In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, for example, Jerker Denrell of the University of Oxford and Chengwei Liu of the University of Warwick counsel us to model ourselves on solid, second-tier performers, not the flashy types who come in first. The researchers reported on the results of a game played in many rounds. Over time, the most skilled players came to inhabit a second tier of reliable competence. Those who succeeded spectacularly—who took their places in the first tier—were often not the most skilled, but rather were those who got some lucky breaks early on or took big risks that happened to pay off.
Emulating these top performers would probably lead to disappointment, since imitators would be unlikely to replicate their good fortune. Because luck and risk play a dominant role in extraordinary outcomes, Denrell and Liu write, “extreme success or failure are, at best, only weak signals of skill,” and top performers “should not be imitated or praised.” Better, they advise, to learn from individuals “with high, but not exceptional, performance”—those whose success can be attributed to solid skill and not to a rare lightning strike. (from Annie Murphy Paul's Brilliant blog)
Looking back on what I now consider a pretty bad mentor failure from last year--I paid someone a lot of money to help me generate a corporate speaking practice which never materialized--I think the failure happened largely because I hired a top-tier person. I don't know how big a role luck played in his success: most people, and most businesspeople in particular, elide the role of luck when discussing their successes. What I do know is that he had an unusually aggressive, arrogant, and egotistical personality that probably aided his success. Unfortunately, that same personality: (a) was impossible for me to emulate (and I didn't want to), and (b) seriously diminished his usefulness as a mentor. (He was REALLY hard to deal with, and also skimped on providing promised support.)
I will take the responsibility for becoming demotivated after my initial attempts failed, but had he been more approachable and available we might have worked together to create a success. (It's also worth noting that others whom I later consulted questioned his basic approach--which probably brings us back to the "top-tier mentor" problem, since approaches that work for people at the top often don't work for others.)
Was the mentorship, therefore, a complete waste? Absolutely not. (And dichotomizing--e.g., "fabulous value" versus "complete waste" is perfectionist.) It clarified my thinking and improved my communications style a lot by making it more customer-focused.
Were those benefits worth the $14,500* I paid? Probably not. I suspect I could have learned as much or more--with a lot less angst--from someone cheaper and less obnoxious. This year, for instance, I paid a mere $345 for a subscription to Copyblogger, and have been getting terrific value from it, perhaps because it is helping me build one of my core strengths, writing.
As you can tell from the fact that I did join Copyblogger, I didn't let the bad mentorship experience prevent me from seeking out new mentors. Why would I, when it's one of the most empowered and success-catalyzing things you can do?
*I am being up-front about the $14,500 expense in case you happen to be regretting any investments you've made that didn't pan out. $14,500 was a ton of money for me, and I actually spent another $4,000, and countless hours, implementing his suggestions. These were huge losses, but dwelling on them would be meaningless and counterproductive. Instead I focus on what I gained, and what I can do better in the future; and I suggest you do the same concerning any losses you may be regretting.
See also: How to Find and Keep a Mentor