Manners and mentorship

Ernst & Gustav Klimt, “Pan tröstet Psyche” [Pan consoles Psyche]

Politeness isn’t just about knowing when to pass the salt.

Good manners”, said Jonathan Swift, “is the art of making people comfortable. Whoever makes the fewest people uncomfortable has the best manners”.

In other words, good manners often means tolerating people’s mistakes. It doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring the mistakes; it means not drawing unkind attention to them in such a way as to cause or increase discomfort and embarrassment. 

By extension, having good manners in a mentoring context means making your students or subordinates unafraid of the mistakes that will inevitably come as they learn their craft. Because making mistakes, contrary to the schooltime brainwashing that can engender a lifetime’s aversion to error, is actually essential. 

In any complex task, there’s really no better way to learn than to jump in and embrace the errors. There’s no way of learning to drive without a few chastening early experiences behind the wheel, and there’s no better way to learn languages than to leap in and try a few phrases out. Any bench scientist can tell you that the surest way to understand a protocol is by having to optimise and calibrate every step of it yourself.

There’s a wonderful anecdote in the book “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland that touches exactly on this point. They describe a pottery class whose members were split into two groups, one of whom was to be assessed based on the number of pieces they produced over the course of the class, and one which was to be assessed based on a single piece produced at the end of the class.

Ah, the old “quantity versus quality” debate again, you might think, and it’s true that the experiment produced a clear readout – by the end of the class, the final pieces produced by one group were far, far superior to those produced by the other. But the superior group wasn’t the one whose members were focused on a single quality piece. It was the other, the quantity group, that came out on top.

The reason being that the “quantity” group had hopped in and simply started cranking out piece after piece – but that act of repetition, of practising, of doing, meant that their skills became more finely-honed than their classmates who had sat around theorising about a single grand masterpiece. Practice makes perfect, and practising – just as the ear-rending recitals that accompany learning a musical instrument attest – means making mistakes. Potentially, a lot of them.

Learning by doing, and learning by getting it wrong and then making it better. Failing in order to learn. 

Optimisation is the lifeblood of bench science. Even an experiment that doesn’t work tells you something, and you know more afterwards than before you started. It’s making the same mistake over and over again that’s a warning sign, but simply making mistakes shouldn’t be frowned on at all. The best work comes from being unafraid and taking the plunge, and the best bench scientists are the ones who fear mistakes the least.

Manners, according to Quentin Crisp, are more than just about putting people at their ease*. He saw them correctly as a technique of inclusion, of making people feel welcome. “A way of ensuring,” as he put it, “that in our company no one will ever be made to feel he is an outcast”.   

Politeness then is not just about tolerating errors; it means putting other people before yourself. It’s about being deferential and treating others with respect and consideration. And good manners again make for good mentoring: put your students’ needs before your own, and it will always pay off. 

The role of the mentor is not extractive, it’s instructive. It should mean wanting all students to have a positive experience (yes, even the ones that are really struggling) and leave with a sense that they’ve learned something, for better or worse. It’s about enabling them to reach their full potential, and getting a sense of where that potential lies. It’s about having them leave with a clear sense of what they want to do next.

And by making the studentship about them, rather than about their data, it makes it almost impossible to have a bad outcome.

In so doing, the profit in terms of research output is likely to be mutually beneficial. If that seems overly calculating, then heed Crisp again: manners, he dryly noted, are “a way of getting what you want without appearing to be an absolute swine.


*Of interest, Crisp also observed – somewhat waspishly but entirely accurately – that etiquette is usually the opposite of good manners. Etiquette means enforcing social codes for the purpose of exclusion. It is effectively designed to make people feel uncomfortable (and is therefore impolite), because it is a set of rituals designed to separate those who have already learned particular skills from those who haven’t. Again, there are parallels with mentorship and benchwork, but there’s no need to elaborate on that here…

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