I’m almost 60 years old. Most people would say I’m successful in my career and life. I readily point to my family, demographics, education, intelligence, hard work, and a lot of luck as explanations for my success. But if you asked me, I’d be hard-pressed to identify a mentor that made a big difference in my life, just like I can’t tell you about that one influential teacher.
Oh, I’d easily name some people and express gratitude for what they’ve taught me, but they’d probably be people I’m currently learning from. You’d find I have a large immediacy bias. If you pushed, I’d probably say I have never had a true mentor if I were answering honestly.
How wrong I’ve been! My friend and colleague Elaine Ezekiel recently opened my eyes with a post on mentorship for our company blog. It’s not that I’ve suffered under the misfortune of not being mentored; it’s that my mental model of mentorship was wrong.
What I see now is that I’ve had many, many mentors over the years. I’ve learned things from so many people, some — but not all of them — older than me. They’ve all been wise or experienced in some way that I’ve learned or grown from. Some of the relationships were short, some longer, but they all had a positive impact on my life or career.
Elaine’s post follows. I’d encourage you to share, especially with your younger colleagues. Misunderstanding mentorship hasn’t prevented me from being mentored over the years, but Elaine raises the concern that it may have that effect on some people. She also provides practical advice on seeking mentorship.
Now that I’m at an age and position where people ask for my advice, Elaine’s given me a new, better understanding of mentorship that I can both pass along and personally benefit from.
Our Mentorship Fantasies Are Holding Us Back
I’ve spent a decade working, but I’ve yet to see this mythical mentor creature everyone keeps talking about. According to lore, this mentor will swoop in, clutch us in their talons, and fly us to their perch on Success Mountain. There, they will present us with the elixir of Professional Fulfillment and Work/Life Balance, and conjure our Next Big Gig.
Either I’m missing something, or we all are.
The lack of mentors isn’t our problem; it’s our collective fantasy of mentors and mentorship. And it’s holding us back. I’ll explore the three fantasies I hear most frequently about mentorship and offer some practical ways to get what we want without magic.
Mentor Fantasy 1: “Someday, my mentor will come.”
There are so many articles about “how to find your one true mentor” (for example, this one from my beloved Life Kit) that contribute to this problem. They frame mentorship as the entirety of professional wisdom transmitted by that one perfect person to a mentee.
This conceit ultimately leads to unreasonable expectations, unmet needs, and a potential loss of confidence. It also sets mentorship up as a sort of binary opportunity only provided to the lucky few that alters the trajectory of our careers. While we sit waiting for this magic moment, though, life is happening. Quickly.
Just as any single individual can’t fulfill all a person’s needs in any relationship, the same is true in mentorship. Everyone has blind spots, intersecting identities, personalities, privileges, opportunities, and mistakes. Even if you found someone who blazed the same career path you aspire toward, their advice might not apply to you, because you’re different people. I remember my older, high-powered, male boss shared with me that his showing vulnerability was a good way to foster relationships with industry acquaintances. Turns out, for a young, short woman in marketing, vulnerability isn’t quite as enchanting.
Let’s broaden the scope of the mentor search. It sounds trite, but it’s true: every single person has something to teach us. So why do we put off learning from these existing relationships in favor of holding out for an idealized one? Maybe the work of figuring out what we want to learn is more challenging than waiting around for that perfect person to teach it to us.
What if we sought a “board” of mentors, each with her own role and expertise in our achievement of a specific goal? One seems to have a balanced work/personal life; another one holds the job we aspire to next; one always seems calm and can read the room; one finds ways to advocate for social change at work.
Do these prompts bring anyone you know to mind? That might be the first step to assembling your board.
Mentor Fantasy 2: “We’ll spend hours plotting my future over lattes.”
Another related fantasy is that once this wonderful mentor enters our lives, they’ll have the time to drop everything and focus on us. In something like a therapist-patient relationship, the fantasy has the mentor deeply invested in the career of the mentee.
In reality, some of the people with the most to offer are also the busiest, and the value generally passes from the mentor to the mentee. So it’s up to the mentee to put in the legwork.
One-on-one conversations explicitly about career growth are far from the only form of mentorship. Much learning is done through observation and reflection.
Once you identify your mentor board, consider what you want from each. Speaking from experience, sending a “Can I pick your brain?” email doesn’t count as careful consideration. The flattery of this generic question isn’t likely to stir them. In fact, they’ve probably received three similar emails this month. What is more likely to pique their interest is a request from someone who has done their research; can make a specific, finite, and reasonable ask; and who can offer value in return.
Get the creativity flowing with these questions, and set a good first impression by showing thoughtfulness in your approach:
- If I could only have 30 minutes from this person, what would I try to learn from them?
- What has this person already published? Are the things I want to learn about/from this person already available on the Internet?
- Assuming this person is very busy, how could I learn what I want to learn while disrupting their existing schedule as little as possible?
- What unique ideas, networks, or skills might I have to offer to thank this person for his time and attention? Has she signaled a problem she needs help with on her public profile or in an interview?
- Imagine I became the most successful version of myself 20 years from now. What mentorship request would get my response?
Fantasy 3: “I’m the mentee.”
When you imagine the mentor/mentee relationship, whom do you see yourself as? If you’re like me, the mentee role is wildly more appealing than the mentor role. For one, I’d really like the help of a sage guide, and two, I don’t have my shit together enough to try to help someone else. I’m assuming this is pretty much how everyone on the planet feels.
If you’re eager for mentorship, the best place to start might be finding a mentee of your own. The experience of sharing experiences with someone who could use them will remind you that you do know a thing or two. It will also give you empathy for the mentor role, and you’ll be putting good mentorship karma into the world, enticing your mentors to find you more quickly.
Besides, people like helping helpers.
Taking the Mysticism Out of Mentorship
At its essence, mentorship is about sharing and receiving knowledge. But we’ve elevated the mentorship concept to the point where it feels out of reach, which doesn’t help anyone (except maybe self-appointed mentorship thought leaders).
Next time you see someone waiting to be scooped up by their mythical mentor, I hope you can make life a little easier by dispelling these myths.
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