Mentors come in all shapes, sizes and pedigrees. We’ve been exposed to them throughout our lives in some capacity or another. The teachers that inspired you in school, that rare breed of friends who have a knack for succeeding in everything they do, the family members who collect and share a lifetime of lessons. These are the kinds of people we look to for guidance and mentorship.
Then there are the teachers you didn’t care so much for, the colleagues who seem to be stuck in a constant state of struggle, the family members who don’t seem to collect much wisdom as years pass. They, too, have a place in your portfolio of mentorships.
In some cases, it’s a matter of finding wisdom in hardship, in others, an exercise in empathy. But it also boils down to understanding what you’re capable of offering as a mentor before asking someone else to be yours.
I cannot overstate the value of having a reliable mentorship network. I wouldn’t be where I am without attentive mentors guiding me. But along the way, I also realized that you can only learn so much, and that the best way to deepen your understanding of the passions you pursue is to learn to teach.
In that way, I’ve come to identify with mentorship as a fluid journey, not as a transactional relationship.
There’s no clear line dividing mentors and mentees; you won’t find yourself getting a promotion and suddenly becoming a mentor one day.
Instead I want to focus on the holistic nature of, and how to manage mentorship. If you can strike a balance between learning from the best and concurrently putting that know-how to good use, you’re in great shape.
The Great Mentor Search
People sometimes seek out a mentor out of quiet desperation. To paint an extreme profile: They feel like they need a mentor to push forward in life. They worry that they don’t have enough to offer without the support of a mentor. They take to LinkedIn, judiciously poring over the attractive resumes of accomplished would-be mentors. They send that cold message asking “will you be my mentor?”
Imagine that same behavior in the dating pool…
They worry that they need to be with someone to push forward in life. They worry that they haven’t found their better half so they’re still half empty. They take to Tinder, poring over attractive profiles of would-be spouses. They swipe right and immediately blurt out “wanna be my [boy/girl]friend?”
Remember, these are both extreme examples, but both are indicative of the same relatable concept: confidence is attractive, and knowing what you really want out of this relationship is a much better vantage point than making a judgment and rushing to action based on scant facts.
Go with who you already know, let your network expand organically, and if you must venture into the ‘mentor dating’ pool, be earnest and thoughtful about it. A mentorship is an actual relationship after all, and the prospect of taking a stranger under their wing can be understandably off-putting. Start small, focus on building a relationship first and don’t take rejection personally: there are other fish in the sea.
No matter how wide the experience gap, a mentorship is a two-way street. Somewhere in their head, the mentor-figure you’re talking to is making a value-based judgment about the time they commit to you. Ask yourself: what are they getting out of this relationship? If you don’t have an answer, that’s ok: you can come up with one. If you can’t, however, then you’re not getting the most out of the mentorship.
This isn’t a matter of reciprocal back-scratching. Sure, if they coach you well enough, presumably you’ll be in a position where you can return the favor at some point, and that may be part of their valuation.
Holding yourself accountable and maintaining a positive working relationship with your mentor is what will pay dividends on both sides. You’ll find growth in the effort you put into cultivating the relationship, and they’ll get validation that their mentorship is worthwhile. Ideally, talking through the problems you bring to the table will challenge them to grow as well.
There should not be a point where you can say “mission accomplished; mentorship over”. Instead, focus on narrowing that experience gap, and marvel as the mentorship evolves into a lifelong relationship.
A Mentor is Born
Hopefully you’re taking a practical approach to implementing the knowledge a mentor has to offer and putting it to good use. The more you use it, the more it becomes a part of you and the more you improve. The more you improve, the more you stand out, and the more you stand out, the more people want to learn from you, and… suddenly you’re the mentor, perhaps without realizing it.
This is where mentorship fluidity becomes apparent. The journey I just described doesn’t happen in discrete segments; it’s happening constantly, and concurrently in other areas of your life.
You may have even been a dedicated mentor to someone before pursuing a mentor, yourself. There may be things that come completely naturally to you and that others would love the opportunity to learn from you.
Give them that opportunity. Remember everything I said about Mentorship Equity? You’re the mentor now, and guess what? All that stuff about mentorship being a two-way street, presenting challenging growth opportunities and paying dividends on both sides still holds true.
I’m not going to comment on what it takes to be an effective mentor / mentee. That’s a personal judgment that varies wildly for everyone, and I encourage you to read up on it.
Rather, I will simply implore you to take mentorship, on both sides of table, seriously. How well a mentee performs under your guidance and how well you live up to a mentor’s guidance are both reflections on you at the end of the day.
Consider how engaging in a mentorship could enrich your life, and go for it — but don’t half-ass it. Going through the motions won’t get you anywhere, but fostering solid relationships on the foundation of mentorship will.
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Justin Felder is an MSTC graduate with nearly a decade of trademark law experience and yoga, mindfulness & meditation training, which he integrates into his work as an innovation consultant. He founded and runs the New Initiatives Program at SXSW: a program designed to enrich the flow of ideas and professional development opportunities within the organization. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (512)497–7575.