Wanted mentors: Dead or Alive

Old_Man_with_Water_StudiesIn the city of Florence Italy stands the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore with a massive dome, a masterpiece in its day, built without centering supporting (wooden framework to hold up dome while mortar dried), it took centuries before anyone could build a larger one. The architect Filippo Brunelleschi was a goldsmith by trade. He learned his secrets of architecture by examining  the work of Roman builders who died centuries before him. In the sketch book of the more popularly know Leonardo da Vinci is the diagram of a unique machine for lifting heavy weights to great heights. He didn’t invent it; Brunelleschi did. However, da Vinci observed and recorded this machine in use after its real inventor died (King 2000).

Think about person who influenced you the most: stable and accepting, hard and demanding, fitting into society or rebelling against it. Or did they create amazing things? One of those generic writing prompts that students (and the people who grade the writing samples) hate the most is “Describe the most influential person in your life.” Students feel constrained to show this  imperfect  person in glowing terms, with interesting flaws omitted in favor of complimentary vagueness. Some try to explain how their goal in life has been to emulate a celebrity, but they only know notable accomplishments and not enough personal information to peak anyone’s interest. So the rule is typically: Do not attempt to write about someone you do not know personally.

However, give this assignment to students who show promise of great creativity and the results with be different. They will paint a vivid picture of the person that inspired them, warts and all. Or they will describe in detail the influence from the works of a person they have never met. According to Simonton (1984) eminent creative people are influences the most by associates working in the same field with them and secondly by paragons in their domain of creativity, whose life and work they follow without being personally acquainted.

Still creative people need living, breathing mentors – associates and patrons – to help steer them through the often discouraging  journey of producing original work.  The patronage of de’ Medici family assured Brunelleschi  of the resources necessary to keep working on the dome.  E.P. Torrance’s (1983) long term study following the life of students with higher creative scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking,  found that having a mentor was significantly related to level adult creative achievement. This was particularly true of the females. You may not be surprised to find that even though female had higher creative scores, over half the female students had male mentors, while a very small percentage of the males had female mentors. Creative ability of the mentor was secondary to their knowledge of careers and business.

According to Torrance “Regardless of their own views, (they) encourage and support talented individuals in expressing and testing their ideas …. They protect individuals from the counter-reactions of their peers long enough to permit them to try out some of their ideas. They keep the structure of the situation open enough so that  can occur.” (Torrance 1995)

Drawing: Leonardo da Vinci c. 1513, public domain

King, Ross (2000). Brunelleschi’s Dome. Walker Publishing (Penguin Books in 2001)
Simonton, D.K. (1984) Popularity, Content and Context in 37 Shakespeare plays Poetics. 1986, Vol. 15, p 493 – 510.
Torrance, E.P. (1995) Why Fly?: A Philosophy of Creativity. New Jersey: Ablex
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