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Stop Begging for Mentorship

Written By Val Brains | May 1, 2018

Recently, the topic of mentorship came up at a networking event. The specific question was along the lines of “how do I convince someone to be my mentor?” I found that rather horrifying but also understandable – mentorship is often portrayed as an arrangement where a more seasoned and powerful person offers a bread crumb to a novice as a gesture of goodwill, perhaps a repayment of past karmic debts. However, I think this paradigm is a recipe for disaster if you hope to actually get something out of a mentor/mentee relationship. As an aspiring mentee, please take a moment to internalize that you are not a mentee peasant groveling desperately at the feet of your mentor feudal lord for him to throw you an extra potato. This puts both of you at a great disadvantage: your mentor becomes isolated via being put on a pedestal and you become creepily indebted and small to them. This is not cool.

My biggest and juiciest pieces of advice for hopeful mentees are to get clear on the fact that

  1. You have value to your mentor and are not a charity case
  2. It is your responsibility to figure out what specific value you bring and what currencies you deal in (see “How Not To Grovel” below)
  3. It is also your responsibility to get sufficiently clear in your own brain on what you bring to the table so that you can clearly communicate it to a mentor.

If you pulled a TL;DR right now and walked away, I would be totally ok with that as long as you absorbed the above. Really, I just need people to stop the groveling – it serves no one. However, if you are indeed more curious about mentorship magic, it turns out my wee article continues:

Many folks have a linear conception of mentorship: If you want to be a writer, seek out an older, more experienced writer and ask them to mentor you (i.e. tell you how they did it). I suppose if you want to make a specific type of giant laser or do something similarly highly specialized, this approach is practical, but I think the vast majority of people would benefit from casting a broader net. You may be surprised to see where good and practical advice can come from – no reason to confine yourself to your particular field or a specific experience level. The HBR says it better than I can: “Just as the accomplishments of your mentor matter, so do their personal attributes, such as altruism, work-life balance, and patience. Find a mentor whom you can relate to and who shares your goals and understands your priorities. And remember that someone at the top of their field may not necessarily be ideal. ”

Consider peer to peer mentorship (once again HBR comes through with some dope case studies): you seek advice from friends and contemporaries on a range of other topics, so why not regarding your career as well? Your mentor doesn’t have to be some random old wizard – your contemporaries may be able to offer insights and advice that better fits the context of your lived experience.

If neither older people nor same age people work for you, consider dead people. Some of your mentors may already be dead and that’s ok. There won’t be much back and forth, but you can still read their books and articles.

Also, definitely consider multiple people. You don’t have to put all your eggs in one mentor basket.

HOW NOT TO GROVEL (because it is undignified):
When seeking mentorship (and frankly, at all other times), come to the table knowing your worth and carrying yourself in a way that shows that you know it. If you come sheepishly looking for a handout, it may turn off your would-be mentor: Why would they want to give you their time if they don’t feel like you’ll add value to theirs?

You are not a charity case–you are a person with specific career (and life) goals and questions for your mentor. Figure out what those are and make sure you can articulate them clearly and succinctly in person and in writing.

In terms of what you can bring to the conversation: do you have a particular skill that people tend to be interested in? Have you been on an adventure that has made you more worldly and more insightful? Do you possess a secret talent? Intimate knowledge of your town’s history or resources? A dynamic and varied social network? These are all currencies. Interesting people want to be in conversation with other interesting people and your currencies are enough. Take some time to figure out what your skills and currencies are and practice articulating them both in writing and out loud until it feels natural to you.

To give a personal example, if I were to ask myself what my secret talent is, I’d say it’s getting people to notice more (details, patterns, connections) than they usually do, which is enough of a contribution to bring to the table. If my desired mentor doesn’t see it as such, then I know the mentorship may not be a good fit and I can feel free to look elsewhere. Easy as that.

These may sound like no-brainers, but you might be surprised to know how many people F it up.

  1. Offer a couple specific times (i.e. next Monday or Tuesday at 10am and one general scheduling guideline like “Mornings work best with my schedule”) when scheduling a phone call or meeting time. There is nothing more antithetical to respecting someone’s time than giving them a bunch of confusing date/time options to comb through. You can also just send a doodle with the caveat that you are open to other times – just make it as logistically simple as possible for them to say “yes” to a specific time.
  2. Ask explicitly what the most convenient means of meeting is (phone, FaceTime, in-person, email, etc.) for your mentor. Take the logistical pressure off of them by asking simple and direct scheduling/preference questions and doing the logistical planning yourself.
  3. Offer an outdoor walking option. Being indoors is often boring and/or noisy. You can kill two birds with one stone and get some fresh air while infusing your meeting with an unexpected bit of novelty. You and your mentor will also get to see the reactions and neural connections each of you make in real time in a dynamic environment. And also, walking helps you think.
  4. If you do decide on an indoor location, make sure it’s easy to talk and hear there. Again, sounds trite, but mistakes have been made.
  5. Be sure to do your research so you’re not asking questions to which answers are readily available online. People like to be challenged–make the time they’re taking to meet with you engaging for them as well.

This is by no means comprehensive, but it’ll start you off. There’s lots of meaty mentorship reading out there if you use the google. If I may leave you with a parting thought, it’s that finding a mentor (or mentors) is less a case of finding the perfect person and more a way to train yourself to be looking for mentorship opportunities all the time. If you broaden your mentor considerations to include all kinds of people in all kinds of industries and at all levels, and pay attention to whether or not you respect their intellect and integrity, you may find that insights are rarely where you expected to find them.

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