“Nothing of me is original. I am a combined effort of everybody I’ve ever known.”
Though this tramps rudely on my artfully formed identity, it does remove some of the pressure. I am a skilled shopaholic only because my middle school friends would berate people who left the mall empty-handed. (Thus, my impressive amount of debt now can only be attributed to them.) I am quick with “that’s what she said” jokes (if those can be even considered jokes anymore) only because my college roommates and I flung them around all senior year. I am a terrible bowler because…well, who cares about bowling anyway. No one I know likes it, so I don’t need to.
We can use this reasoning to deflect individual responsibility for character deficits, or things we’re ignorant about. On the same token, we can’t take credit for our seemingly original insights. If I am a mere mishmash of the people in my life, my character is really just a representation of my taste. To that end, I try to surround myself with people I strive to be like.
Author Courtney Martin used the term ‘friend crushes’ in her latest piece about being your own mentor in a freelance economy. Since freelancers don’t have an easy structure to guide their work flow or career path, they must learn how to hold themself accountable to personalized goals and deadlines. This involves seeking ‘friend crushes’:
Sometimes you have to go after a collaborator or a work gig. I’m not big on “networking”—at least the version of it talked about in women’s magazines and at some alienating conferences. But I do believe in “friend crushes.” If someone does particularly awesome work, or has a way of looking at the world I find really unique, I will go out of my way to get to know them. It’s never with a set goal in mind, but more with the faith that putting a bunch of amazing people in my orbit will guarantee cool opportunities arising down the line.
It’s an interesting balance of individual initiative and creative collaboration, something which will become an increasingly important skill to cultivate as our world becomes less streamlined.
One of my biggest friend crushes is Joanna Galaris, a cultural chameleon who’s lived in 8 countries. By some stroke of luck I selected her as my mentee in a college organization. The tables have since turned and she’s now more like my mentor. Though she is just a junior in college, I think she has a much more solid grasp on the purpose of college than most people. Here’s something she wrote recently on her blog:
In college, we are constantly bombarded with people telling us that we must follow certain academic tracks and what the complementary internships and volunteer experiences to those tracks are and that our GPA is somehow related to our self-worth. I think this is nonsense. I would like you to un-learn that information. Yes, what you study in college, particularly if you are a STEM student, will probably determine the job you get paid for at first. But there are unlimited possibilities to expand your knowledge and your skill set so that you can be competent in many fields. I am a passionate Anthropology student but I have no intention of being an Anthropologist for the rest of my life. I do hope that I will get the opportunity to do public health research in Eastern and Western Africa and find incredibly creative ways to work within local health cultures to implement public health campaigns in under-developed areas. I do want to be a medical anthropologist. But I also want to be a carpenter, a musician and a writer. I want to speak French, Swahili and Arabic fluently and improve my command of the English language. I want to better my public speaking skills and learn more about where my food comes from. And I am 100% confident that I will be successful in all of these things.
Of course, this raises the age-old question of whether it is better to be a jack of all trades or an expert in one subject. There is value to both focus and well-roundedness. Regardless, she touches on a fundamental component of college that is too often failing to be ignited – curiosity.
Many have criticized American universities for becoming overly social, a wasteland of drinking escapades and drunken epiphanies. That is true, but social is not always bad. For some, the classroom is too formalized and contained for curiosity to flow. Learning thrives instead among candid discussion with peers. This does occur in the classroom, but personally I am more comfortable discussing serious topics among a trusted group of friends who won’t judge my oversight or lack of knowledge in a topic. This is why I think the concept of ‘friend crushes’ cannot be underestimated. Joanna, again:
Most of us in college right now are frustrated with the quality of education that we are receiving because we are failing to personalize our college experience. If you hate being in college and you can’t wait to graduate then it’s probably your own fault. If you are studying something that does not interest you and aren’t stimulated by the classes you are taking, then change your major. If you’re failing in your area of study and your classes make you feel dumb or incompetent then you’re probably in the wrong field. You are neither dumb nor incompetent. Dedicate the majority of your time here to something that you think you’ll be excellent at. It will make you happy and make it easier to tackle the harder stuff.
For those who don’t know what they’re good at or what makes them happy, fear not. That’s what life is for. College is just one of those unique social environments for you to experiment and ignite that curiosity alongside others who are also trying to figure it out. It will come easier when you’re exposed to those ‘friend crushes’ who you admire, perhaps cooler than you, but eager to share a bit of their insight with you, and vice-versa.
My social life is one of my top priorities because I surround myself with people that are talented and have skills that I don’t have. When I spend time with my friends, I am learning from them. I am taking in who they are and absorbing all of the things that I love about them and taking notes. Having lunch with a friend can be just as inspiring as sitting through a great class taught by a brilliant professor.
My life mantra is ‘everyone has a story’. Everyone can teach you something. So don’t be afraid to seek out those friend crushes and spend time discussing and honing the skills that will make you successful together.
How can you not have a crush on her when she takes you around the Greek islands?
Aegina, Greece, August 2011
February 24, 2012 | Categories: Education, inspiration, Internet, mentors, personal | Tags: #joanna galaris, #lynne guey, courtney martin, curiosity, education, freelance economy, friend crushes, friends, mentors, social | 1 Comment
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).