In the times of Socrates, the mentor-mentee relationship was “all the rage.” If you didn’t have a mentor, you were a nobody. People were even identified and ranked by who their mentors were (or even by who they were mentoring, if a young up-and-comer was such a genius). Today, that style of guidance has gone out of vogue. Even in college, most students are afraid to go to a professor’s office hours, let alone grab a coffee with them and discuss their career aspirations (many students would probably find that level of communication invasive nowadays). But having a mentor, if you let the relationship take root without “making it awkward,” can actually be very valuable.
What is a mentor?
What’s the difference between receiving some well-meaning, perhaps even decent, advice from a friend and then receiving some advice through a mentorship? Well, for starters, a good mentor will not judge. Not personally, at least. They will stretch you, inspire you, and challenge you, but there will be no place for petty personal judgement that won’t help your career, and professional aspirations.
A good mentor will create a safe space for you to learn and to fail. Nobody likes being compared to an infant, but it is kind of like being an infant: As babies, we need a soft place to learn to walk. Most of the time we are falling, so we better have zero sharp edges nearby and plenty of carpeted floors. Your friends, well-meaning as they may be, might represent sharp edges in that they are partial and biased. They are not providing perfect academic conditions for learning. You should not always go to your friends for advice. At least, not if you don’t need to. Not if you have a mentor to ask instead!
How to find a mentor
To satisfy the primary quality of impartiality, your mentor should be a person who you know well enough to be comfortable with, but not so well that they are around every corner in your personal life. In other words, your mentor shouldn’t be your father or mother, wise as they may be. Another important quality of a mentor is that they should be someone with whom you are extremely comfortable. If you don’t mesh on a personal level, chance are that you won’t be able to fully appreciate, or take in, their mentorship.
Of course, if you need a business mentor, you wouldn’t choose a mentor who is an expert in Southern Gothic literature because a business and a literature mentor will most likely have far different wisdom to bestow upon you. So, find a mentor who has serious accolades in the field you wish to learn about and want to thrive within. Much of a mentorship should be learning from example. Therefore, watching a mentor navigate their own career should be enlightening and instructive in yours as well.
Be comfortable! But opposites do attract
Although being comfortable with your mentor is a must, that does not mean you have to be identical to your mentor. That is to say, having a mentor with a diametrically opposing style to yours, in growth terms, is the most beneficial scenario. If they are the same as you, then your opportunities for learning are severely limited. If they are the opposite of you, in a way that still is highly competent, you have much more room to learn from them within your mentorship. You will learn new tips, tricks and ways to come out on top in your career. Oftentimes while being a bit intimidated because their style is different (but that’s a good thing!). Practicing being uncomfortable with a mentor that you are comfortable with is key.
Specificity is important too. Rather than wearing the mentorship thin by focusing on too much, take the opposite approach: Better to have multiple mentors than one who half-ass teaches you various expertise. So allow a mentor to totally immerse you in one world, instead of partially submerging you in multiple worlds.
Don’t rush it
Don’t grab a person on the street holding a physics textbook, and ask them to be your physics mentor. Finding a mentor is not like finding a date for prom. Don’t force it. Better to hold out a little longer and find a mentor that fits with you, than to grab the first possible mentor and have it not be a great match.
Make it clear
Just like it isn’t prom, It’s not like Harry Potter and his wand either. Once you find your mentor, they are not automatically yours. You have to clearly ask this person, once you meet them, if they have the time, energy and interest to mentor you. You don’t have to use the word mentor, but it is a very clear one to choose. You could say: “Can you give me some guidance?” Or any number of strategies. It does happen to be like Harry Potter’s wand in the sense that when you communicate to them what relationship you want, they will probably understand immediately, even if you babble on a bit! Be clear about which skillset of theirs you’re hoping to benefit from (of course there will be more to it than what you outline, but this gives them a sense of how they can help you).
Keep it practical! Don’t be abstract. What will this mentorship look like exactly? Coffee once a month? Spin class once a week? A dinner every Tuesday at 6 p.m.? If things aren’t rigorously structured, much will fall through the cracks, both in quantity and in quality. It is up to you, not the mentor, to devote a structure to the mentorship. After all, you are the one who has the most to gain from this mentorship (although of course it is not unheard of for the mentor to gain just as much as the mentee).
On the point of experiential (or other) gains, not only can mentors profit from the mentorship, they in fact should be profiting as well. Be clear as to what value you are bringing to the table, and the whole relationship will flow much more productively and organically for this reciprocity. Though you may feel like you have nothing to offer someone older and wiser than you, find a way to reframe the context. You could give them access to an interesting opportunity, connection to a group of entrepreneurial thinkers, a chance for them to test out their teaching skills or even offer a monetary reward.
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