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Some ancient wisdom- how a Jewish text inspired me to have professional mentors

I don't usually write about my religion here and it doesn't often intersect with my business life other than general principles about business ethics*. I'm writing about it here as considering this text over the years has helped me to understand why it's important to have professional mentors.

*In fact the Talmud (400-600AD) says the first question you will be asked when you die is "were you honest in your business dealings?" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

The Talmud was a several hundred years old continual debate, conversation and exegesis on the Mishna (circa 200AD). The Mishna is the first written record of the Oral law which tradition has it was transmitted to Moses alongside the bible.

One of my favourite tractates of the Mishna is Pirkei Avot, or 'Ethics of our Fathers' - yes it was a more patriarchal time. It's a collection of sayings attributed to the great sages of 200BC to 200AD. Some of it appears pretty archaic now and some of it could be written for today's liberal western society. Hillel, a prominent character in the Mishna and contemporary of Jesus says "Be like the disciples of Aaron, seek peace and pursue it".

The specific text that inspired me goes "Yehoshua said: Make for yourself a Rav (a teacher); acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person positively." (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1:6)

Many Orthodox Jews take the first part to mean that you should pick a Rabbi and follow their judgement (Rav means Rabbi among other things). Some people take this to the degree whereby they consult them on everything from when you should have children to which house they should buy!

The interpretation I was taught was somewhat different. The Hebrew "Aseh Lecha Rav" meaning "Make for yourself a teacher", i.e. you should create the right mentor relationship for you.

The next part is "'acquire' for yourself a friend". We could analyse the possessive nature of the word acquire but what's interesting to me is that the juxtaposition of finding a friend with making a teacher is not co-incidental. Finally, in the same sentence we're told to judge people positively.

To me, creating a friendship where you support each other positively is a vital component of mentorship. I think what the passage is telling us is that you shouldn't learn alone, either religious texts or professionally. Learning alone can lead to strange interpretations, misunderstandings, learning lessons in ways they were not intended.

A friendly face who you respect, who can give you objective advice that is positive but honest will keep you on the right track.

In the world of tech, there are many ways to do this. These can be long lasting relationships to fleeting moments of pair programming with another software developer. The key is not to rely on reading or being lectured at, ensure there are relational aspects to your learning.

I'd be interested in hearing how your religion or philosophy has inspired you in business. Drop a message in the comments below.

Dan Jacobs is an interim / freelance CTO and mentor based in London England

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