The Marvelous Mentor Mindset and How It Can Help You Succeed

How important are mentors? Let’s just say that everyone I’ve ever met who was stuck in their life or career was severely under-mentored. In olden days, mentoring was probably more of an automatic process: you grew up working alongside your parents on the farm, or apprenticed with a craftsperson or local business owner. These days, you often have to work a little harder to find mentors.

Mentoring is generally a more expansive, less-structured form of teaching in which you gain not just knowledge, but wisdom and perspective. Mentors are particularly useful for life and career planning, and for guiding you through complex projects that would be hard to learn solely through books: for instance, art, science and entrepreneurship. Mentors are also often well connected, and use their connections to help their mentees. A single phone call from a mentor may be all it takes to get you a new job or a new customer for your business. Small wonder that proper mentoring can take years or even decades off the time it takes you to succeed at your goals – or spell the difference between success and failure.

Ideally, you should have at least one mentor for every important area in your life, including not just your career but marriage/partnership, parenting, health and fitness, personal finance, and any passionate avocations like art or political activism. You can also have mentors for life’s smaller challenges. Your brother-in-law the rabid GQ reader could mentor you on fashion and grooming. Or, your neighbor with the green thumb could mentor you in your quest to grow an organic garden.

Many under-mentored people assume that mentors are in short supply, and also that potential mentors would be unwilling to work with them. Not so! Mentors are everywhere, and many are glad to help. Here are some tips on finding and working with mentors.

(1) Start Small. Mentors tend to be busy people who get asked for help a lot, sometimes by people who are not serious or focused. Therefore, when approaching a potential mentor, make sure she (or he) understands that you are one of the serious ones by making a specific, focused, personalized and reasonable request, such as, “Your recent article on how to gain consensus within diverse communities was amazing. I’m working on a project to bring vegetarian meals to our diverse school district and am running into resistance from different groups of parents. Would you be willing to talk with me for 5 or 10 minutes at your convenience on how I could get them on board?”

Note that the asker does not ask the listener to “be my mentor,” or even use the word “mentor.” What you’re asking for right now is a favor, not a relationship: if the relationship is destined to develop, it will. Don’t force it.

Many people will respond positively to such a request – including some whom you might think too busy or famous. Of course, others won’t. If you get rejected by a potential mentor, don’t take it to heart – go right out and ask someone else.

If your initial conversation goes well, there’s a good chance the person will invite you to stay in touch or come back with other questions. Now you have the beginnings of a mentor relationship.

(2) Always Be Professional. When calling or visiting a mentor, be prompt, prepared and focused. Don’t go past the agreed-on time – although, if the mentor is enjoying the conversation, she might, which is fine. In your discussion, focus on problem-solving, rather than on how miserable the problem is making you feel. Later on, send a sincere and heartfelt (but not gushy) thank you note.

(3) Always Ask the Key Question. Sometime during every discussion with a mentor, you should ask something like, “Do you know of anyone else who might be able to advise me on this situation?” And then, of course, follow through. This will help you build your mentor network.

(4) Stay in Touch. If you contact your mentors only when you need help they will probably feel used. Instead, contact them every few months just to let them know how things are going, and especially to share any relevant good news.

(5) Reciprocate! Mentoring should be a two-way street. Even mentors who are very successful appreciate – and expect – return value. Sometimes, it can be hard to see what you can usefully offer a more-successful mentor. But every mentor appreciates receiving useful articles or other information they might have missed, or an offer of help when their own schedules get crowded

And, finally…

(6) Mentor! Yes, YOU should be a mentor. First, because it’s good karma to give back, and, second, because mentoring fosters your own growth and success. (Now you know why so many successful people do it!) Mentoring freshens your outlook, sharpens your strengths and skills, and exposes you to new people and viewpoints. So get out there and find a junior colleague, student, or someone else to mentor.

Think you don’t know enough to be a mentor? Think again: I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have valuable wisdom or experience to impart.

So, go forth and be mentored – and mentor! Mentoring is a precious relationship, and a marvelously compassionate and productive mindset, so let’s all work together to build a world where we’re all mentoring each other to learn, grow and be happy.


  1. Brianna says:

    Thanks for your tips. I like the specific instruction on how to ask someone to sit down and speak with you–I have tried similar approaches, but have not succeeded in keeping mentors. I tried recently to garner mentoring support from two professors in a grad program where my advisor was pretty much either completely absent (for weeks or even months) but then would come back into town and harangue me about my lack of progress (even when I had made substantial progress he acted as if I was not doing anything). He never agreed to any of my research ideas, and even though it was a PhD project he told me what he wanted me to do instead of letting me develop complementary objectives on top of the originally specified ones (the former is very important for professional development so I kept trying to get his approval even though experts in the field had informed me that the objectives he was insisting I do research for were not scientifically sound (some weren’t even possible) and could lead to a failed project).
    At any rate, I was feeling very frustrated. I decided that I should utilize the resources at the university and bounce some ideas off of a few other profs in the program to make sure I was looking at my advisor’s chosen objectives from all angles. When I told my advisor, in a sort of progress update, about my meetings with other profs and the brainstorming I had done, he became angry. When he found out that one of the profs reviewed a pre-proposal I had put together he acted as if I had acted completely inappropriately. Then he had meetings (that I found out about later) with that prof and another one on my doctoral committee. Shortly thereafter, my advisor resigned as my advisor and sent a fairly damning email about me to my entire committee, the Associate Provost and the acting director of my grad program saying essentially that he had to resign as my advisor because I was such a poor student. I hoped the relationships I had formed with the other two profs might help me, but the one couldn’t take me on as a student and the other started saying “Dr. So and So is my friend” when I asked to meet with him. I guess he didn’t know that my former advisor had bad-mouthed him and I wasn’t about to bring that up. I was forced out of the grad program since no other prof would take me on–they claimed many reasons why they could not (no funding, young prof so can’t take risks, old prof and looking to retire, their labs were already too full of grad students, etc.). The program apparently had no responsibility to me even though I was accepted into the program and had done my best to progress professionally.
    Sorry, that is a long-winded way of asking, what do I do about the profs I tried to cultivate a professional relationship with? You are correct in saying that mentoring is not a priority even for those who have it in their job description–such as profs. My field is relatively small–in terms of influential contacts and I am about to be unemployed, but despite follow up emails and attempts to schedule meetings, the profs aren’t helping me. Most are uncomfortable at best if I see them around town. My family is telling me not to burn bridges and to try to develop a friendship with the profs who are no longer engaging with me, but I think perhaps that may not be possible. I found out recently that my former advisor has been badmouthing me to his new grad student who is telling other people in the program that I was a crap student and have a lot of issues that almost ruined the project. Other profs have claimed that his assessment of me had nothing to do with their inability to take me on a student, but I can’t help thinking it had some effect.
    Some professional advice on how to deal with others who know my former advisor and still be able to find mentors among them would be very appreciated. I am sure you are busy and probably charge for this type of info so I totally understand if you do not respond. Thanks for your time though and again, thanks for your article. I wish more people would focus on the importance of mentoring–it is one of the reasons why I wanted to get my PhD (so that I could become a professor, continue research AND mentor students). Most profs see mentoring as a necessary evil that they do as quickly once or twice a year as they can and then go back to doing their research or attending conferences and getting publications ready. I truly wish that if they have no desire (and even dislike) to mentor, they would not become profs. It can be so detrimental to students and yet there are few or no ramifications for them. Ugh. Sorry, so frustrated. Thanks again!

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