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'. 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
(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. (For instance, now you can mentor someone in the process of finding and keeping mentors!)
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.