By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

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“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” This often-used saying, credited to John Lennon, sums up the conundrum faced by many young adults today (if not the rest of us, too). Be intentional, we tell them. Think about how you are being intentional about the choices and decisions you are making. But at the same time, we say, You don’t have to have it all figured out right now. Explore, take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. I often see young adults getting caught up by this seemingly conflicting advice. Either they get scared by the idea of being too planful and want to leave life open to all of the possibilities that may come their way. Or, they get so consumed with the idea of making the one right decision that they are sure will determine the next twenty years of their life that they end up not making any decision at all.

Unfortunately, both of these are stalling mechanisms. Should you be open to the possibilities and opportunities that may come down the road? Absolutely. But if you aren’t intentional about getting yourself ready for those opportunities, you won’t be able to take advantage of them when they arrive. What skills, knowledge, or abilities can you work on now, to get yourself ready for that moment? At the same time, planning for the next twenty years is actually a pretty short-sighted way to approach your life. In doing that you are saying, there is nothing that is going to happen to me in the next twenty years that I cannot anticipate right now. I won’t allow myself to meet anyone new, to go anywhere new, or to do anything that might steer me off-course from where I am today. As John Lennon wisely advises us, taking this approach ensures that we will miss out on a whole lot of living along the way.

Intentionality, then, is not a way of locking ourselves in; rather, it is a way to open ourselves up to new opportunities, but with purpose. Indeed, it is the key to every good mentoring relationship. It recognizes that there is work to be done within that relationship, that it is a relationship with a purpose. Intentionality is the difference between letting life happen to you and taking ownership for it. It’s the difference between being engaged in your life and not.

How do you practice the art of being intentional about your life, while also allowing room for those unexpected opportunities? It’s quite simple, really, and it is a two-step process. First, you must set some goals. Every time you enter into a new experience, whether it’s a new job, a new work project, a trip somewhere you have not been before, what-have-you, take a moment to answer two questions before you start:

  1. At the end of this experience, I would like to have acquired the following skills, knowledge, or abilities:
  2. The following are steps that I can take to make sure that I acquire those skills, knowledge, abilities:

Write your answers down. Then, find someone (a mentor) and share those responses with that person. Ask to schedule some time to check in on your progress to keep you accountable to your goals.

The second step is the reflective process. Mentoring conversations are based on the experiential learning model; you set a goal, go take action towards accomplishing that goal (have an experience), and then reflect on what happened and what you learned from that experience in conversation with your mentor. This reflective process is key to any effective mentoring relationship! Intentional reflection ensures that we are mindful of the ways that we are learning and growing and putting that new knowledge to use. It allows us to tell really good, useful stories about our lives and to share with others who we are, what we value, where we have been and where we are headed. It makes sure that we are not just letting life happen to us but that we are taking ownership for it and being fully present in our lives. Some good reflective questions include:

  • What happened to you during this experience? Did you meet your goals?
  • What was challenging for you? How did you overcome that challenge?
  • What helped you to be successful?
  • How can you use what you learned again in the future?
  • What will you do differently, now?

I am often challenged by my mentees on how and when I incorporate these intentional practices into my own life, and I must be honest that it is hard. These are the things that we don’t make time for in our lives, the last item on the to-do list that gets pushed aside for “more important” work. But I would argue that this reflective practice is, and should be, some of the most important work that we do. It’s not enough to just set goals and think about what we want to accomplish. We also must reflect on what we did, in fact, accomplish, and how we will use that new knowledge in the future. And this is why mentors are so important: they give us the space, and the time, and the motivation to be reflective about our lives.