I’ve pestered my family and close friends this week with a series of questions about mentorship.
What mentors have you had in the past, if any? How have they helped you? What would your ideal mentoring relationship be?
I got to thinking about this while researching tech and social entrepreneurship incubators. There was a noticeable trend with the most popular and successful ones like Y-Combinator and The Unreasonable Institute (success arbitrarily determined by yours truly through amount of capital, impact of the companies/entrepreneurs, and general image). Aside from having the common ability to raise a large amount of funding and form relationships with influential investors, they were all mentorship-focused.
By matching seasoned professionals with budding entrepreneurs, passion and talent are guided in the right direction with business acumen and a wider network of connections, allowing great ideas to be catapulted into life-changing results.
Entrepreneur or not, everyone has mentors. Or so I thought. It all depends on how you define ‘mentor’. Here are some responses from family and friends on the topic.
Some are expected-
“In an ideal mentor I usually look for experience…he/she should possibly have lived in first person what I’m going through in a specific moment. They should be someone that really believes in what they are doing, with all their heart, and that manages to show me their values not only with words but with their good example.“
“I think the most pressing thing you could ever ask one (a mentor) is not why did you do it…but how did you BRING yourself to? It’s so easy to go along and get swept away, but a truly valuable mentor would be able to show a protege, or at least inspire a protege towards, the way to find their own path…I like to think I know what choice I’ll make, but there’s always a nagging doubt, because I haven’t passed that moment yet–will I have what it takes? I think the most important thing a mentor could do…would be to show the protege that yes, when the time comes, they’ll have what it takes.“
“I’ve personally benefited from mentors myself so I believe in its power. I can guarantee you, there is absolutely no way I would have gotten my job without their help. I didn’t have the right attitude nor the networking know-how. I didn’t even know what to ask. So they straight up told me what I was supposed to do. They aren’t lifetime mentors, but they helped me get to the next stage.”
“He (mentor) always gives me his input as his advice only and so at the end of the day, it’s my decision to make. He’s always told me to make my own decisions and live with it. I haven’t followed all of his advice, I do live with my decisions, and (he) is not pleased nor displeased on whatever decision I make. “
“Though there are many famous people I respect, the people I admire most are the ones I love. It is those people in my life, that I believe push me to be my very best and help me dream of things that never were…My dream mentor would embody the beautiful qualities of the people I love and respect.“
“I’ve signed up for “mentorship programs” in school with little success. A mentorship has to feel genuine and natural for it to work…But I think I have a million mentors, really. I get help and guidance from fellow travelers, from friends, from teachers, from professionals, from Facebook folks, from blog readers. When I’m looking for some inspiration and guidance, I like to watch TED talks, commencement speeches…”
“For new things and ideas, whoever is one step ahead or one day ahead or one idea ahead can be a mentor in disguise…A solid foundation in critical thinking, a basic college education and an inquiring mind are necessary for a meaningful mentorship.”
“Over time what I am interested in is wisdom, not necessarily someone’s success story or statistical impact with their products…I think wisdom can be absorbed, but skills/tactics/examples are merely entertaining….I think the best mentors are good books that are full of wisdom, and a good amount of self-reflection. I think it’s unrealistic to rely on another person to mentor you through your own problems, and would be cautious of anyone readily offering advice. But it does seem clear that most wise people have suggested the same: learn from the greats (books), and learn through your own experience.“
Clearly a wide view of what constitutes ‘mentoring’. As for myself, I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors, though I haven’t always called them by the name.
My first mentors were my older sisters, Emily and Wendy. They remain to this day a strong influence, though their advice was probably more helpful during my pre-college and early college days when we were growing up together. Still, I cannot think of any major life decision I’ve made where I haven’t gone to them for advice and benefited. I will continue to do so for their honesty. Their 6 and 7-year edge in experience, plus familiarity with my youthful idealism, also allows them to be quickly alerted to aspects of a decision I may not consider. (that’s what knowing someone for 22 years does!) For that, I’m thankful yet also aware that these familial relationships are unique and not easily replicated in the ‘professional’ part of the world.
Some mentorships are more formalized, and I’ve found this in Dr. Mona Khanna. She was assigned my official journalism mentor through Asian American Journalists Association when I covered the convention as a reporter. Since then, we’ve kept in regular contact. She has served as an invaluable asset in terms of connections, networking strategy, and tightening my appearance for broadcast. While that world may no longer be the life I’m seeking, the lessons she’s taught me in professionalism will be of use wherever I land. Case in point: just yesterday, she gave me quick pointers on email etiquette with my last job-related email…
On the creative exploratory side, there’s Quang (far left, at our launch of GamedayTap. He’s an extremely under-the-radar person. This is the only relevant photo of him that I could find despite a huge online presence). The interest I show in entrepreneurship, tech, startups, social media, and multimedia I owe largely to him. This blog? All his urging. Our relationship began with a serendipitous meeting my freshman year of college, followed by me asking a couple questions about his projects, which led to him actively nudging me to experiment with blogging and tweeting before they became everyone’s favorite outlet. We built CampusTweet.TV together, the biggest lesson for me in website and community building. This was followed by GamedayTap, an online stream all about the Gator tailgate experience which pushed me into the realm of sports and fun feature roles I would have never explored on my own. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from him. He’s pushed me to experiment and fail which is still something I’m trying to actively practice- I hope he will continue to help nudge me in that direction. (I even had to create a separate folder in my inbox dedicated to hundreds of articles and insights of wisdom he’s sent me- the quantity and quality require it.)
There are also people here and there who offer great insight into life, writing, or human nature. These gems- friends like blogger and storyteller Steve Spalding, warm and talented journalist Carrie Porter, my fun-loving Cicerones mentor Reed Daines, or even my pragmatic Andy Rooney of a father- offer perspective at the most unexpected yet treasured moments. It is not so much their roles as friends or ‘mentors’ but those substantive statements that are simply a part of who they are, that provide direction and wisdom.
On this same vein, being in New York has allowed me to pick the brains of many talented individuals. Though these exchanges are brief, I consider the experiences to be little nuggets of a developing mentorship as well. I’m beyond thankful to have developed a relationship with someone I’ve been reading about for some time, Amber Rae (marketing maven and a digital evangelist)- even happier to be given opportunities to work directly with her. There’s nothing better than working with someone you deeply respect and charging forward on a path (uncertain as it is) for something you know will be worthwhile.
So, yes, these key players plus my parents have been instrumental to my being. But I am cautious about over-relying on the formal ‘mentoring’ title. Most of the time, it’s simply about perspective. Many of the people I referred to don’t even know they’re my mentor and might even be surprised to see their mention in this post. I simply take their advice and our conversations and treat them as something to learn from. Heck, I can find mentorship in a quote. Support can be found in anything, not necessarily in formal titles or professional organizations. Lastly, I will say that the small doses of inspiration I receive from close friends add a value to my life which is difficult to quantify. Though we are not in the same city, our email threads are in constant exchange. I dearly love these girls for their friendship and the genuine advice they offer cannot be replaced by any professionally “useful” relationship.
So I rest on this final note: as great as it would be for each of us to have personal mentors that act as guardian angels, it’s not a necessity. It may not even be what’s best. Seth Godin sums it well:
“One easy way to hide from the responsibility of making a difference is by using the excuse that you don’t have a good enough mentor. It’s nonsense.
…I’ve had at least a dozen people make that sort of difference in my life, but none of them were famous and none of them are the kinds of mentors you see in the movies. More often than not it’s a single quiet conversation, or a standard that sticks.”
It’s not so much mentors that we need, though if you have one, treasure him/her/it (book, quote, pet, whatever). Ultimately it’s just about knowing yourself and doing what it takes to put yourself in an environment where you can be your best. It might just be a matter of surrounding yourself with people or practices that won’t allow you to be anything less (and deeming them mentors in your own mind).