Your mentor doesn't have to be older or more successful than you

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When I was having a work crisis a few months ago, a trusted friend suggested that I find someone who was where I wanted to be in five years and ask them to be my mentor. This concept seemed better than the archaic notion that you should find a wise, professional elder with decades of experience and become the empty vessel that gathers and stores their flowing wisdom, but it could still use some refining. I’m willing to go a step further and say some of the most underrated mentors out there are technically our peers.

There’s no disputing the power of a good mentor — ideally, we should have different ones for our various professional phases. But it doesn't need to be someone who is eons ahead of you in their career, sitting somewhere on a yacht sipping scotch because they've mastered everything in your field and have nothing left to do but spew advice to the less fortunate. What might be more immediately helpful is having someone on your level who can help you level up your skill set.

In order to do this, seek someone out in your field who is doing what you do, and who seems to have their shit together in a way that you aspire to. You don’t need them to actually do the work of mentoring you either; you can simply use their path as a treasure map of sorts that shows you where you need to grow and where you have room to revel in and capitalize off of your strengths. Invite them to have coffee or a drink with you and ask them about their process. If they’re receptive, then plot out those skills like Xs on a map to your ideal career.

While the peer-as-a-mentor concept feels subversive and tricky, I’ve experienced it benefits, so I tapped an expert who might have some psychological insight into why this type of mentorship could be effective. “Someone can be on your level and still be better than you at an important skill,” says Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychologist and professor at Harold Washington College. “It's a lot more comfortable asking a peer for help than it is to approach someone who's farther along and more accomplished than you are now.”

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I’m definitely more comfortable asking for help when I feel like I’m on equal footing with someone. Right now, I want to learn how to data mine so that I can effortlessly use research to back up my writing, so I’m asking my friend’s boyfriend to help me. He’s not an expert in the most traditional sense, but he knows more than I do,and what I learn from him will help me figure out what I need to learn next.

Another useful reality is that someone who doesn’t consider themselves above you on the food chain is more likely to make time to help you in hands-on ways because they can look at the relationship as a skill trade. At some point, you might be able to help them, too.

In a peer-mentor relationship, no one needs to be fearful about seeming unskillful, says Daramus. “That reciprocity can be nice,” she says, “And with a peer, you don't have to be worried about your performance review if you make a mistake.” Peer mentorship is often underrated because the stakes are lower, and that could equate to less accountability; think about how a little pressure to perform makes for better performance. But, because your peers won’t be hiring or firing you, that lack of stress can make it easier to learn and experiment

At some points, you will need to look to those who are on the higher rungs of your career ladder for help. “No matter how well-educated you are in your field, every industry has unwritten rules that you'll need to figure out,” says Daramus. “For that, you might need someone who's been in the game longer than you and knows how it works. If you get promoted to management, you might need mentorship in leadership skills. You might need a mentor to help you learn how to mentor others.” In other words, as your skills increase, you will have to continue looking for people with more and different skills than you have.

While it’s tempting to say that one kind of mentorship is better than another, the truth is that you don’t just need peer mentors or wise elders. “Both peer mentors and more powerful mentors can be useful at any point in your career,” says Daramus. At the end of the day, when it comes to mentors, professional polyamory may be your best move.