After getting a million earnest but confused emails about it, I thought I had the perfect idea for a course or program I could teach. Since I’ve had success with it in my own life, I thought, why not teach teach people how to find mentors, how to successfully apprentice under one to learn a skill or craft and then, ideally, how to return the favor to other people down the line.
Of course, I ran the idea by a friend who is much more successful than me and has an enormous business coaching people about finance, negotiation and stuff like that. He pointed out the obvious flaw in my concept: “Ryan,” he said, “you’re picking a market who by definition can’t really afford to pay for it. You should just give the stuff away for free.”
He’s right. So below are some thoughts on mentorships–why its the future of learning, the surest path to success and skills, how to find the right one, how to keep it and how to make the most of it.
Before I get into it, I want to thank all the people who have mentored me (they know who they are), but they taught me how to think, taught me how to create my first book, got me my other book deals, walked me through my jobs, helped me when I messed up, showed me how to be a man and generally gave me tons of their valuable time when I asked for it. I hope I’ve made it worth their while.
– Because you were lied to. School is important, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also become a massive shell game. The class of 2013 graduated with an average of $35,000 in student loan debt. And yet…the majority of college graduates have to move back in with their parents. Underemployment for grads is nearly 20%. College grads working minimum wage jobs is up 70% in the last decade. In other words, you paid all that money and now it turns out that you’re not even qualified to start in the field you supposedly credentialed for.
– On top of that, what about all the people who want to do things in fields that didn’t exist a few years ago? Where exactly were you supposed to pick up those skills?
– In other words, school didn’t teach you the shit you actually need (and this is true even if you’re a doctor). If you’re lucky, you learned how to learn. That will help you because now your education is about to actually start. Do you want to learn this on your own by trial and error or would you like some help?
– The good news is that there are really smart people out there, who have been where you’ve been and they can help. This is the answer, mentors are in many ways the solution to the mess we are in.
– Your time is worthless. I find the recent lawsuits over unpaid internships interesting. To me, the people who filed such lawsuits have made one of two bad assumptions: A) Because of your helicopter parents you’ve wrongly concluded that your time–as an untrained college student no less–is worth something in an economy where people with decades of experience are willing to accept entry level work again . B) You think the point of an internship is a few dollars here and there (rather than skills and access). Newsflash: If you’re not learning anything it’s your fault. For instance, three of the interns worked at Gawker–I can think of a million lessons they should have picked up, the most priceless should have been about what kind of person NOT to be and what a miserable job the blogging grind is.
– You will get ahead much faster when you have a successful person vested in and a party to your success. I am a big proponent of Charlie Hoehn’s concept of Free Work. You should check it out if you’re still in school or just getting started.
– There is a reason that apprenticeships have been directly related with mastery for centuries. “Go directly to the seat of knowledge,” Marcus Aurelius admonished. Michael Faraday, Carl Jung, Glenn Gould, Ben Franklin, Martha Graham, Freddie Roach–all had a mentor in one form or another. (A good portion of Robert Greene’s book Mastery is dedicated to this exact topic.)
– Having a mentor is rewarding and meaningful. My mentors did far more than help me get ahead in my career. They gave me a model for how to live. They gave me productive outlets for my energy and helped me through difficult situations I would have otherwise been utterly incapable of navigating.
– I’m using the word “Mentor” in this article because I am using a general term to describe a flexible and often informal relationship that can vary from person to person and field to field. You, as you are looking for a mentorship, almost never ever use this word. Don’t ask anyone to be your mentor, don’t talk about mentorships, just leave the word alone. No one goes out and straight up asks someone they’re attracted to be their boyfriend of girlfriend–that’s a label that’s eventually applied to something that develops over time. A mentorship is the same way, it’s a dance, not a contractual agreement.
– To quote Sheryl Sandberg: “We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel,’ Instead we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’”
– What I mean by all this is start slow and start small. Ask someone you think you can learn from a question that you’d benefit from having answered. Take it from there… gradually for godsakes. If you email a total stranger to ask them to commit to give you hours of their time over a period of years and demand that this gift is to be called a “mentorship,” you’re going to be disappointed.
– Also in terms of starting small: Richard Branson is not going to mentor you. Don’t pick [insert famous, incredibly wealthy, genius person] and swing for the fences. Because you will strike out and it will hurt. Work your way up.
In this regard, I picked up an interesting thought from Tim Ferriss: when he was researching for his fitness book The 4-Hour Chef he reached out to the world’s second best athletes. The thinking was that these guys and gals don’t get always get the respect they deserve AND they may have actually spent more time studying the champions than the champions themselves. Feel free to apply this logic in your own search.
– Oh yeah, let’s get something out of the way. Very rarely does anyone else help anyone else out for genuinely altruistic reasons. So think about how you can help them out, and let that define how you act and think. Unless someone’s mentor is a blood relative, they took that interest in large part because there was an interest in it for them. Having a whiz kid or a protege around is good for business, that’s why they’re doing it.
– That is, bring something to the table. Anything. Quid pro quo. Even if it’s just energy. Even if it’s just thanks. You cannot ask and ask and not expect to give anything in return. The bigger the payoff you can offer, the longer they’ll take you under their wing. Figure out what you can offer and actually give it. Here’s a freebie: Find articles and books that relate to their field and pass on a recommendation and then they won’t have to waste their time searching.
– How do you find the right mentor for you? You’re asking me this question? C’mon man, you have to know who the leaders and innovators and talented people in your chosen field are. If you don’t, then you’re not ready for a mentorship yet. If you don’t know what your chosen field is, you’re not ready yet either.
– Don’t be presumptuous. Whatever you’re asking for, it’s probably too much, so scale it back. If it’s a question they’ll answer it. If it’s “Will you sit and listen to my life story?” you’ve crossed the line. Always remember that there is a reason they’ve had the success they’ve had and you haven’t, and let that dictate the terms.
– Take a chance. The costs of emailing or contacting someone you want to learn from are about as close to zero as they’ll ever be. Honestly, what’s the worst that can happen? You come off as someone eager to learn. If they ignore you, you know it’s because they’re too busy doing to talk about. If they’re a dick, then you’ve already learned a valuable lesson.
– Think about how you’d like to be contacted if you were in their shoes. Would you even respond to an email that literally said “I’d like you to be my mentor?” If you have an intelligent question, ask them–and if it’s appropriate, describe your situation. But never, and I repeat never, act like they’re obligated to do anything; because they’re not.
– They took a chance on you. So deliver. Have your shit together. Want it badly. Don’t be crazy. Spot new opportunities, never care about credit. All the “Advice to a Young Man” stuff.
– Unless you’re asking a question, shut up. The point of an accomplishment mentor is not for you to give them your opinion.
– Make use of the access and the opportunities. A good mentor elevates–you get invited to stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have, you meet people who you wouldn’t have otherwise, you get to work on projects that were previously out of your reach. Rack up as much of this as you can. It’s worth more than money, manyfold.
– Bring outside information in. That is, this mentor is not now solely responsible for your education, well-being or success. You better be out there reading, experimenting and connecting with other people–so you can bring that perspective to your mentor and bounce it off them and learn how to make use of it.
– The mentor cannot want this for you more than you want this for yourself. You better show up every day fucking hungry and dedicated and eager to learn.
– What do you want to get out of this? What’s your grand strategy? If you don’t have the answer to that question, it’s going to be hard to really get the most of this connection you’ve formed. As you’re working for or with someone else, you need to be working towards where you want to go.
– In other words, you worked for free or put in all this time and energy to learn these skills. Now you’ve got to make use of it.
– Stay in the picture. You are easily forgotten by busy people, remember that. The key then is to find ways to stay relevant and fresh. Drop emails and questions at an interval that straddles the fine line between bothersome and buzzworthy. It’s easier to keep something alive than it is to revive the deceased…but it’s on you to keep the blood flowing, not the mentor.
– Your personal life is irrelevant. No one cares what’s going on with you, until they do. But before then, it’s on you to handle that shit by yourself, privately. (“If you need to cry, go outside,” etc. etc.)
– Apologize. When you screw up (and you’re going to screw up a lot), more likely than not, you’ll realize you did it immediately after saying or emailing it. Don’t wait for their reprisal, or the token period of silence. They’ll forgive your errors (within reason) if you indicate a propensity for identifying them. I know when I’ve crossed the line and you probably too. Reproach can be softened by mutual understanding.
– Pay it forward. You don’t pay a mentor back by helping them. You pay them back by moving on and being successful (which reflects well on them) and then returning the favor to someone who is in the position you were once in.
I’m sure there are a million more tactics that I’m forgetting. But that’s OK because a large part of this is going to be learning by experience. Sometimes you have to touch the stove to know it’s hot, I get that. The point is to reduce the chance of making fatal mistakes, or of missing out on once in a lifetime opportunities.
It’s not enough to want a mentor or even to be lucky enough to find one. It’s a relationship that requires investment, energy and clear goals and intentions. But if you do it right, it can change your life.
Finally, if this all sounds like a lot of work…well, it is. It’s a lot of work for both parties. (In fact, this is why I am extremely sketched out when I hear people take on these things so lightly).
Note: Please don’t email me immediately after this about mentoring. It means you didn’t read (or understand) the post.