How to Navigate Being a Young Adult Without a Mentor

Sometimes the student is ready, and the teacher is nowhere to be found.

Photo: Christian Erfurt/Unsplash

I burned out.

I got cocky. I bit off more than I could chew. Then, I decided I needed to go off on my own.

A year before, I started as an intern at a digital marketing agency. I quickly moved up the ranks. The people who saw this happen: my parents, friends, mentors, bosses at the company, fed into the myth I created that I was the next young star.

My ego led me to believe I had everything. In truth, I had nothing except a fragile and fake self-confidence.

My quick rise at the company made me, and everyone else, believe I was good at what I was doing. But as I took on more responsibility, the effects of being in over my head started to take effect. I misread this entirely. I thought it was a sign that I was doing the wrong things.

I thought that my frustration with my work meant it was time for another leap of progress. The opposite was true. When I expressed this to my boss, he rightly told me to be patient, to stick in there.

I didn’t listen. I struck out on my own.

My boss at that company was my mentor in a formal sense. We spent almost all of our time together. He taught me everything I know about marketing. He guided me toward my goals, sacrificed his time for my training, let me make mistakes so I could learn, then coached me through my mistakes.

When I left the company, I gave up that mentor relationship.

A mentorship solves a lot of problems in life. They guide you through the development and improvement of your craft while you piggie-back on their momentum.

When I lost that, I had to figure out what to do on my own. I had to find a way to get the benefits of a mentor without actually having one. Fortunately, this is easier now than it’s ever been in human history.

This article is the framework that I now use to fill the void of not having a mentor.

A Self Propelled Apprenticeship

“An apprenticeship can come in many different forms. It can happen at one place over several years, or it can consist of several different positions in different places, a kind of compound apprenticeship involving many different skills.”
— Robert Greene, Mastery

When you have a mentor, they are not only teaching you with their years of experience. They are telling you what to do with your time.

If you work for them, the mentorship is weaved into the work you’re doing, fulfilling the practice and the education at the same time.

In this sense, they are also a coach. Telling you what to do, how to practice, and giving you immediate feedback on your work.

When you don’t have a mentor, you need to be your own coach. This means creating your own practice schedule and finding out for yourself what assignments are worth doing.

Here are the strategies you need to create an effective apprenticeship for yourself.

1. Create a Practice and Repeat

The invisible force behind progress is momentum. The less momentum you have, the harder it will be to create any progress.

Think of this as pushing a car in neutral. You will have to push the hardest when the car is at a standstill. As you get the car to move slightly, the pushing becomes easier and easier because the car’s weight begins to work in your favor and create momentum.

The best way to create this momentum for yourself is by creating a practice that you do every day.

Whether your craft is writing, marketing, investing, woodworking, or surfboard shaping, the most guaranteed way to get better is to do it over and over again.

Creating a practice and committing to the repetition is 80% of an apprenticeship.

  • The consistent practice will force the development and refinement of the skill your practicing.
  • With each repetition, the skill will become a little easier, make the practice more enjoyable, and allowing you to get more repetitions in less time.
  • Your work will begin to market itself. If you shape surfboards, you’ll give away your boards. The more you make and giveaway, the more people will know about your craft and come to you when they need a board.

The consistency with which you do this will create a compounding effect over time. In time, you will have created a lot of work, and the abundance of your work out in the world will become a marketing asset.

2. Create massive results through small iterations.

Once you’ve locked in a practice, your primed to start improving. The practice is the fundamental piece of creating momentum, and momentum is the key ingredient of progress.

But it’s not as simple as practice equals always getting better. Once you’ve created a practice, you need to start picking apart your practice and improving the tiny little pieces that create the whole.

It is in the small improvements of each piece that a massive improvement of the whole is found.

This is the most valuable part of having a mentor. A mentor can look at you while your practicing and give you immediate feedback on how to improve.

For example, suppose the craft you’re learning is social media marketing. In that case, you need to make a practice of creating social media posts, then analyzing how they perform after they’ve been posted. In comparison, a mentor with experience may be able to tell you beforehand whether that post is going to flop and adjust your course.

There are two keys to making progress on your craft this way.

  1. Consistent practice and repetition (covered in the section above).
  2. Constant experimentation and analysis. Making small changes and see how that affects your results. If it did well, keep that change. If it did poorly, try a different experiment.

In other words, it’s a process of trial and error. And for the trial and error to be effective, you need to do as much of it as you can. That’s why consistent practice is the backbone of this strategy.

3. Make an ally of time

One of the powerful ingredients in this formula is time.

Our relationship with time is naturally tricky. We have goals, and we want to reach them as soon as possible. Then we constantly measure our self-identity against whether or not we reached our goals in our desired timeframe. Usually resulting in a discouraging sense of self.

This is why I prefer the idea of creating a practice instead of setting goals. Practice is open-ended. It does not have a time frame. It continues whether a specific goal is reached or not.

Your goal should not be a result you expect to receive but the creation of a practice itself.

When you place a goal with a time restriction, you begin to race against the clock to get your result in time. When you create a practice, the passage of time is an advantage.

The more time passes, the more skilled you become.

Once you’ve mastered consistency in your practice, and experimentation for constant improvement, time will take care of you. Time becomes your mentor.

Filling the mentor void

“The only real impediment to (mastery) is yourself and your emotions”
— Robert Green, Mastery

If your self-propelled apprenticeship is your vehicle for progress, a mentor is a map that shows you the fastest route to your goal.

I distinguish between a mentor and an apprenticeship because a mentor alone will not propel you forward in your career or project. If you work for the mentor, they can make a practice out of your work. But today, most mentors are not such an official relationship.

It’s more likely that a mentor is someone you speak with now and then get some core advice on a problem you have.

1. Build a network of micro-mentors

A micro mentor is someone you can reach out to when you have precise and technical questions. Finding and opening up a relationship with these people is simple and straight forward.

Find some experts online. Social media is a good place to go for this, then open up an easy-going, not-so-comital relationship with that person.

If you come in with too big of an ask, asking for a favor that requires a good chunk of time from them, you won’t get very far. To open up these relationships, express a sincere appreciation for their work, or ask a technical question that would be easy for them to answer.

For example, while creating my commonplace book (a way to organize and record what you’re learning from books), I reached out to Ryan Holiday to ask a question. He was the one I learned the technique from.

The technique of transcribing my notes onto notecards took a considerable amount of my time, and I started to question how a prolific producer of work like Ryan had time to do something like this.

I sent him an email entailing how I went about my version of his process in a few short lines and asked him if he thought I was over-doing my notes and would do just as well with less detail on each notecard.

His answer was simple. “Yeah, it might be that you’re overdoing it. I am jotting quick notes/reference etc. back to myself. Or typing out really long quotes if need be.”

That’s it. And it was helpful.

If I asked him to do something that required more time and was less specific, like read on my articles and give me some advice on making it better, he probably would have saved his time and politely declined.

2. Use Content as a Mentor

In the last section, I mentioned creating a commonplace book. A commonplace book is a method of taking and organizing notes on everything your learning or researching. It’s a great solution for our forgetful memories.

It can also be a tool for creating your own mentors.

A mentor can be anyone. You don’t have to have direct contact with them. They don’t even need to be a real person. Fictional characters make great mentors too.

A good method of creating your own mentors is to be a constant student and reader. As your studying, record all of the things you find interesting or helpful in your commonplace book. Then, organize all of your notes based on topics.

After a while, you’ll have a physical database of helpful anecdotes and advice for any topic that you’ve spent time researching.

When I was organizing this article, I went through my commonplace book and found some amazing notes I took while reading Mastery by Robert Greene. Those notes ultimately created the outline for this article.

3. Create a model

William Zinsser says the key to becoming a better writer is through imitation. To become a better writer, you have first to find talented writers who you strive to reach. Then, do your best to write just like them.

“Never hesitate to imitate another writer. Imitation is part of the creative process for anyone learning an art or a craft.”

In that imitation, you begin to feel what it is like to write near their caliber. If you do enough of this, you’ll improve your skill, and your own style will flourish.

This is true for any craft.

This doesn’t mean you should plagiarize their work and try to sell it as your own. But if you find a method that works for them, it may work for you too.

This is how Kobe Bryant became Kobe Bryant. Early on in his professional career, he made a model out of Michael Jordan. At first, he studied him and imitated him on and off the court. Eventually, he met Michael while playing against him in an All-Star game, and Michael remained a mentor to him ever since.

When Kobe was asked in The Last Dance what he thought about the ‘who would win in a one on one’ debate, he responded with, “Yo! What you get from me is from him.”

Just like Kobe, you need someone to imitate. Someone who, through your imitation of them, you can transcend into mastery and add your style later.

In Conclusion

Mentorship is one of the most powerful forces of life. The apprenticeship model started in the middle-ages, and there is a reason it is still the most effective method for learning a craft.

It is never ideal to go without a mentor to guide you, but not having one is no excuse. If you’re going through a time when you don’t have a mentor, you need to find other ways to get access to the same benefits.

The framework outlined in this article probably wouldn’t have worked before the time of the internet. But now that information is so available, and there are thousands of models out there publishing their work online, we finally have the capability to piece together puzzles on our own.

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Life in your 20s and beyond. A Medium publication focused on Work, Freelancing, Money and Life Advice.

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Adam Stinson

Adam Stinson

Helping college dropouts gain control of their lives through financial education. Go to www.adamkstinson.com for a field guide to non-traditional success.

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