10 Famous Mentors and their Successful Proteges

Yelena Skosyrskih

No matter the size or scale of their contributions, mentors always leave the individuals left under their care just a little bit better than they were before. Since innovation and creation cannot burst into sparkling life solo, the best mentees absorb the teachings of their leaders and release them back into the world in new and exciting forms, even if they deviate from the original lessons. Whether busting boundaries, making history, or tilling a more thoughtful, creative world, the following mentor-mentee relationships stand as some particularly piquant studies.

  1. Socrates and Plato:

    One of the most influential names in classical philosophy surprisingly never published anything to our current knowledge. Or anything surviving, anyways. All anyone knows of the academic juggernaut’s life stems from the four decades he spent mentoring some not-insignificant figures like, uh, Plato. In fact, the student even chronicled the now-accepted-as-definitive trial and execution of the master (Better luck next time, Xenophon! Oh, wait. You’re dead.), which eventually kicked off his immortal writing career dissecting the sociopolitical elements leading to Socrates’ downfall. Because of his veritable lifetime with the elder thinker, Plato also devoted much of his oeuvre to pondering moral and ethical questions that continue to resonate on into today.

  2. Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara:

    As an extraordinarily celebrated editor and writer, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison dedicated her time and prodigious talent to nurturing the careers of oft-marginalized African-American authors, further diversifying the all-too-often whitewashed literary canon. Unlike many of the mentor-mentee relationships listed here, the one between her and writer, activist, and filmmaker Toni Cade Bambara more resembled a tight friendship than a teacher and student dynamic; one couldn’t say Bambara owed her career to Morrison, in other words. Rather, the pair enriched each other’s works inexorably until Bambara’s 1995 passing. She left the manuscript for These Bones are Not My Child behind, but Morrison served as its editor and published it posthumously in her memory.

  3. Aristotle and Alexander the Great:

    Before he went on to serve in the tee-tiny role of King of Macedonia and one of the most important (to put it mildly) figures in ancient history, Alexander the Great studied under Greek philosopher Aristotle (who had himself served as mentee to Plato). Most — if not all — scholars believe his extensive education in medicine and the natural sciences, as well as ethics and other philosophical concerns, directly contributed to his imperialist successes. However, by the end of his life, Ol’ Alex turned on his former mentor, who chastised him utterly for his claims of divinity. Some more conspiracy-minded individuals even believe Aristotle himself may have contributed to the king’s declining health and eventual death at age 32, but no real evidence exists to hint at it.

  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau:

    Two of the most iconic American transcendentalists shared an at-once loving and frustrating bond, with Ralph Waldo Emerson serving as the guiding hand behind Henry David Thoreau’s controversial career. The young philosopher and social critic behind Walden met the figurehead following his graduation. Emerson provided Thoreau with opportunities to publish his transcendental musings and poems to The Dial, a leading publication on the movement with which he was closely associated. Between 1841 and 1844, the mentee moved in with his mentor and even served as a tutor to the latter’s children.

  5. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru:

    Most Americans know of the Indian social activist and inspiring practitioner of nonviolent resistance as leaving a major impact on Civil Rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. But Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s most notable mentee was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who first led India following its independence from imperialist Britain. When the struggle first boiled to the surface, he assisted Gandhi in collecting the money necessary to spread the word of colonial oppression and other social justice issues plaguing the nation. For a decade, Nehru earned positions in Congress while constantly turning toward the elder activist for advice, though they clashed over Nehru’s dedication to industrializing over self-sufficiency.

  6. Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway:

    For the “Western” creative elite residing in Europe (most notably Paris) during and after World War I, Gertrude Stein served as the figurehead. An avowed patroness of the arts as well as a celebrated modernist author, the starstruck Ernest Hemingway counted himself among her many proteges. And, most likely, probably stands as her most famous in the minds of our target audience. His lush memoir A Moveable Feast depicts their mentor-mentee relationship in honest detail, but their views on literature clashed so much they spent the later decades of their lives in a bitter quarrel.

  7. Andrew Carnegie and Charles Schwab:

    Charles Schwab the American steel tycoon, not Charles Schwab the finance and investment guy. The young manufacturer’s career started on the ground level at Carnegie Steel Company, but the eponymous philanthropist and businessman noted his potential at an early age and guided him toward J.P. Morgan, with whom he eventually formed the United States Steel Corporation. Although he quickly exited the president position to lead Bethlehem Steel, Schwab applied everything Andrew Carnegie nurtured within him about both business and metallurgy to millions. Then he died poor because of what a terrible spender and investor he proved to be, which isn’t really irony so much as a very strange coincidence.

  8. Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington:

    Because of Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking Oscar win in 1963 —the first black man to ever receive the Best Actor Award — later actors like Denzel Washington (the second winner) enjoyed a comparatively (there’s still progress that needs making, after all) larger, broader amount of acting opportunities. The younger actor frequently sites his legendary mentor in interviews, sharing pieces of advice that kept him going and thinking throughout his illustrious career. When the American Film Institute honored Poitier’s prodigious contributions to the cinematic arts in 1992, Washington delivered an amazingly heartfelt, genuine tribute to the man whom he felt deserved the most credit for helping him succeed.

  9. Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat:

    When Andy Warhol craved something new and exciting in the world of art and creativity, he snapped up a teen graffiti artist and molded him into a neo-expressionist icon. Jean-Michel Basquiat quickly rose into a role as his constant companion and mentee who kept the aging Renaissance man relevant, soaking up lessons culled from Warhol’s decades as a veritable master of ceremonies presiding over the New York scene. Before his tragic death, Basquiat reinvented contemporary art and pushed boundaries when it came to offering the world provocative commentary on issues of race and class.

  10. Phil Jackson and … um … a lot of people:

    Including basketball legends like Shaq, Kobe, Scottie Pippin, and Michael Jordan, known best as the player-coach of the Toon Squad. With a pedigree like that, it’s hard to pick just one standout protege. Iconic coach Phil Jackson retired from the game with 11 championship titles with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to his credit. And, in his wake, left a trail of basketball players whose names probably won’t wind up erased from the history books anytime soon.

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