You Don’t Need a “Mentor”, Do This Instead (with step-by-step instructions)

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When I was in college, I asked one of my professors to be my mentor. It felt important for me to find a mentor.

He said he couldn’t do that. He only mentors his teaching assistants. But we could get breakfast every other week or so.

I was bummed. I really wanted a mentor, and it took a lot of courage for me to ask.

In spite of my disappointment, I accepted his breakfast offer. We met nearly every other week over the course of a year. He even had me over to his house a few times.

For the past decade, we’ve stayed connected. We don’t keep up regularly, but I know I could call him if I needed something.

Everyone wants a mentor. The desire for older guidance and wisdom runs deep. It’s almost primal. The Hero’s Journey speaks to this: As the hero leaves the known and enters into the unknown, she meets a mentor who helps her face the challenges of her quest.

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Mentors help us navigate the unknowns of life and work.

But mentors rarely ever look the way we think they should.

Most of us picture mentors offering dedicated one-on-one time. We think of a mentor as some sort of formalized relationship with a close friend who is older and more experienced than we are.

That’s what I thought it meant when I asked that professor to be my mentor. And that’s also how he seemed to think about it as well.

But now I’m in my mid-thirties and have never had that kind of formal mentor.

I could feel sad about this and lament that I’m not worthy of mentorship. I could also feel angry about it and defiantly say that I don’t need a mentor and that I’ll show everyone what I can do without a mentor.

Or I can realize the places in my life where there have been kind and generous voices helping me take the next step.

The truth is that though I’ve never had a capital “M” formal mentor, I’ve had many mentors. Though it has never looked the way I thought it should, I’ve had many experienced people who I have learned from at different moments in my life.

Though that professor back in college may have had some students that he had a formal mentor relationship with, when I think about the relationship that we had, it has many of the characteristics of a mentor relationship.

Characteristics of a Mentoring Relationship

There are a few characteristics of a mentoring relationship. Most mentor relationships will possess some of these attributes and few will have all of them. It’s helpful to think through this list and see what is true of your relationships.

  • Mentors are more experienced.
    This almost goes without saying. It’s the basis of the relationship. A mentor is someone who is further down the path. They are often older than you, but not always.
  • Mentors teach you something.
    More than just experience, a mentor offers you wisdom and guidance. A mentor is someone who helps you navigate places you’ve haven’t been before in your life and career.
  • Mentors are available.
    There are moments when you need guidance, and a mentor is someone you can turn to in those moments.  It usually comes in small doses — a few minutes here and there, and in seasons— a handful of conversations during a time when you need help with something specific.
  • Mentors are invested in you.
    Finally, a mentor is someone who wants to see you succeed. She’s in your corner rooting for you.

I’ve Never Had a Mentor

Notice what’s not on the list: any sort of formalized relationship or close friend status—which is exactly how most people define a mentor.  There is nothing wrong with a formalized close relationship, but they’re incredibly rare and usually unnecessary. In fact, if that’s what you’re looking for in a mentor, you will miss most mentorship opportunities.

It would be easy for me to say that I’ve never had a mentor because I’ve never had this type of formal relationship. And that would be true.

But it’s also true that if I expand my definition to include the list of characteristics above, I’ve had more mentors than I can count.

I want to invite you to expand the way you think about yourself, your life, and your mentors.

Instead of a mentor being a singular person who invests in you deeply, your mentors are all the people from whom you learn.

Instead of one relationship that is an inch wide and a mile deep, think about the many relationships that offer a mile of breadth, even though some may only be an inch deep.

In fact, having more mentors is more healthy than a just few. I have people in my life from whom I’d ask questions about business but not parenting, finances but not creativity, emotional health but not career-change, etc. No single person is an expert in all areas of life. By having many mentors, you have the opportunity to play to their strengths.

Instead of trying to find a mentor to be your one-and-only mentor, find people to learn from in smaller ways— which is much more realistic and manageable.

In fact, you likely already have some mentors in place.

Who are Your Mentors?

My mentors include friends, business people from many different contexts (co-working spaces, friend groups, church, etc.), therapists, professors, coaches, authors, podcasters, bloggers, friend’s parents, past managers, and even my old landlord.

Who are yours?

Four Categories of Mentors

You can think about mentors in four categories:

  • Mentors you know personally
    This is the typical type of mentor— someone you can call on the phone, have coffee with, or ask for a few minutes from now and then. Some of the work of finding mentors is expanding your network to include more people that you know personally.
  • Mentors you don’t know personally
    This is the broadest definition of mentorship, but we shouldn’t ignore it. You can learn so much from people you haven’t met. There are some authors, bloggers, and podcasters who have shaped the way I think about the world and I’ve never met them.Who are the mentors you’ve never met?
  • Mentors that you work for and with
    Work is a great context for mentorship. You learn so much from someone when you’re working with and for them.I have a couple friends who use this idea to guide their career. At every junction, they ask, “Who is doing something interesting and how can I work with or for them?”I’ve learned so much about management and business operations from the bosses I’ve had (some more than others). When you spend 40 hours a week with someone, you have the chance to learn a lot from the people around you.
  • Mentors that you pay
    Yes. You can pay your mentors. In fact, if you’re trying to do something at a high level, you should pay your mentors.

In the photography world, this is well understood. Many established photographers offer “Mentor Sessions” and workshops where you can learn how they work and ask them questions.

Similarly, top athletes pay their coaches. Business executives pay their consultants. Businesses pay their boards of directors.

It’s ok to pay for the guidance that you need. If it’s a coach, pay for a coach. If it’s a therapist, pay for a therapist. If it’s a class with an educator that you want to learn from, pay for that class.

These people fit all of the requirements: they’re experienced, they can teach you, they’re available, they’re invested in your success (which is why you’re paying them).

Try this, search online for whatever it is that you’re trying to do and the world coach. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find.

How to Find a Mentor (step-by-step)

how to find a mentor - step-by-step

The most important rule when it comes to finding a mentor is this: don’t make it weird.

Too often the desire to find a mentor comes from a sense of fear or insecurity that we have. We want a mentor to do something that no person can do— solve all our uncertainty, doubt, and fear.

We want someone to help us, care for us, and even parent us.

Hear me out: this a good desire. It speaks to the parts of ourselves that are young. By that, I mean unpracticed, undeveloped, or simply vulnerable. We want a mentor who will care for us the way a good parent does. Hopefully, you were parented well and can know what that feels like. But many of us have gaps in that experience because no parent is perfect.

If you approach a stranger with all your desire and hopes for someone to hold your hand and guide you, you’ll come across too strong.

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Temper all of that and try this process instead:

Step 1: Set realistic expectations for yourself

So the first step to finding a mentor is to spend some time with your desire for one and understand what that’s about. You shouldn’t go into the relationship with the expectation that the other person can or will fix you (which sounds like a good motto for all relationships!).

Step 2: Determine what you’re looking for

Next, it’s good to understand what you’re looking for. What specific thing are you trying to solve? What do you need help with?

Then think about who in your network has some expertise in that field.

Step 3: Connect

This is very important: once you have identified someone, do NOT ask them to be your mentor. Instead, ask them to connect. Keep it very informal. Come with some questions, and have a nice conversation.

Step 4: Follow-up

Afterward, follow up and say thank you. If you have more questions to ask around the topic you’re exploring, consider connecting again in a few weeks for a follow-up conversation.

Step 5: Keep it organic

From here, you need to let the relationship continue with organic intentionality.

What’s important is that you don’t make it weird (remember rule #1!). People are busy! Don’t ask them to be your best friend. Don’t invite them to your birthday party or suggest you go on vacation together! That’s too much, too soon. Just try to be a friend. Try to be helpful to them if there’s any way you can be.

Final Thoughts and a Challenge

If you’re still reading, first— thanks. That was a lot! And second, I hope you’ve had some breakthroughs. By now, you may have realized two things:
1) You have more mentors than you thought you did.
2) There are plenty of opportunities for more mentors in your life.

Expanding the definition of a mentor has been very freeing in my life. It allows me to recognize how many great people I’ve had in my life over the years and all the ways that they have taught me. It helps me see that while I don’t have a singular capital “M” mentor, I have many great relationships that I can turn to when I need them. It invites me to lean into and leverage the connections that I have rather than lamenting the ones I do not.

One final challenge before you go: if you take mentorship seriously you should be thinking about the ways you mentor others. You cannot expect mentors to give to you unless you are mentoring others. Pay it forward.

I’d like to hear from you, what kinds of mentor relationships do you have? How did you begin those relationships? What have you learned from them?

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 7 Comments On This Post.

  1. Sam Semako

    One thing that stood out for me here is: DON’T MAKE IT WEIRD!

    Apart from that I see that we can expand mentoring beyond the TRADITIONAL concept of mentoring.

    And I love your approach to mentoring.

    • Thanks Sam! Glad it resonates. One interesting fact that I found since I wrote this article is that studies show that traditional Mentoring (with a capitol M) has an extremely low success rate— adding more reason to approach the idea unconventionally.

  2. Distinct Clothiet

    One thing that stood out for me is that it can be informal.
    In addition to that, I learnt that mentoring could come in many ways and form.

    • Yes. I’m curious if you have any informal mentors? How are you putting this into action in your life?

  3. Dan,
    I find the best mentors are those who help you succeed without you even asking for their help. One of my best mentors was an older military man who saw the need to right my course and help me get me squared away without me having to ask.

    Online, sure. There’s Steve Pavlina, numerous books I can think of. In the past few years, I have seen countless people searching for self-help, mentors and guru’s online. I find it best to be our best selves, be genuine and allow others to glean insight and positive reflection from all others.
    Learning from others is its own mentorship. If that makes sense?

  4. Brad Hurdle

    Hey Dan,
    I enjoyed listening to you this morning on the way to work on Jeff Goins podcast. It led me to your blog. And thank you for a great post on mentoring. Like you, I think I’ve spent the majority of my adult years wishing that I had been fortunate enough to have that ONE Mentor. You made me realize that I have been stuck in the traditional view of mentoring and, in reality, I’ve had many mentors throughout my life. And also, whether I’ve realized it or not, I’ve had the privilege to mentor many others. Like you said, pay it forward! Generosity always has a boomerang effect. Thanks!

  5. What i like in your post is that about more than one mentors idea..Really mentors can be anyone include my friends,seniors,my professors even my landlord..!!
    And how you describe the process of finding a mentor step by step is impressive.
    I also like the concept of “don’t make it weird”..

    After reading your post the first thing that come to my mind is that i also have numerous mentors..!! Bcz in my whole life i have learned many things from many people even not always they were my seniors.

    Thanks Dan for sharing this post..

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