n an article in last Sunday's New York Times business section, columnist and lawyer Ben Stein describes a recent first class flight across the Atlantic on British Airways. Unable to fall asleep in his state-of-the-art sleeper bed, he contemplates how he came to be in such luxurious surroundings. For every step of his successful career as a journalist, attorney, presidential speech writer, and television personality, he identifies the family connection that opened the door for him. They are impressive, starting with a father who was Chairman of the Council Economic Advisors. Whatever Stein wanted to pursue next, someone in his circle “knew someone.”
Stein reveals this behind-the-scenes wheel-greasing to make a point: it isn't available to everyone. What if you don't have a well-connected father or mother?” Stein asks. “What if you are a young man or woman who has some talent and ambition but little or no idea of how to get on the ladder?” Why couldn't a cadre of well-off baby boomers mold themselves into an effective mentoring organization, he wonders. They could share their skills and connections, and possibly make a difference in many young lives. Mentoring programs already exist of course, but Stein envisions a national effort, something on the scale of the Peace Corps
Inequality is a huge problem in this country, as Stein points out. But it strikes me that this inequality involves not only money and opportunity. It's also an inequality of imagination. Before you can do something you have to imagine it, to know that it exists as a possibility. To get your foot on the ladder you have to know the ladder is there. That's where mentors can help.
Of course few people have such stellar connections as Ben Stein. My own family's were much more modest, yet they opened a door at just the right time. I was considered for my first professional job at the University of Miami publications office because my father worked in the administration there.
If all of us who ever received such a push were to get behind Stein's mentoring proposal, it would have a lot of backers. Founding this kind of project would take enormous vision and drive, of course (not to mention lots of money), but signing up volunteer mentors should be a snap. The basic idea is simplicity itself. First step: admit how much help you got coming up. Second step: turn around and help someone else. And what should the organization be called? Connections, of course.