There is an open secret that nobody talks about, but that everyone knows. There are shortcuts in life. And I don’t mean random life hacks here or there. Like putting two straws together to make a longer one. Or removing the middle bun of a Big Mac burger. Those are nice, but don’t really move the needle.
I’m talking serious wisdom about heavy stuff. Like how to move up in your career. Or how to find a board member to guide your startup. And even what to do when you’re about to become a husband/father/wife/mother. Perhaps even how to deal with the loss of a loved one or the disintegration of a relationship, romantic or otherwise.
Believe it or not, whatever you are going through — no matter how seemingly specific — is not unique to you. I know this is a tough thing to accept. Because we are all the stars of our own life, it may feel like our hardships or milestones are somehow categorically common to all mankind, but situationally unique to ourselves. But I’m here to tell you that the specificities don’t matter. It’s the shared experience that does.
And that’s good thing.
Because it means that there is someone out there who has gone through what you have. Be it a positive potential opportunity for which you may be underprepared, a neutral but unfamiliar stage in life, or a negative and painful event, you can usually find someone who can shine a guiding light.
That person(s) is your mentor. She or he can help you through this wonderful winding journey called life.
The Ideal Mentor
In my humble opinion, there are a few core characteristics of any strong mentor. You can have one or you can have multiple. Not every person is good at everything, so you should diversify the guidance you receive from multiple people with varied backgrounds, histories, and experiences. Here are the common traits I have discerned from my group of top six mentors:
- They are active listeners. A top mentor will tolerate your complaints not because they like it, but because in their effort to help you, they will bear it to extract the core issue lying underneath your word vomit. This person is so good that they know your problem before you finish whining. And they have the patience and generosity to let you finish.
- They are brutally clear. A strong mentor will cut out bullshit from their advice to you. You won’t hear a lot of nice qualifying statements, followed by a big fat “but…”. Rather, they’ll pinpoint the heart of the matter with sharp and concise communication. They treat you like an adult, so they won’t sugar coat anything. That means they respect you. If you are messing up, they will tell you without hesitation. But it doesn’t mean they are rude or unkind. They’re objective, to a fault.
- They are hyper specific. A capable mentor often gives you a list of action items. They won’t give you a lot of theory. They’ll say, “Do the following, in the following order…” or “Here’s a strategy with a set of must-do’s.”. A good mentor doesn’t give you high-level narrative or generalizations. Advice should be actionable, or you might as well read a self-help book. They are likely to be prescriptive, and open about the drawbacks of an action plan. And they leave you to make the final decisions.
- They are honest about their limitations. A great mentor will tell you when they cannot mentor you about a subject. They will say, “I’m sorry, but I’m out of my depth regarding this particular matter. However, I do know someone who can help you.” This is a real mentor. They are not here to doll out garbage advice just to listen to themselves talk. They are humble. They want to help you, and they know when they can’t. But even if they can help you directly, they will make an effort to connect you with someone who can.
- They follow up. The best mentors I’ve had always follow up to see how I’m doing. That means they are really invested in you. They actually care. And you should treat that as the most valuable gift because not only are they giving you time, but they are also allocating mindshare to you. Do NOT take that for granted. If your mentor follows up, you better pick up that call. And you owe them an answer about outcomes. Yes, you really do. Be better — don’t wait for them to follow up. Actively share an update. They will appreciate it. Trust me.
There’s a whole lot more, but these are what I consider the most basic and necessary ingredients. Everything else is bonus. Notice that my list didn’t include things like “rich life experience” or “a big roller” or “super successful” or “holds a high office.” All of the five points listed above are about a good mentor’s actions, not socio-economic status. I hope you are focusing.
How to Find a Mentor
Now that we’ve established some core qualities of mentorship excellence, it’s time to talk about how to find these stellar people. The best way to explain this, is to take a counter-intuitive approach, by telling you what NOT to do:
- Do not go up to someone with the explicit intent of finding a mentor. It doesn’t work that way. Mentoring and being mentored is an organic process that requires you both to invest in a relationship. It doesn’t happen overnight. Both parties need to build trust. That means you need to look for mentors without looking for them, which sounds like nonsense at first. But for me at least, each of my six mentors became mentors to me through some form of mutual or shared experience. So what do you do? You need to focus. Pay attention to people who are already near you and have wisdom. Be humble enough to identify their strengths that complement your weakness. Start there. Then broaden your circle outward over time.
- Do not be surprised if your mentor is younger than you (different from you). It is a common mistake to believe that somehow age, experience, and wisdom go hand-in-hand. Or any other type of stereotype. Avoid these fallacies and biases. Wisdom can be found in anyone regardless of age, creed, race, or gender. You need to look for sages. Not a white-haired old man wearing a robe and wielding a staff. Remember that possessing great advice doesn’t mean that these mentors have to share the exact same experience as you have. Rather, it means that regardless of their experience, they have deduced a commonly useful, applicable, and executable pearl of wisdom.
- Do not be desperate. Sure, to find a good mentor, you must be humble and open minded. But you must also be discerning, meaning you cannot simply accept everyone or anyone as a potential mentor. In other words, don’t be falsely humble or falsely open minded. There are tons of bad advisors out there. Mentorship is a two-way interaction, whether you are mentoring or being mentored. Your mentor is evaluating you, and trying to determine if you are worth their time. You should also be evaluating your mentor, considering if they are able to drop dimes of knowledge on you, or just some bullshitter. There are tons of people who want to be a mentor (in the form of board membership, career supervisors, etc.) because there is personal and financial gain to be had from you as well. Remember — a mentor is looking for a high-potential candidate to be a mentee too. Successful people help each other grow. And a real mentor is also hoping to learn from you through their mentorship of you. It sounds weird, but trust me on this, please.
- Do not pay someone to be your mentor. I’m not saying don’t reward your mentor, because it’s very important to show appreciation for people who are helpful to you. Board members, a type of startup or business mentor, are often offered shares of equity or even symbolic financial rewards. Some of them are mentors. Others are just board members. And there is a difference. What I’m saying is, a real mentor isn’t going to expect compensation by default, because they genuinely believe that your success is also theirs. They find fulfillment in your growth. On your end, you should always figure out a way to demonstrate gratitude, and that doesn’t have to be financial. It can be in the form of being helpful when they are in a jam, or connecting them to other helpful people. It can be in the form of smaller gestures too. When all is said and done, your relationship with your mentor shouldn’t be reduced to a set of transactions.
- Do not assume that someone else’s mentor can necessarily be yours. As a corollary to number 1 and 3 above, you should now understand that finding a mentor is a pretty hard, but achievable task. Most of all, it must take place naturally. It’s also about fit. An advisor for one, can be a disaster for another. And vice versa too. Therefore, you should always determine the mentor-mentee fit based on your personal interaction or experience with a potential mentor.
The Value of Mentorship
Good mentors can be pivotal during major junctures of your life, both personally and professionally. They can steer you clear of disaster, provide prescient views of the future that you can’t see, and heal your soul (and even your body, depending on the situation) when you’re hurting.
Everyone can find mentors. It’s up to you to cherish the relationships you have, cultivate new ones, and never take for granted the people who can help you. Above all, you must recognize that mentors can be everyday people, who have extraordinary advice. They don’t have to be superheroes or millionaires or big CEOs.
Remember to also pay it forward. Find your own mentees too.