I had less than 60 days clean when my sponsor told me I had to start helping newer guys.

I was stunned. I had less than two months of sobriety. What did I have to give? I was just starting the Third Step. I’d already heard I couldn’t start sponsoring anyone formally until I had completed all the steps and put at least a year of sobriety under my belt.

It wasn’t about sponsoring, I was told. It was about being of service by giving away what I knew. I was still confused. I was in grad school, so I knew a lot about literature, but other than that, what did I have to give? I woke up terrified most mornings.

“Do you know how to stack chairs? Do you know how to thank a speaker? Do you know how to call a sponsor every day? Do you know how to pull someone aside when you really need to talk?”

I admitted I could do all those things.

“And I’ve seen you make coffee,” my sponsor added. “You’re not great but I’ve seen worse. So go find someone even newer than you and help him.”

My sponsor added one other thing. “Besides,” he said, “all you really need to do is listen.”

My career as a mentor started soon thereafter when, with about 50 days sober, I taught someone with 21 days sober how to use the ancient percolator at my Sunday night meeting. As we discussed the iffy on/off switch, I asked the newcomer how things were going. He asked me questions in return. We chatted after the meeting, and went out for a much better cup of coffee.

The key to sobriety is “giving it away to keep it.” For many of us, that means working with alcoholics and addicts who have less time than us. But we shouldn’t limit our concept of mentorship to only working with other people struggling with addiction. In time, I found that tutoring English at a neighborhood center was a wonderful opportunity to give back.

Part of recovery is recognizing how valuable and needed we are as humans. And part of recognizing our value is seeing how appreciated and needed we are. Mentoring gave me the chance to feel competent, and in the dark moments that came in my early sobriety, that feeling of competence meant the whole world.