Time can be a great friend when one is young and a solemn reminder of the finality of life when one is old. Some young surgeons look at older surgeons and silently ask when will that old surgeon retire, while old surgeons see the young surgeons and wonder when will they grow up. Exploring the views from the old and young surgeon’s perspective highlights the career-altering and life-changing impact that mentors and mentees make on each other.
“You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance,” were the parting words of the veteran minor league baseball player Crash Davis to the rookie Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh as he departs for the Major Leagues (Baseball) in the 1988 movie Bull Durham. The first years in surgical practice, in many ways, resembles a rookie season. Mistakes made in residency and fellowship are erased, and a fresh start ensues. A clean record commences, and a legacy is built that follows the surgeon for their entire professional career. Navigating this journey can be tumultuous and often results in both professional and personal stress.
There are 2 opposing pitfalls that young surgeons can suffer from. The first is relying solely on what was learned in training and treating every situation in the same manner because they are good at it. This is the pitcher overly relying on a 100+ mph fastball or the surgeon who uses a volar locking plate for every type of distal radius fracture. The second is being so enamored with new fads or procedures that they move from one to the next without mastering their craft. Mentors ground us in reality regarding novel procedures and devices, having the longevity and insight to see concepts being reintroduced without regard to prior failed experiences. To some extent, a mentor has to allow the mentee to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Failure followed by critical evaluation is requisite for growth and is a consistent pathway to enduring success.
Therefore, the initial burden is on the mentee to keep an open mind and accepting attitude, as a tremendous amount of wisdom can be imparted which may be easily viewed as criticism. As time ensues, the mentor-mentee relation must take 1 of 3 distinct paths. The ideal path is where the mentor and mentee grow to become colleagues then equals, and as both grow the roles gradually reverse, where the older surgeon learns from the younger and is being introduced to new ways of honing the craft: the mentor becomes the mentee and visa versa. The second path is a quiet separation with each going their own way with little communication or commonality—a safe and nonconfrontational resolution. The final path is a difficult one where the mentor will not or cannot give up their role to the rising mentee and often results in a collapse and destruction of the entire relationship—a scenario every surgeon is aware of and knows about but never discusses. As the rookie surgeon grows into a seasoned surgeon, it is the mentor’s burden to be the one with an open mind and accepting attitude, allowing for continued growth for both.
A mentor like Crash ensure that young surgeons continues to hone their craft, maximizes professional opportunities, and fulfill responsibilities to their profession and personal lives. Ideally, the mentor becomes the mentee over time but continually serves as a safe haven that the mentee can come back to again and again as he or she ventures out into practice with the fear of failure and the arrogance to advance the field of hand surgery.
Dedicated to our mentor, friend, and colleague: Allen T. Bishop, MD, A mentor of mentors.