Esquire magazine isn’t a resource I would ordinarily go to for sagacity about manhood. For many years now, both it and its theoretically more mature competition GQ have, in their quest for a younger demographic, become only marginally more sophisticated versions of lads’ mags like Maxim. But I have to give Esquire credit for recently initiating The Mentoring Project, which encourages its male readership to seek out local mentoring organizations in order to help change the lives of kids who need role models and guidance.
For inspiration, the magazine posed the question “Who made you the man you are today?” and asked “fifty extraordinary men to tell us about the parents, coaches, teachers, troops leaders, religious leaders, and all-purpose mentors who helped them get to where they are today.” The list includes a range of famous figures from Chuck Norris and David Petraeus to Seth MacFarlane and Jimmy Kimmel.
Washington Redskins (is it still acceptable to call them that?) quarterback Robert Griffin III, for example, relates how “God put a lot of people in my life that have helped me… My dad sacrificed a lot for our family. He didn’t have shoes when he was growing up, so he couldn’t play basketball, and he made sure I had as many shoes as I needed to play sports.”
Actor Samuel L. Jackson talked about being shaped by the women who raised him, and by teachers as well: “I had English teachers in junior high and high school who encouraged me to read different things than I was reading—to read Shakespeare and Beowulf—and to expand my horizons in that particular way.”
Some of the respondents mentioned mentors who taught and inspired by example. Magician Penn Jillette, for example, spoke of his dad’s horrible job as a prison guard: “My dad would work all different hours and come home in his uniform. I didn't realize until I was probably thirty that my dad had never complained once. Never once. That attitude toward work, that attitude toward doing something you don’t want to do in order to serve your family and your community was very important to me.”
Senator Marco Rubio learned from his grandfather “to dream and aspire.” Actor Kevin Bacon credits his mother with teaching him and his brother compassion and honesty. Music powerhouse Quincy Jones is grateful to Count Basie for teaching him that you have to experience the valleys of failure – where you find out who you really are – to get to the mountaintop of success. Interestingly, country music star Dierks Bentley says that his wife and children made him the man he is today: “[Fatherhood] tears away the person you were before, builds you up to become the person you have to become, makes you learn a lot of skills—a lot of man skills.”
Some of the men learned from negative influences too, not just the positive ones. Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk remembers that “When I was growing up, there were these skaters who were revered, and I met a couple of them. And one or two of them were just outright assholes to me. It was so devastating to know that these guys I looked up to were jerks and weren't supportive. That had a huge impact on me. And I decided I never, ever wanted to be like that.”
To encourage readers to be proactive about mentoring, Esquire provides them with a mentor search page to find nearby organizations such as YouthBuild, Minds Matter, the U.S. Dream Academy, Youth Mentoring Connection, and Boys Hope Girls Hope, among many others, all across America from New York to Los Angeles.
Sadly, wisdom isn’t inherited; every generation has to learn life’s lessons from scratch, either through painful trial and error, or preferably from those who have gone before us and who are willing to share their experience, wisdom, support and inspiration.
It isn’t just boys and girls from troubled circumstances who need mentoring, although they certainly have special challenges to overcome. Every child needs role models to steer us in all facets of our lives, from morality to self-understanding to career. Without mentors, whether parents or teachers or the accomplished figures we admire, we simply drift, and usually far from shore. Good for Esquire for recognizing that and for launching the Mentoring Project.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/29/14)