If you’re ever stuck for ideas or advice, and you feel like you can’t find a mentor, here’s how to become your own mentor: Look at everyone else who’s doing a similar thing. Some successful ones, and some failing ones. Find everything they could be doing better. And then don’t tell them. Tell yourself.
Do it positively: Think of every cool idea you want to suggest to these people, everything you’d pitch them if they let you contribute. Blue-sky thinking, upgrades to their current routines, every way they could grow and evolve and mature and really shine.
Do it negatively: Notice every stupid mistake, every misstep, every false assumption, every time that ego or novelty or razzle-dazzle distracts them from doing their best.
Make a written list. Keep adding things until you’ve got sub-lists, corollaries, multiple examples of every flaw or every opportunity. Don’t get obsessed, but pay attention and write things down. You don’t have to memorise the list.
You can write down the successes and good ideas too, that’s great, you should always be doing that. But you need to track all these missed opportunities. You are, of course, writing this list not for them but for yourself.
Have you ever seen a project launch with a manifesto? It happens a lot in media. Some new site launches and talks a lot about what it will and won’t do. Lifehacker did it with our parenting section, Offspring. When you’re making this list, you’re building your own manifesto. Don’t publish it, but consult it. It’s a list of pieces of advice you’ve given yourself.
This isn’t a substitute for outside advice and wisdom. But it’s a great way to figure out what you value, what ideas get you excited, what you really believe someone like you ought to do.
Sometimes you’ll realise, when applying your list to your own work, that an idea takes way too much time, or that a certain flaw is a necessary evil, or that you can’t do everything perfectly. That’s fine; you’re not the pope, you can be wrong. Good thing you didn’t try to advise those other people and make a fool of yourself, but learned the lesson on your own.
If you do want to discuss your ideas and critiques with others, do it after you’ve already established a relationship, and after you’ve tried similar work yourself. Ask them why they made different choices, and explicitly stress that you trust their judgment, whether or not you would make the same choices. (If you don’t trust their judgment, don’t waste your time and theirs by talking to them. They don’t want a critique from someone who doesn’t even respect their work.)
Their answers will educate you, and hopefully help you improve your self-advice list. And if you present your thoughts this humbly—treating the conversation as a favour they’re doing you—then you might actually end up doing them a favour too.
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