Namely – helping others, connecting with others and learning something new.  Yes, that’s right when we mentor, not just when we’re mentored, we learn.  But it’s not even just our mental health that benefits from being a mentor and ‘giving back’, it’s also our success. 

Wharton Professor Adam Grant carried out research across the globe looking at what ‘type’ of people are most successful. People who give, people who ‘match’ or people who take. Grant explains that ‘givers are generous: they help others with no strings attached. Takers are selfish: they try to get as much as they can from others. Matchers are fair: I’ll do something for you, if you do something for me.’ When looking at intelligence units what he consistently found was that the very highest performing teams helped others, shared knowledge, mentored and made connections without expecting anything in return. In fact it was the single strongest predictor of group effectiveness (i.e. how much team members were givers). In other research carried out by Podsakoff at Indiana University the frequency with which employees helped one another was found to predict sales revenues in retail; customer service in banks; innovation in consulting and engineering; productivity in paper mills; and revenues, customer satisfaction, and performance in restaurants.

And when it comes to leaders, it’s also the givers who come out top. Grant explains that givers bring out the best in people, they see the potential in others and bringing us right back to Oprah’s quote – givers are ‘able to allow these people to achieve greater potential than they thought possible.’ Which is definitely what I’ve seen throughout my career of assessing and advising leaders. Grant also says that when a leader demonstrates this behaviour ‘they become role models and change the norms of behaviour for the group.’ Which ultimately leads to more knowledge sharing, which is good for creativity, innovation and performance. As Churchill said: 

We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give 

But back to that question – do we need to pay mentors? Well, ask yourself this – do you enjoy helping other people? Do you feel good when you give someone the space to work through a problem and come to a solution that helps them to grow? Would you expect to be paid for that? 

I encourage you to find a way to mentor in 2023 (WATCH THIS SPACE – we’ll be offering ways to get involved with our mentoring at Oka coming very soon). But even if mentoring is not for you then at the very least look for ways to give back that fit with your preferences and lifestyle. Despite what society tells us it’s good for us at both the level of wellbeing and it’s even essential to our own ‘success’. 

Oka means wisdom – your wisdom, the wisdom of others and the wisdom of Oka itself. 


Part of the above extract is adapted from Mirror Thinking – How Role Models Make Us Human. 

Grant, A. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. Penguin.

Inagaki, Tristen K. PhD; Bryne Haltom, Kate E. BA; Suzuki, Shosuke BA; Jevtic, Ivana BA; Hornstein, Erica MA; Bower, Julienne E. PhD; Eisenberger, Naomi I. PhD. The Neurobiology of Giving Versus Receiving Support: The Role of Stress-Related and Social Reward–Related Neural Activity. Psychosomatic Medicine 78(4):p 443-453, May 2016

Murden, F. (2020). Mirror Thinking: How Role Models Make Us Human. Bloomsbury Publishing.





Image – Angela Roma – Pexels

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