There is an old Zen kōan about an aspiring swordsman who approaches a master. “How long would it take me to become great under you?” he asks.
“10 years,” the master swordsman replies.
“I don’t have that long,” says the student. “I want to be good soon. What if I worked very hard and dedicated myself completely to the task?”
“Ok, 30 years,” he says back.
“But that’s even longer,” the student says with some perplexity. “I am telling you I am in a hurry.”
And so the master replies, “Precisely, students in a hurry end up taking even longer to learn what is right in front of them.”
Students have been missing the point when it comes to mentorship for centuries. I include myself in that category of misguided young people. A couple less forgiving mentors, a couple situations breaking a different way, and I would have ended up blowing my first opportunities. Regardless, almost every day I get a handful of emails from young people desperate for advice on the topic of mentorship.
They all tend to have the same three misperceptions about how this whole thing is supposed to work. So if you’re looking to find, keep, or form a mentorship, here’s what you have to do right:
1. Mentorship is something you do, not something you get.
In other words, like all relationships, it is a process, not an accomplishment. A mentorship is a flexible and often informal relationship that can vary from person to person and field to field—you might be able to refer to yourself as an apprentice after the fact (I do) but it looks nowhere near as official as that while it is happening.
While you are looking for a mentorship, never actually use the word. Don’t ask anyone to be your mentor, don’t talk about mentorships. No one goes out and asks someone they’re attracted to be their boyfriend or girlfriend—that’s a label that’s eventually applied to something that develops over time. A mentorship is the same way; it’s a dance, not a contractual agreement.
Mentorship, like all relationships, is a process, not an accomplishment.
2. Give as much as you get.
To quote Sheryl Sandberg: “We need to stop telling [young people], ‘Get a mentor and you will excel,’ Instead we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’” Successful busy people rarely take on substantial commitments pro-bono. They are picking you because they think you’re worth their time and will benefit them too.
So figure out what you can offer them so that this can become a mutual, though lopsided, exchange. Executives, entrepreneurs, and creatives are always looking for the next big thing. They want to help you succeed because along the way you can help them. Even if it’s just energy you’re bringing, even if it’s just thanks and satisfaction. The mentor cannot want your success for you more than you want it for yourself. You better show up every day hungry and dedicated and eager to learn.
One suggestion that’s helped me: provide articles, links, or news that can benefit your mentors. You are less busy than they are, so your time is better spent looking and searching. Also by having other mentorships and pursuing my own interests on the side, I was able to be a source of new information, trends, and opportunities. I asked a lot, but I tried to give in return.
3. Keep your problems at home.
I often write that passion can be a form of insanity and dysfunction because it makes people selfish and emotional. Not surprisingly, a lot of young people get upset when they read this. And it is these very kids that I wouldn’t want to work with. They’re likely too sensitive to feedback, too wound up to really listen to instructions, and too stuck in their ways to learn.
Typical youthful insanity is sending 3000-word emails at 2 a.m. It’s getting embarrassingly drunk at an event because you’re nervous. It’s hiding a mistake you made because you’re scared. It’s quitting because you’ve fallen behind or don’t feel encouraged. It’s arguing with feedback and thinking you know better, thinking that you’re special. Those weak emotions are luxurious. If you want to indulge them, then you’ve got no right to a busy person’s time.
Your personal life is irrelevant. Your excuses aren’t going to fly. If you get asked to do something, do it the way it was asked. If that means staying up all night to do it, then ok (but that’s to stay your little secret). No one cares what’s going on with you, or at least, they shouldn’t have to.
Your personal life is irrelevant.
If you can step back and see this as something other than a transaction—that you don’t get a mentor, you develop one. If you can contribute thanklessly and make yourself indispensable, you will cease to be an obligation and instead something the mentor works on out of self-interest. If you can work hard to be well-adjusted and dependable—you’re less likely to blow up and ruin the whole opportunity.
For sure, a lot more goes into becoming a master and to getting the most out of a mentorship, but these are the rocks I tend to see people crash on the most often. Myself, I could have easily sunk on all of them. I almost did plenty of times. But it didn’t have to be that way and it doesn’t need to be for you.
How about you?
How have you successfully found a mentor?