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Effective mentorship -- by teaching decision-making

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

The trouble and triumph of reaching the brain through the ears

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime” – There is a great connection between this parable and the mentor-mentee relationship. Mentors are challenged and sometimes frustrated in their desire to provide high-impact AND action-ready suggestions to their mentees. Sometimes, mentorship advice appears to go in one ear and out the other. Of course, all mentors want their advice to persist and serve their mentees for a long time. This article shows the path.

This article explores how and the degree to which we accept suggestions from others at any stage of life. Examples are provided of successful and not as successful mentee-mentor relationships. The neurobiological background for these outcomes is investigated. Finally, we provide a neurobiologically-tuned solution to help improve the outcomes of mentee-mentor relationships. In the context of the wise parable – this article shows mentors how to feed their mentees for a lifetime.

About the author: Jeff Hulett is a career banker, data scientist, behavioral economist, and choice architect. Jeff has held banking and consulting leadership roles at Wells Fargo, Citibank, KPMG, and IBM. Today, Jeff is an executive with the Definitive Companies. He teaches personal finance at James Madison University and provides personal finance seminars. Check out his new book -- Making Choices, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions -- at

Table Of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Definitions: Mentor-Mentee Relationship

  3. The Decision Process: The Grit - Quit connection

  4. The Lifecycle Model: For a lifetime of decisions

    1. Fast emotion-dominant information

    2. Slow language-dominant information

  5. Choice Architecture to make better decisions

  6. Resources - Definitive Choice

  7. Notes

2. Definitions: The Mentor-Mentee Relationship

Mentor Mentee Relationship

As a starting point, next is the operating definition for the mentor-mentee relationship used throughout this article:

A mentor is a scarce information supplier:

The mentor has scarce information. This information derives its value because it is not easily found as compared to abundant information sources. The mentor's information often comes from unique lived experiences and likely includes some 'this is how it felt' context. Abundant information, on the other hand, is the information found via digital sources with Google or ChatGPT searches.

A mentee is an information demander:

A mentee is often faced with a decision that will benefit from both scarce and abundant information. The mentee requires:

Information input - of both scarce and abundant information

Decision process - a decision process to properly curate the information, define and weigh decision criteria, and then apply the criteria model to the decision alternatives to render a decision recommendation.


Next are typical incentives impacting the mentor-mentee exchange. The mentor-mentee relationship may have various individual self-interests and motivations.

  • Parent mentors are motivated by their love for their children. [i]

  • Professional mentors or counselors are motivated by their pay and the desire to help others. [ii]

  • The mentees are motivated to make the best decision in the service of reaching a goal or goals.

  • The mentees are motivated by the perceived value of the scarce information as contributing to the best decision.

  • The mentees are constrained (a negative incentive) by their availability to make use of mentorship suggestions.

  • The mentees may also be motivated to make their mentors proud of their achievements. [iii]

3. The decision process: The Grit - Quit connection

Many parents and other mentors desire to pass on wisdom to their children and those of their children’s generation. This wisdom is generally in the form of unique knowledge and life experiences. Some mentors follow a generative “test and learn” evolutionary mentality for personal growth and living life with a “perpetual beta” mindset. Progressive mentors do their best to follow Phillip Tetlock’s suggestion that “beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.” [iv]

However, the mentor's wise desires and life approaches are not necessarily aligned with mentee's capacity or willingness to receive mentorship advice. This begs a few questions:

  • What is the best decision process for the mentee to get the most out of the mentorship?

  • How can the mentor facilitate this decision process to best meet the mentee where they are?

  • How can the mentee best prepare to use the mentor's advice in their decision process?

The mentor's role is to provide scarce information, but this valuable information will lay fallow unless the mentee uses it to make a good decision. We start by exploring the decision process and the potentially harmful confusion between 'grit' and 'quit.'

University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth authored the book “Grit.” Cognitive behavioral decision science author and poker champion Annie Duke authored the book "Quit." They are both excellent books. [v] At first blush, it may seem grit and quit are polar opposites. Like the decision to quit something means you are not gritty enough. As discussed next, grit and quit are certainly not polar opposites and the belief that they are may stand in the way of important life changes.

When considering the two books as part of the same story, grit and quit are highly related. The distinction is that grit and quit are necessary at different stages of the same decision process. They are both necessary for making important life decisions.

Grit is what it takes to drive our life’s passions, including decisions to change our beliefs. For example, grit is needed to actively pursue and inspect beliefs about a job, an investment, a relationship, or anything else of value.

Quit, on the other hand, is a decision outcome. A decision not to change the current thing is “Not Quit” and a decision to change the current thing is “Quit.” Grit is a virtuous characteristic that encourages the decision process and quit is a decision outcome.

Both are related to decision-making but are necessary at different stages of the decision process. The outcome of a gritty decision process is to confidently conclude one should either quit or not quit.

Decision process for quit and grit

My wife and I tried our best to raise our four children well. They are all now young adults. When they were young, we encouraged “grit” with simple-for-a-child-to-understand expectations like “Never Give Up” or “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” Now that they are older, we remind them that quitting or not quitting something is necessary after a belief evaluation. Our adult expectations are now “Not making a decision is a decision.” Today, we remind them that “change is the essence of life.” They are now old enough to understand the grit/quit nuances. Some experienced adults understand that sometimes, "Quitters DO win." It is interesting that society often teaches our youth the reductive notion that grit and (not) quitting are the same virtues. Teaching our children resilience is amazing. But not teaching young adults how to disentangle grit and quit creates challenges. Not often do you hear a parent say to their young adult child, "Do you remember how we taught you to never give up? Well, ummm, it is more complicated than that and sometimes quitting is the best thing to do!" Unfortunately, even experienced adults do not always change, or quit, as often as they should. The University of Chicago Economist Steve Levitt's change experiment conclusion was that there is "the presence of a substantial bias against making changes when it comes to important life decisions." [vi]

Thus, quitting in the appropriate circumstance is both challenging and essential.

4. The Lifecycle Model: For a lifetime of decisions

The next graphic shows a belief updating lifecycle model. [vii] We are born into this world with an empty belief bucket. Our genome provides for our belief bucket starting point. [viii] Then, it is our parents, culture, and other environmental factors that fill our childhood belief bucket. Beliefs are like shortcuts to help make sense of aggregated information. As we learn more, more beliefs are necessary to store helpful conclusions from that aggregated information.

Learning and belief building are a necessary part of our lives - we really do not have a choice. Our childhood brains are literally an evolutionary-tuned sponge. Our childhood brains are genetically thirsty for information to help structure our neurobiology – which includes our neurons and synapses. That information thirst is there throughout our lives. Perhaps the thirst is tempered some as we age, but the need for exercising our brain and creating new synaptic connections is very important to brain health throughout our lives. That structured information naturally leads to beliefs - those shortcuts to help make sense of aggregated information.

We are born with or very early on develop most of our approximately 86 billion neurons. In terms of learning, it is our synaptic connections that are very dynamic. A growing brain is a learning brain. A learning brain is a healthy brain. Our genetic code provides the starting point blueprint for the brain. It is learning that builds out and adapts our neurobiology to our environment. While natural selection helps our species adapt across generations, it is our learning that allows us to adapt within a generation - that is - within our lives. The dynamic structuring of our neurobiology is the essence of thinking development. The building of our synaptic pathways is an ongoing, dynamic process. New synaptic connections and synaptic pruning occur all the time throughout our life. Learning only stops at death. The converse holds as well - death will find us if we stop learning.

Since our brains are genetically engineered to absorb new information, grow, and adapt throughout our ever-changing lives, doesn't it make sense our beliefs should regularly adapt as well?

belief updating lifecycle model

Please note: The bucket is a metaphor for our brains. When 'Little You' is born, the belief bucket is completely empty. The rocks are the metaphor for belief evidence that fills our brains. The rocks are both of different sizes (e.g., bigger rock is higher weighted evidence) and of different strengths (e.g., green is supporting evidence, red is contrary evidence). Please see the article Changing Our Mind for the complete framework.

This article explores how and the degree to which the mentees accept belief-updating suggestions from mentors at any stage of life. Central to the article is understanding why certain mentorship suggestions are internalized while others may fall on deaf ears. As a real-life example, my children often impress me. I see them make complex decisions with a deft touch and grace. The kind of decisions that make a parent feel good that our children listened to and acted upon our advice. But sometimes, our children feign the appearance of listening -- like nodding their heads or smiling with appreciation -- and then completely ignore me.

Why does a mentee sometimes seem to heed or advice and sometimes not? While the mentor may believe their suggestions should be helpful, the mentee's advice absorption potential is a function of their self-interested incentives. Those self-interests are revealed by questions like:

  • Does the mentee forecast the advice is worth their investment?

  • Is the mentee available to absorb the advice?

At the end of the article, we provide a resource to help overcome the mentee's availability challenge and to properly evaluate the investment.

These differences, as to whether or not a mentee absorbs and acts upon a mentor’s advice, are addressed next via a neurobiology and behavior psychology lens. The goal is to better understand how and why people will or will not accept sound advice. Then we can seek to update and suggest tools to help mentors share with mentees. These suggestions will improve the mentor-mentee relationship and help people get the most out of others’ lived experiences. Mentees can only learn from others’ experiences if they integrate them into their lives. The mentee's "input and update" challenge is the mentor's "last mile challenge" to effectively help the mentee operationalize an updated belief.

Next are 2 examples – the first example is called “4a. Fast emotion-dominant information” and the second is called “4b. Slow language-dominant.” By their differences, these examples help us define the neurobiological underpinnings of how mentorship information is processed by the mentee. Theses examples reveal a gap in terms of how our brains process different kinds of mentor delivered information. This understanding informs the gap closing mentorship solutions presented later in the article.

4a. Fast emotion-dominant information

The story – Adam Mastroianni is a writer and publisher of “Experimental History.” The next example was provided in a recent article. [ix] This story shows how a graduate advisor’s approach impacts a mentee’s willingness to absorb and activate a mentor’s suggestions.

I used to get free room and board in exchange for telling students not to go to Oxford.

They were applying for fellowships to go study there; I had recently returned from doing one, and Harvard was happy to keep me housed and fed if I would help students win. But I had a bad time at Oxford and I wanted students to know what they were getting into, so I would sit across from them in the dining hall, plates full of chicken tenders and french fries, and explain that postgraduate education in the UK is largely a way of extracting money from foreign students. Professors over there are checked out, classes are bad, and the whole place is pervaded with this sense of isolation and alienation, like everyone is behind a plate of glass. (Also you might end up briefly homeless.)

“Thank you so much for telling me that,” the students would say. “So, how many recommendation letters do I need?”

Sometimes I run into these students after they return from Oxford. “How was it?” I ask. They usually say something like: “The professors were checked out, the classes were bad, and I felt isolated and alienated.” And we share a knowing look, the kind that can only occur between two people who have been hurt exactly the same way.

As they walk away, I’m always left wondering: why didn’t they believe me?

Mastroianni asks a valid question that anyone in a mentorship role would ask, whether as a parent or graduate advisor. The answer relates to our neurobiology.

The neurobiology – Nobel laureate behavioral economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores how our neurobiology presents as the “Fast Brain” or the “Slow Brain.” [x] In Mastroianni’s example, this is the student’s fast brain in action. The prospective graduate student is looking for advice from a graduate advisor, though the prospect is likely anchored by the desire to attend Oxford. The prospect's anchoring causes the desire for decision confirmation, more so than objective decision input.

Fast Brain decision confidence

Our fast brain routes immediate and emotion-based inputs through the right hemisphere, along with sensory (“now”) memories. As advertised, the fast brain will make a very fast, emotion-based decision. Which, in this case, ignores Mastroianni’s sound advice in favor of confirming the student’s prior beliefs. It is not that the mentee did not hear the mentor's advice, the challenge is that the advice was weighted very low as evidence to move the needle on the mentee's priors. This bias is the result of the mentee's fast brain processes. The Fast Brain is subject to decision-speed enablers called cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are like a model of the decision but are laced with biases owing to the inaccuracy of the brain’s speed-enhancing shortcuts. In this case, availability bias is likely impacting the mentee's ability to accurately weigh Mastroianni’s mentorship advice. The prospect of going to Oxford is more salient than some of the future challenges communicated by the mentor. The brain is willing to trade higher speed for lower accuracy in the service of our ancient, outdated genome programmed for survival.

The foundation of decision-impacting cognitive biases is also at play, called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is where a subset of information aligned with an existing belief is heavily weighted. Those contrary data signals to an existing belief are underweight or ignored altogether. In caveman days, survival was enhanced by those who acted quickly on prior beliefs. While today's world has all but eliminated existential risk with medicine and laws, those old genetic decision algorithms are still playing! The prospective graduate student wants to go to Oxford. Therefore, contrary information like Mastroianni’s suggestions is likely ignored via the mentee's fast brain processes. Confirmation bias is also related to the reasoning error called an error of omission.

Additionally, the mentee's inability to assess emotion-based information contributes to the lower weighting. The mentee is only objectively assessing the mentor’s language. The mentee has no context to convert the analytical words into the emotions experienced by the mentor. Thus, Mastroianni and his mentee's brain processing are misaligned. Emotions follow fast brain processing pathways. Language is necessary for the other processing pathway, called the slow brain. Slow brain processing is discussed more in the next section.

The fast brain-slow brain misalignment is like trying to paint a fast-brain emotional picture with a slow-brain text-soaked paintbrush. It is the wrong tool for the job.

In the short term, it is almost impossible for words to convey how Mastroianni felt as an Oxford grad student. Emotions, such as loneliness, fear, frustration, etc. will not be transferred to the mentee via the mentor's words. This is for the same reason why the words to describe an in-person viewing of a natural wonder are not sufficient. For example, the words describing your first viewing of the Grand Canyon from the south rim are woefully inadequate. The feeling of majestic vastness when you first saw the Grand Canyon in person is naturally misaligned with any words describing the Grand Canyon. "Majestic Vastness" is best felt through experience.

4b. Slow language-dominant information

The story – My wife and I tried our best to raise our children well. This story shows how our parenting approach impacted our children’s willingness to absorb and activate our mentorship suggestions.

To provide life suggestions to our children, my wife and I made use of faith-based teachings. We helped our children learn resilience. Through a consistent, repeatable, and habit-building process, we taught them how to fight through disappointment. We taught them the power of hope and love. We taught them empathy and the power of saying they are sorry when they inevitably make a mistake. We taught them that life can be unfair, and that success comes to those who improvise, adapt, and overcome.

Today, our children are in their twenties. Those mentorship-based habits are paying off. We see example after example of them fighting through work challenges, mending fences with friends, showing appreciation for their blessings, and pursuing appropriate resilience-enabling life change. Each one was impacted by the pandemic and each one made changes to grow and succeed during that very challenging time. Those changes included new jobs, job promotions, buying homes, starting families, and starting businesses. Mostly, we see them finding happiness and contentment in their lives. We see our children growing the faith foundation we provided for them when they were young.

The neurobiology – We now turn to Dr. Kahneman’s Slow Brain model. This raising-my-children example is a product of slow brain training.

slow brain decision cognition

Our slow brain accesses trained and long-term information inputs that interact with the left hemisphere. The slow brain will access long-term memories. As advertised, the slow brain will take longer to render a decision during the training phase. However, long-term habits, reinforced over time, will have a strong influence on the slow brain process. While the training and habit forming may have taken time, the in-the-moment decisions will be reasonably expedited as synaptic pathways are strengthened. This is the making of a good habit. This synaptic training to build good habits process is like a highly trained athlete reacting very quickly and precisely because of their training. [xi] In our children's case, their decision-making has been nurtured by those faith-initialized long-term habits. Assuming the habits are accurate, the decisions will be less subject to cognitive bias. Effectively, habits are the neurobiological learning process to overcome our evolutionary cognitive bias brain bucket starting point. It is like nature is saying "Hey human person, unless you tell me otherwise, we are going with decisions that made sense over 2,000 years ago!"

As Sarah Kay’s aphorism appropriately warns us, “Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent.” This is why belief updating is an ongoing process. We want to make sure -- that which is more permanent is also more accurate. New information should be regularly considered to challenge and update existing beliefs.

A mentor can leverage the slow-brain approach

So, if you want to have mentorship advice absorbed and activated, it is a longer-term commitment. Making graduate school advice sink in will likely require more than one conversation about Oxford’s challenges. The mentor must tap into the mentee’s long-term memory. The mentor must help the mentee build consistent, repeatable habits to reinforce their decision process. As Mastroianni discovered, providing grad school advice without either 1) helping the mentee update their decision-impacting habits or 2) tapping into existing, reasonably aligned decision-impacting habits, is a challenge. Habits take at least 2-4 weeks to establish and possibly longer depending on the strength of conflicting priors.

What if we do not have time for many habit-building mentorship sessions?

Wouldn't it be nice if mentors had enough time to develop each mentee's slow brain process to render the best decision? Let's face it, in our busy world, rarely do we have as much time as we would like to mentor others. Next, provided is an app solution to help mentees evaluate and own their decisions. This decision solution approach is more likely to appropriately update the mentee's beliefs. Decision confidence, like whether or not to go to Oxford’s graduate school, comes from a robust decision process. The decision process is also an accelerator. The mentor may not have time to help every mentee the way they wish they could. The decision process will help the mentor overcome time challenges.

5. Choice Architecture to make better decisions

The questions addressed in this article include, “What makes for effective parenting and how does this relate to mentoring?” For my family, our parenting approach had much more to do with the environment we created than the words we spoke. Our children knew they were loved and that love was given freely. Think of the words as supporting that loving environment. But those words wouldn’t have mattered much without the love. This article explored the differences between parenting and mentoring It also described how the gap between mentoring and parenting effectiveness is created. Next, we discuss how to close the gap.

The mentorship trade-off gap

This is a graphical summary of the mentorship challenges. The trade-off shows the gap beginning with our given fast-brain/slow-brain neurobiology. The trade-off is then shown by the gap between mentoring resources and mentoring effectiveness. The good news is that there is a technological solution to close the gap.

In Mastroianni's grad school advising case, he could have given the prospective graduate student the app decision solution in advance of their mentoring session. The app would already be templated to the grad school decision. This app helps the prospective student structure all the input information about grad school, including Mastroianni's advice. The app then steps the prospect through the decision process to quickly render an accurate and precise decision recommendation. The decision process includes:

  • Defining and weighing unique mentee grad school criteria to develop an individualized utility function. Recall, that utility is another name for the "what is important to me" set of trade-offs for the grad school decision. The utility function includes a properly weighted contribution of Mastroianni's advice.

  • Define graduate school alternatives (either competitors of, or substitutes for, Oxford.) The alternative analysis would include properly discounted costs.

  • Perform a tradeoff analysis rendering an indifference curve-like comparison of costs and benefits.

  • Enable inviting others to participate in the evaluation. This gives the mentee 'another set of eyes' to compare and challenge assumptions.

  • The outcome is Decision A-C-T as defined next.

The decision process, which behavioral economists call choice architecture, has the following Decision A-C-T benefits:

  • Accelerated: faster, less costly decisions. It enables a nimble decision environment.

  • Confidence-inspired: process causes people to be more confident in the decision, increasing buy-in, and decision up-take.

  • Transparency-enabled: reporting, documentation, and charts to help communicate the decision.

Finally, let's circle back to this wise parable presented in the introduction:

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

Think of Mastroianni’s suggestions as a curated decision input. This mentorship information is “feeding the mentee for the day.” Even more important is that the mentee has a consistent, repeatable decision process to structure and integrate great information like Mastroianni’s advice. The decision process is analogous to “feed him for a lifetime.” As such, the mentor should start with the decision process. Once the mentee’s decision process is sound, the mentor's advice will be effectively and quickly heard!

6. Resources

Definitive Choice: For individual or small organization groups - This app provides a convenient way to enter and weigh your preference criteria, then, enter your potential decision alternatives and their costs. Behind the scenes, it uses decision science to apply your tailored preferences and preference weights to score each of your alternatives. Ultimately, it renders a rank-ordered report to help you understand which alternatives will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Using a decision support app will 1) save you time, 2) optimize your economic value achieved, and 3) increase your decision-making confidence!

7. Notes

[i] Love is also a byproduct of parents' genomic incentives to reproduce. As Richard Dawkins famously suggests, we are 'survival machines,' working at the behest of our genome. Love is also a byproduct of our neurotransmitter operations, including dopamine, the external reward neurotransmitter.

Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976.

Schwartz, Olds, Love and the Brain, Harvard Medical School, 2015

[ii] The neurotransmitter oxytocin is cited for its association with the social bonding of both counselors and their patients, known as 'therapeutic alliance.' A therapeutic alliance is consistent with the mentor/mentee relationship. The sense of mentor motivation has a basis in the therapeutic alliance and oxytocin levels as well as oxytocin alignment with the mentee.

Zilcha-Mano, Shamay-Tsoory, Dolev-Amit, Zagoory-Sharon, Feldman, Oxytocin as a Biomarker of the Formation of Therapeutic Alliance in Psychotherapy and Counseling Psychology, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2020, Vol. 67, No. 4, 523–535

[iii] A "proud mentor," along with other people we respect or hold ourselves accountable is what Adam Smith called an "impartial spectator." In Smith's book, "The Theory Of Moral Sentiments," he provides the framework for how the impartial spectator impacts the forming of our self-interests and decision-making.

[vii] Hulett, Changing Our Mind, The Curiosity Vine, 2021

[viii] For our belief holding brain bucket, the impact of our genome is significant. How we fill our brain bucket is impacted by our cognitive biases. These are naturally occurring fast-brain decision biases tending to impact our decision-making in predictable ways. This is owed to natural selection and the long runway to change the mental algorithms that led to our survival. See this article for typical decision biases impacting how our brain bucket operates and impacts our beliefs.

[ix] Mastroianni, You can't reach the brain through the ears, Experimental History, 2023

[xi] An extreme example of this highly trained state is called the"Flow state." Flow state is an outcome when the highly trained athlete or others (firepeople, bond traders, etc.) are able to purely react through intuition. The flow state is a nirvana-like state where the world around them slows as their brains become integrated into the surrounding environment.


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