5 powerful lessons about mentorship from the life of William Osler.

Mentorship is the key to success. But how do you do it well?

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
24th Jan 2018 • 4m read

Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.

Yves St. Laurent and Christian Dior.

This may seem like a random list of some superhuman people, but in each set above, the first person owed much of their success to the mentorship of the second.

Read any modern book about “how to achieve success” and I’d bet you a top-range Tesla that there’ll be something about mentorship in there. Mentorship, when loosely defined, can be described as a relationship whereby one person imparts their knowledge, wisdom and experiences upon the other.

But again, that's a loose definition.

In reality, the mentoring relationship is more of a symbiotic dance. A mutually beneficial (and usually, unofficial) arrangement that allows an inexperienced mentee to grow as a result of sustained contact with a mentor who feels compelled to pass on their insights.

In the context of medicine, the closest we usually get to systematic mentorship is through the clinical training we receive during our medical education years. Under the tutelage of more experienced doctors, we hone our clinical skills and practice theory, as they experience the satisfaction of contributing to the next generation of physicians.

But very often, it ends there.

We can never learn all there is to learn in the field of medicine. Expertise is an illusion that convinces us that we’ve reached the heights of our field and that the learning curve from here is flat. But the father of modern medicine, William Osler, was living proof that even experts can benefit from continual mentorship. Here are some powerful lessons we can learn about mentorship from the life of Osler.

Keep curious.

Osler had originally planned to become a clergyman. While at school, he became enamored by a naturalist priest called Father Johnson who, sensing Osler’s insatiable curiosity and potential, steered him towards the natural sciences. Johnson was the first of countless mentors to come into Osler’s life. Struck by the power of good mentorship, Osler was adamant that he would continue to seek the guidance and wisdom of those who knew more than him. This habit continued till he was well into old age. Despite being one of the founding fathers of Johns Hopkins University, the man who created residency training programs and the owner of countless other monumental achievements, Osler never let go of his child-like curiosity and burning desire to learn from those who had something to teach.

Find your heroes.

Mentors don’t always need to be physically present. In fact, they don’t even need to know you exist. Osler was meticulous in his study of the great minds of history, both past and present, with the aim of integrating their best features into his own life. One “mentor” who had a profound impact on Osler’s development was Sir Thomas Browne, an English polymath who lived two centuries before he did. Osler was also a huge fan of Greek philosophers and traced some of his own medical insights to the learnings he gleaned from his study of their lives and teachings.

Leverage networks.

Ironically, many mentorship relationships would be classed as anything but. They usually take the form of strong interpersonal relationships between two people who simply admire and can learn from each other. Osler understood this and built strong, mutually-beneficial relationships within his networks that would contribute to his personal and professional growth. Osler combined these incredibly rich networks with hard work and his lovable, insatiably curious personality to build one of the most illustrious careers in medical history.

Design the relationship.

Osler’s relationships with his mentors were often intense, and some didn’t end as well as he would have liked. The mentor-mentee relationship can potentially be as complicated and life-altering as a romantic partnership. What begins as mutual admiration turns into the sharing of each other’s vulnerabilities which can set both people up for disappointment. Though Osler had very close relationships with his own mentors, he kept his relationships with his own mentees less personal. The important thing to remember here is not that either style is superior to the other, but that the style should suit the circumstances. Since most mentoring relationships start off as simple friendships, you have the opportunity to decide how personal or distant you want that relationship to become. Understand the chemistry within the relationship and let it take shape from there.

Show gratitude.

Osler was a people person. He loved building relationships with others and was deeply aware that his happiness level was directly proportional to the quality of the bonds he formed with others. This applied to the bonds he developed with his mentors too. Rather than seeing his professional relationships as separate to his personal relationships, Osler was grateful for and sought joy from both.

“To have had the benediction of friendship follow me like a shadow, to have always had the sense of comradeship in work without the petty pinpricks of jealousies and controversies...fill the heart with gratitude”. [1]

As a reflection of this gratitude, Osler was always showering others with gifts, praise and help. No doubt, this unreserved display of goodwill brought even more good mentors into his life and kept them there.

Bringing it altogether...

Mentors are essential on the path to becoming an awesome doctor. You are never too old or too accomplished to learn from others. Find people in your life (or outside of it!) who possess qualities, knowledge or experiences that you would like for yourself and learn from them. Every mentor/mentee relationship will have a different dynamic, and that’s completely okay. Find your flow and be grateful for the opportunity to continue growing by accessing the hard-earned wisdom of others.

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Bryan, C.S., 1997. Osler: Inspirations from a great physician. New York:

Oxford University Press.