Do You Really Need A Mentor?

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You can’t read about professional development or entrepreneurship without coming across advice to find a mentor: someone who takes you under their wing and shows you the ropes. This person helps you answer questions, expand your network, and vouches for you when needed. In return, you demonstrate progress and enthusiasm, and help them as much as possible in your own way.

However, aside from a few programs I participated in as a student — where we were given mentors to help us complete certain projects or adjust to school — I have never had a mentor as a professional. I have never had a wise, older person in my corner I connect with on a regular basis to talk through problems.

And I think this is a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the benefit of having a mentor. It’s a clear and deliberate investment in your success, and there is a bit of reassurance of advice coming from someone who has, “been there, done that.” And I certainly think in the workplace, having someone on your side who can help you navigate an organization is important.

But the typical structure of mentorship hasn’t appealed to me. It’s a lot of work on my end and on their end, and is a little too hierarchical for my taste. I also worry that it implies that we can age out of needing support, with young people always needing the mentoring (before becoming mentors themselves).

Instead, I prefer to connect with people when I have a problem I need help solving. I do this because I believe that when you start from a place of wanting to solve a problem — instead of wanting to follow a particular person — you open more doors.

I believe that when you start from a place of wanting to solve a problem — instead of wanting to follow a particular person — you open more doors.

People younger than you, older than you, people in different fields and professions, people in different communities, all become problem solvers. You are also more deliberate and focused about what you need, which makes it much easier for people to actually help you (I am struggling with creating a strategy for X vs. I don’t know what I’m doing about this very large, ambiguous issue).

For example, a few years ago when I started crafting the vision and editorial calendar for Idealist Careers while working at Idealist.org, I realized two things: 1. My role was shifting to include more management and content creation and 2. I had very little sense of what it meant to do those things effectively. So, in addition to reading more and doing more research, I reached out to people in editorial roles at startups, established companies, and people who were freelancers. I also reached out to some of the best managers I know to get their take on thriving in a new role. I had specific questions and got exactly the help I needed while connecting with new professionals in my field and beyond.

And by being specific, it’s easier to help others in return. We become collaborators.

The benefits of this approach go beyond just helping me get the information I need. I’ve noticed that by being specific, it’s easier to help others in return. Because I arrive with some previous research on the problem and am tapping into their expertise, we truly have a conversation. We become collaborators. They seem more confident, engaged, and eager to learn about what I’m working on.

In turn, I have more opportunities to share what I’m doing, where I’m going, and ideas and opportunities they might not have thought of. A conversation about managing content, turns into a conversation about the increasing role of content in marketing, which turns into a conversation about how our organizations are tackling this change and what we’d like to try.

So rather than looking for the one, maybe we should focus on cultivating networks of experts and supporters.

(A version of this originally appeared on my blog.)