The word “mentor” is usually associated with an older, wiser sensei of sorts — one who molds a young, clueless person into a force within their field. In reality, that's not always the dynamic or the demographic. Capable grown-ups need guidance too, but finding a mentor as an adult can be particularly daunting.
I started thinking about this when I hit a roadblock in my own career. “I want to write more, but I don’t know how to get more gigs. They didn’t teach us that in school,” I texted to an old friend, who is also a journalist, during a moment of venting. I was frustrated and wasn’t sure how to move forward in my career.
“Don’t panic,” she replied, “I can help you.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but our friendship had just officially become a mentorship. And while this particular scenario played out more smoothly than most things in my adult life, finding a mentor after you leave college isn't usually easy. You might now be more isolated socially, or it might feel strange to ask for help when you're expected to have your life "together."
Pursuing a mentor is worth a trouble, though. Here’s some informed advice on how to do it right so you can get the support you need to grow, both professionally and personally.
First, recognize when you need a mentor
We often seek out mentors when we're new to a profession, but that may not be when we need them most. “Mentorship is important throughout our careers, not just in the beginning,” says Mary Ann Kerr, CEO of The Medalist Group, an organization that helps companies create mentorship programs. “Mentors help us to work through difficult situations and provide a sounding board and advice that's both neutral and based on understanding who we are and what matters to us. We always need those kinds of professionals in our careers.”
A good mentor can help you to navigate your career by seeing habits that you might not. During our first meeting, my new mentor sat me down and asked to see what I was working on. I started mumbling, I showed her notes in my phone, opened files on my desktop, and handed her a stack of Post-it notes. She looked at me pointedly and said, “No. This isn’t working. But don’t worry—I used to be like this too.” She showed me how to make spreadsheets that tracked my work.
Being disorganized meant that I was less productive than I could be, but I couldn't see that on my own. I needed a new system and only someone from the inside could bring that to my attention. Talking career with your friends in similar fields is helpful, but if you’re craving some info from someone who’s been where you are, it’s time to recruit a mentor.
Seek a mentor who can meet you where you’re at
“For someone to mentor you, they need to be willing to invest themselves in your life and allow you access into theirs,” says Leslie Culver, a professor at California Western School of Law, who studies mentorship relationships. In other words, choose someone who's farther along in their career but not so much so that they're inaccessible.
I needed someone who’d invest time in me and was willing to advise on my weaknesses. Identify what it is that you need in order to get to a higher plane, professionally.
It helps if you already have a relationship with the person you're seeking guidance from. If you don’t, make a list of the qualities you're looking for before you pursue this person. “In choosing a mentor, give yourself time to observe someone's life from a distance,” Culver added, “Do they seem approachable, genuine, willing to teach, do they listen to you?” A mentor should have an attitude and work you truly admire—it shouldn't just be someone who makes a lot of money or is "successful" in others' eyes.
Reach out IRL or on social media
Think about people in your field who are where you’d like to be in five years. If you already know them personally, now is the time to reach out. If you don’t know them personally, now is the time to befriend them on social media and start creating camaraderie. Be direct about your intentions so you don’t come across as creepy or annoying. You can say, “I’m an admirer of your work, and looking to sharpen my own talents, and want to hear more about how you got to where you are.”
If no one comes to mind immediately, start looking for Facebook groups and professional organizations that center around your field. Be specific when you’re looking for groups to join. Don’t just look for groups of “writers,” for example. Narrow it down to people in your profession who also fit your demographic. For example, I'm in a group of queer female freelance writers.
You can plant the seeds of a mentorship relationship by tagging people for advice in threads. If you vibe with them and vice versa, DM them and ask if they want to meet for coffee if they’re local or invite them to a Google hang. Take your time starting this new relationship, just like you (hopefully) would any other relationship.
“I’ve been extremely successful at finding mentors and sponsors through LinkedIn,” said Kerr, “In fact, as I began to talk about my career transition, I discovered a whole community of folks on LinkedIn who work in the same area and care about the same issues. You start with a personal message based on the individual’s profile and then suggest a phone call or coffee meeting.”
When you ask someone to mentor you, make it an invitation they want to accept. Consider courting them if it feels appropriate. Ask them to lunch or out for a coffee to talk about what they've been up to. You may not end up with a mentor every time, but you'll likely at least establish a rapport with a more established colleague.
Choose a mentor whose identity you can relate to
My mentor helped me make a step-by-step plan for my writing career. As a more established journalist, she knew how to plot out the distance from where I was to where she is. She also knew some of the particular roadblocks that I face. We are both demographically marginalized women, or what Culver calls “outsiders” in a het-white-male dominated field.
Culver says that, “outsiders often need insider mentors because insiders have access to resources, power, and knowledge, that outsiders often do not have. But, there are times in which traditional outsiders gain the vantage point of an "insider" — through status, and education — so they then can also help others who may not be so situated.”
This is particularly important if you're part of a marginalized population. An insider will understand not only the logistic steps of your career trajectory but will also understand the complex power structures that are at play in your field.
Culver went on to note that professional success is often based on subtle power dynamics that your mentor could be better versed at navigating than you currently are. “It is often in the meeting before the meeting,” she says, “where promotion, salary, and other advancement decisions are being made."
Find a mentor who sees value in their role
“There’s definitely a professional benefit to guiding a fellow writer for me,” my mentor said. “I can only perpetuate the success of my field by nurturing talent in it.” In other words, by helping me and fostering my professional growth, she's also ensuring that capable, invested people create a bright future for journalism.
Culver sees the community benefit of insider/outsider mentorship in a beautifully radical way. “Beyond any ‘good’ feeling for helping another person succeed,” she says, “the benefit of a genuine mentorship is white privilege awareness and the disruption of essentialism. When the insider becomes aware that their privilege can significantly support an outsider’s career, inequities can be reduced.”
So, having a mentorship relationship can not only helps both parties, it can also disrupt the status quo and level out the playing field for everyone who loves what they do. So. Much. Winning.
Make sure the relationship benefits both parties
Being a mentee isn’t all about taking. Telling them something like, “I’m around for anything you need help with that’d give me more insight into your process” (and meaning it) can be really valuable. Also, Culver reminds me that a mentor is doing you a favor by helping you with you career for free, so vocalized gratitude is crucial. “As a mentee, say thank you,” she said, “Say it loud and say it often.”
When I asked my friend/mentor why she took the time to invest in me, she said, “It’s very rewarding to me to be a mentor to other women. I had amazing mentors in my life who provided me with valuable perspectives, guidance, and motivation. So I feel happy that I have the opportunity to pay it forward.”