Having a mentor is a great way to gain experience and knowledge that's not easy to gain from formal education. Ironically, getting the most out of your mentor doesn't come with a handbook. So we wrote one.
Of course, you may wonder why you need a mentor at all. Simple! You don't know everything. Sorry rebellious youth. The truth is that most people who are just starting out don't really know how to get what they want and even fewer know how to ask for it. Finding a mentor in the field you want to pursue is a great way to learn the necessary skills and career paths you need.
Identify Someone Who Does What You Want To Do
Choosing the right mentor is the most important part of getting the most from one. A good mentor can teach you how to reach the goals you've set for yourself. So first, ask yourself what you want to do. Want to write a book? Start a business? Learn to code? The best mentor will be one who knows how to do what you want to accomplish (and, ideally, has done it successfully before).
Of course, what you want to accomplish doesn't have to be limited solely to a job. Being a manager is something many people can do. Being a good manager is another thing entirely. A good mentor shouldn't just be one that knows more than you, but one that appeals to you. Try to imagine yourself in the position they're in. If that's an idea you're ok with, move forward. If you dread the idea of becoming the type of person they are, keep looking. Becoming successful and being miserable aren't intrinsically linked.
Decide Your Definition Of "Success" First
"Success" is one of those words that can be deceptively vague. We all talk about it like it's one singular goal. But in truth, the definition of success varies so widely from person to person that your success might be unrecognisable to someone else. When you're learning from a mentor, identify what it is you want to succeed in. Then learn what your mentor pursued and, if your goals line up with theirs, learn how they got there.
As an example, here are just a few separate areas where one can achieve success that are, more or less, mutually exclusive:
- Money: Obviously, making enough money to provide for yourself and family is a goal most of us share. How much money defines success, however, can vary from person to person.
- Recognition: Some people may live their whole lives making decent money and never being recognised for it. My grandfather, as an example, worked as a postman for decades and provided for his family. That job, however, isn't a glamorous one.
- Creative control: Turning your own ideas into a reality is very different from working on someone else's. An animator who works on a large-scale movie will be one of a hundred people working on the same vision (they're usually the ones in a giant block of names). But a webcomic artist can work on a smaller project with direct control.
- Company culture: Anyone who's ever worked in a company they believe can attest that being part of a good company culture is its own reward. Working for a small business that's active in the community can be rewarding, while making tons of money for a big corporation you don't believe in can be draining to some.
- Personal life: Let's not forget the rest of your life. Meeting a spouse, raising a family, travelling the world, trying new foods, or seeing all the movies you can (hint: I like movies) are all goals that fall outside of work. You can have a fantastic career without ever even touching your personal goals.
You may not even have success in all of these areas (or the many others that likely exist) at the same time. Or at all. When dealing with a mentor, try to understand what areas they found success in and what they pursued. Did they prioritise getting paid over maintaining control? How did they balance their work life with their home life? Are you willing to make the same sacrifices? This is particularly helpful in avoiding their pitfalls.
Make Friends With Their Critics
Whoever you choose to be your mentor, they're not perfect. No one is. Emulating their success is great, but if you can't identify their problems, you may set yourself up to fall into the same holes they will. Everyone has someone willing to point out their flaws. While you don't have to agree with every criticism, it's helpful to know what they are.
Your mentors may be able to tell you about the mistakes they have made and what you can do differently. They will certainly know more details about what went wrong. However, everyone gets blinders about their own mistakes. You can definitely trust your mentor's critics to have a better memory of their mistakes.
We've talked before about how to accept criticism without taking it personally, and the same applies to your mentors. If someone says something critical about someone you look up to, ask yourself what parts of the criticism are useful, or turn those criticisms into goals for yourself. Maybe your mentor doesn't want to work on becoming more social or more organised. That doesn't mean you can't! Remember, you're not trying to become a copy of your mentor. You want to be a better version.
Compare (And Contrast) Their Personality With Your Own
Your mentor is not you. They may be in the same field and you may have a lot in common, but that doesn't mean you have identical personalities. You may be outgoing while your mentor is reserved. You may be better at creative thinking while they're better at being logical. These aren't just personality differences. They're a chance for you to differentiate yourself from your mentor while simultaneously strengthening your weaknesses.
In fact, some "bad" habits can be actually be good. Your mentor may be a great person, but don't be afraid to make different choices or approach things differently. As business blog HBR points out, mentors like to point you down the path they took. When you deviate from that, they may disapprove or dislike your choices. This doesn't make them a bad person, but it can hinder you if they try to craft you too much in their own image:
Piles of research on "social similarity" or "similarity-attraction" effects suggest that most mentors will have a positive reaction to paths you take that are reminiscent of their own and a negative reaction to paths that clash with their past choices. So if your mentor spent a year working in, say, China as part of his or her career and you are about to turn down a similar opportunity, don't be surprised if he or she sees it as a mistake.
Some mentors like to turn their pupils into carbon copies of themselves. Whether it's driven by ego, a lack of alternative experience, or just laziness, mentors can still fall into the trap of assuming their own way is the only way. It's OK to learn what makes them them, so long as you don't lose what makes you you.
Aim To Be As Good As, But Not Identical, To Them
The flip side to this, of course, is that you shouldn't be tempted to become just like your mentor. It's not uncommon to idolise someone you look up to. However, your company, industry, or family doesn't need another one copy of your mentor. They already exist. What they need is a different person who is also skilled. Someone who can provide different, possibly better ideas with the same skill your mentor has. To put it another way, the world doesn't need a million Steve Jobs.
Part of this means being unafraid to disagree with your mentor. Assuming you're always correct is a quick way to make them dislike you. However, challenging their ideas and asking why is a healthy way to learn. It also shows you can think for yourself. That's not only a valuable skill to your mentor, but to potential employers or partners as well.
Most of us don't just have one mentor or role model, either. We have parents, teachers, bosses, colleagues, and even people we observe from a distance to learn from. The goal, ideally, is not to become a duplicate of any one of these people, but rather to be a combination of their best traits. Your goals are your own and your situation is different from theirs. Gather what experience you can from those that have come before you and use it to build something uniquely your own.