Done right, mentoring can be one of the most fun, intriguing, and satisfying ways to spend time. Unfortunately, there are a million ways to mess it up. I try to always be in both the teaching and learning positions here, to remember how much there still is to learn and how tricky everything is before it becomes obvious. Which is better? Hard to say. Best to keep on trying at both.
Anyone who reads any business book will see a lot about how important it is to choose a mentor. LIES! The person you want for a mentor is most likely far, far too busy to spend time actually mentoring someone. Worse, the more successful this person is, the more people will chase after that elusive mentorship opportunity. What makes this person great is the ability to focus on a few very important things. There are plenty of successful people who enjoy mentoring, and you’ll know because they’ll single you out. They come to you.
The way you get the attention of your potential mentor is by:
What you’re trying to do is to demonstrate as much commitment to the project as your mentor has. This can be quite shocking. Trying to show up as early as they do and stay as late as they do is a project in itself. Successful people tend to put in very long hours behind the scenes. You have to know what it is that you think you’re asking for, and if it’s a responsible position with real leverage, then you may as well start training yourself for the endurance aspects early on.
“Pitching in” almost always means doing menial tasks. That could be anything from rearranging tables and stacking chairs to passing around sign-in sheets, with every administrative task imaginable in between. This is how you learn what’s involved. It’s also how you develop a keen eye for detail. A single mistaken date, forgotten object, or misspelled name can make the difference between sale/no sale or success/fail.
As a young office assistant, I once got reprimanded because I had collated a stack of documents, and the copier punched a staple that stuck out funny. I didn’t notice. The court clerk cut her finger on it and bled on a document. I wasn’t even there, but I got to hear all about it. From then on, I flipped over every stack of copies I ever made and checked that the staples were pounded flat. Still do.
The most important thing I learned from doing menial service work for so many years was to BE KIND when explaining anything. I would do anything for the staff members who were nice to me, and I never forgot a moment of rudeness or impatience from those who had less self-control.
I’m also remembering, now that I don’t have to sort other people’s mail or run other people’s errands any more, that people are the only reason to do anything. Any product or service is useless unless it benefits someone, somehow. There’s never any point or any excuse to berating or chastising an “underling,” because it sets you up for an inevitable slip if you think your “people skills” have a limited field of application. If you think there’s such a thing as a peon, move back to square one.
These are the things I keep in mind when I’m mentoring someone. If I can explain things well, then my young friend may be able to skip through years of servitude and move straight to a more impactful role.
As a mentor, it isn’t up to me who is tuned in to my channel. I’m not always going to know how much a younger or less experienced person knows. I’m not going to know how far this kid is going to go, or whether she or he will ultimately stay on the same career path. Those things are none of my business. They don’t belong to me. They come and go on their own schedule and their own agenda.
When I’m working with teenagers or college-aged kids, my main value is as a warm, friendly non-parental adult. Parents tend to go temporarily nuts when their kids reach adolescence, and they can become unrecognizably critical, emotional, and erratic. Strangely, the same kid whose parents think he’s incorrigible and headed straight to a penal colony will cheerfully wash dishes and take out the trash at my house! The same girl whose mom wants to put her in an ankle monitor will sit at my table and pull out her calculus textbook. Part of what works when mentoring young people is to have a group of them. They’re highly attuned to peer pressure at that age, and they teach each other the house expectations. (No talking about post-industrial politics, no dating within the group, no insults, eat your vegetables, everyone helps clean up). They also peg their progress against one another, barely noticing that they’re surrounded by high achievers.
They laugh three times more than middle-aged people. They’re idealistic, passionate, curious, and quirky. They keep us up-to-date on slang terms and pop culture. They help us set up our electronics. This is part of the secret to attracting a good mentor: be useful and fun to have around.
The stuff that young people want to know can cover a really broad range. How do I choose a major? What field do I want to work in? Should I date this person? How do I know when I’m in love? How old should I be when I get married? Should I go on the trip or take the job offer? What is the stock market? Do I enlist or get my master’s? Is it worth applying for this patent? Can my friendship survive renting a house together? Does this sound like a viable business plan? How do I make a soup?
Over the years, my young people have gone to boot camp and grad school, gotten married and started families, adopted dogs and cats, bought trucks and motorcycles, relocated, traveled the world, and surprised me a thousand ways. Over the same time period, I’ve sought out mentors and learned about publishing, screenwriting, podcasting, product development, branding, event planning, management, and a variety of athletic endeavors. Mentoring is mostly a way to make friends of different ages and keep life interesting.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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