Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Let's Talk About Mentors

The author Terry Pratchett had one of his characters describe herself this way, “I’m made up of everyone that has ever changed the way I think.”.  For better or for worse, it rings true with me and I love that description. It fits in well with this topic.  

I had a good day yesterday.  I was reminded of one of my bike mentors when I was a little kid.  Paolo ran an old school bike shop in Denver from the mid 60s through the mid 80s.  When I’m talking old school, I mean old country, old school.  He carried a few lines of complete bikes, but his real business was custom steel race bikes.  His business was based on personal relationships with families like Compagnolo, Colnago, DeRosa and Pinarello.  He did his own importing by going to Italy twice per year to talk with these people and make the deals.  

What triggered this memory for me?  I was a trouble-making little kid on a BMX bike when I ran into Paolo.  What amazed me was that, like many Italian Masters, he wore a perfectly white, starched dress shirt to work every day.  Even the cleanest of bikes get greasy and oily.  Paolo never had a spot on his shirt…. NEVER!  He could listen to a customer for a few minutes, size you up with an experienced eye, and tell you exactly what bike you SHOULD have.  He’d then work with you to find the  bike that got you as much of the qualities of the ideal bike as you could afford.  

The first time I met him, he told me, “Only bike for you…. Colnago Master.”  I was riding a home-made BMX race bike that I’d cobbled together with parts that I could find, trade, and dumpster dive for.  I was 11 years old.  He was, of course, 100% right.  To this day, the only bike for me is a Colnago Master.  I still can’t afford one.  I will someday.  

He saw something in me that day that he liked.  By the end of the week I was sweeping the floors and taking out the trash for his shop.  By week two, he was showing me simple jobs around the shop that I could do that would make his life easier.  They were often things that he didn’t want to do… or things that, if he slipped up, might have gotten his shirt dirty.  But for every 5 or 6 dirty jobs that I’d do, he’d show me how to do something cool and inspiring.  I was hooked.  

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of a formal apprenticeship…. old world-style.  I an hour or 5 in Paolo’s shop every day I could for many, many years.  I learned that it isn’t just what you do, but how you do it that matters.  I’ll never have his eye or his ability to stay clean in a sometimes dirty business, but I have that vision to strive for.  I learned to listen and learn every day.  I learned to give openly of myself with no expectation of return… something that I learned from many people over my years.  I learned that is the way to become the kind of person I want to be.

Last night I posted the clean shirt story on Facebook because I’d had a “clean shirt in the face of some very grimy bikes” kind of day.  My shirt was a vintage bowling shirt made of 100% rayon, but it was one of the rare days that I emerged from the shop clean when I should have been covered in grease.  By morning that blurb had 70+ likes and a bunch of comments.  That told me that I should write about it more and get your stories.  

I’ll post a link to this on Facebook, Twitter and the Washington Area Bike Forum.  I want to hear your stories about great mentors that have influenced you.  I want to know who changed the way you think.  :D  Please post a reply here, on Facebook, Twitter or the Forum.  

Lots of love to you!


1 comment:

  1. Tough to say Pete. I guess I've had many mentors over my life. I started "working" for money early in life from taking care of neighbors dogs (8), Paperboy (11), Busboy (14), Cook(16), Waiter (19), etc. I've been a tax paying schlub now since I was 11, that means almost 29 years. I guess my primary model was my pops, who I seemed to have picked up the idea of just keep working. Do whatever you can to improve your life. He dropped out of highschool at 15 and went to work to help support his family. Didn't get his GED till the 70's. Yet he still whoops my ass at Jeopardy most nights when I'm home visiting. It was definitely from him I got my mechanical interests as he was an airline mechanic when I was a kid. Taking part stuff and figuring out how it works was always my favorite thing. I think it was also his idea to get me my first computer in 1983. 31 years and 10 computers (of my own) later I still think about trying to write in BASIC using stupid 2#$#@ tape drives. On the other hand my dads work mentality at times frustrates me with the get it done. If it works, it works. I prefer/tend towards a more perfectionist, do it completely, do it right mentality. Sure there is time I apply the good enough for govt standard but most of the time I'm going to do it as well as I can.

    Great post Pete. Very thought provoking.