According to legend, Mentor was a wise man who tutored Odysseus’s son Telemachus. Though Telemachus was surrounded by friends and rival suitors for his mother’s hand, Mentor spent his valuable time ensuring that Telemachus lived a good life and filled his head with wisdom. So wise was Mentor that Athena, goddess of wisdom, used his form when she appeared to Odysseus.
Now, we use the word mentor to denote a wise tutor with whom we share a close personal connection. The mentor is invested in the success of the mentee, and the mentee honors and respects the mentor. It’s a relationship that resembles that of a father and his son, and that of an older brother with his younger sibling.
But enough of that. I think we can all agree as to the basic human emotional appeal of a mentor. The more important questions are how one finds a mentor, how one builds a mentorship relationship, and what material benefits you can reap from a mentor.
First and foremost, we have to acknowledge that few mentors can teach you absolutely everything. My greatest mentor, my dad, is a wizard at tech and far wiser than I, but he’s not exactly a master of the social arts, music, or economics. I can go to him about engineering questions, philosophical inquiries, matters of the heart, and matters of politics, but he cannot teach me why people on Twitter act the way they do.
So, then, it stands to reason that you should have a few mentors over the course of your life and pursuits. Never losing touch with your previous mentors, of course, but latching on to someone who can teach you more about a new pursuit or way of thinking.
When seeking mentors, you are looking for the following basic qualitites:
- Mastery of the craft
- Success-oriented mindset
- Wastes little or no time on frivolities
- Lives the kind of life you desire
Such mentors are in very short supply. We might all like to have Donald Trump as a business mentor, but there’s only one Trump and thousands of us. I know more than a few drummers who would love to learn under Neil Peart, but he’s a busy rock star. If we want these kinds of people to mentor us, we need to be able to make it worth their while. Otherwise, we’re just another of the thousands who are also not being mentored by the greats.
Once you’ve identified a mentor, you must establish a relationship that might encourage the mentor to take you on as a disciple. Some people encourage paying for such a privilege, but I find that has very little value and might even insult your mentor. In order to establish a relationship in person, you will need to a) be visible, b) be friendly, and c) be dedicated. If you are not visible, then the mentor won’t see your friendliness or your dedication; if you are not friendly, you won’t establish a rapport with the mentor; if you’re not dedicated, the mentor won’t have any reason to take you on as disciple (because you waste his time).
Perhaps a story will help demonstrate some of what I’m talking about.
Jack and Ryan are two aspiring reporters for the Daily Planet. They don’t have a great deal of experience, but they know that Clark Kent is one of the best and friendliest reporters in the field. They also know that he frequents a little sandwich shop two blocks from the Planet offices.
Ryan approaches first. He physically bumps into Kent on the streets, apologizes profusely, and offers to buy him lunch. The affable Kent agrees, and they hit the shop. Ryan gets the Reuben with extra sauerkraut and onions, oblivious to Kent’s apparant opposition to the smell. They grab a booth, and Ryan spends the whole lunch talking about his ambitions, without really listening to anything Kent said in reply.
Jack, on the other hand, started taking his lunch at the same shop as Kent. Sometimes, he’d get there before Kent, and sometimes he’d be walking in as Kent left, but either way they had a bit of face time. Jack keeps it friendly with everyone in the room – tips generously, flirts a bit with the girl behind the counter, strikes up conversations with anyone who looks like he needs a chat. Eventually, he sits over with Kent and they bond a bit. Kent has seen him around and likes the cut of his jib, and eventually the conversation turns to how Jack is pretty good at making friends but doesn’t have the greatest writing skills or reporting sense. By the time their conversation is over, Jack and Kent are friends, and Kent offers to help Jack out from time to time.
Ryan, despite his bold approach and dedication, failed to make anything of a personal connection with the ace reporter whom he sought as mentor. Jack, on the other hand, demonstrated some of the skills which Kent could appreciate while being generally good-natured. Jack wasn’t seen right away, but he was present and visible while he did things that would impress the potential mentor; a good conversation plus familiarity then bred the relationship that would become a mentorship.
Of course, many of the greats cannot be easily reached in real life. It requires a slightly different approach if you want to establish a mentorship relationship online, but many of the same rules apply. I’d recommend contributing quietly to the conversations around your mentor (the virtual equivalent of being around), remaining civil and friendly while at the same time demonstrating the sort of skills and dedication that would make you worth the mentor’s time. As you ramp up the conversations and develop your skills independently, the mentor will start to see you. After a while, when the timing seems right and the opportunity arises, contact the mentor directly and establish a friendly relationship. After a time, drive the conversation toward the mentorship and see what happens. At worst, you don’t get a mentor but do develop your skills and become visible to other potential mentors.
Now that you have a mentorship relationship, it’s important to not waste the mentor’s time. Mentors are guides and council, but they are not there to just teach you. Listen to the lessons they do give, follow their directions, and strive to develop as you can without them. It’s good to keep them apprised of your situation from time to time, so they can offer bits of advice and wisdom, but you never want them to think that you are just using them. Mentors are like friends, and should be treated as such. In return, mentors will help you through some of the tougher problems, provide guidance when you’re at a loss, and connect you to the kinds of people that the mentor spends time with.
Stand on the shoulders of the giants. It’s hard to go it alone, and you will run into the same problems as everyone else. Mentors can drive you past those obstacles and expedite your personal and career development. After all, you are little more than the sum of your five closest acquaintances.
If you don’t have a mentor now, find one. You’ll thank me later.