Most days I find myself sharing a coffee with my mentor.
I find myself usually making said coffee.
I find myself usually being the butt of the joke.
And despite my obvious level of gratitude, I do invariably find myself promising to out perform him so my rebuttals actually hold some weight.
But the point is throughout my life I have been exceptionally lucky and have found myself under the wing of some truly magnanimous and wise people. As a teenager I liked to run. I was pretty good at it, and managed to push myself onto the international sprinting circuit. That was pretty tough and life consuming. But I had an incredible coach and mentor. He recognised that developing my ability to cope with the intense stress of being in the blocks — my heart hammering against my ribcage, eyes widened as if awakened by some otherworldly truth — waiting for the gun to deafen all in the stadium, was more important than the finer details of technique.
I had all the talent necessary. I just couldn’t seem to pull it out of the bag when needed. I would choke.
So he taught me to win. He taught me how to develop such grotesque confidence that the very idea of coming second was merely a flippant jest.
And it worked.
I’ve had several other people come in and out of my life as necessary that have acted in the same fashion. They have helped propel me to smash the self assigned barriers I had put on my potential. They have opened my eyes to the bigger picture. They have helped me avoid the mistakes and setbacks they experienced their first time around the block.
And now I’m back at the start line. New mentor. New challenge. Same old obstacles that need to be overcome.
So, what does a good mentor look like? For me, they need to be/have the following attributes:
We don’t have time for remorseless hectoring or prolixity. But we also don’t need a ‘yes man’. If you’re looking for validation show your crappy ideas to your mum — she’ll love them. Your mentor, on the other hand, should be far less forgiving. They should give honest council when solicited. They should be of sound moral character and a guiding voice. They should be hard, but fair. They’re here to nurture, not dismantle. They are not here to sugar coat and smile when your life begins to reflect a Shakespearian tragedy. And their conduct and personal integrity is important. Why?
Because more often than not a protege will pattern their life on that of their mentor. It makes sense. We want to emulate their success so we adopt elements of their moral and ethical code. Their worldview influences our own. So it’s probably a good idea to make sure we’re following a person of sound moral character. And integrity doesn’t just refer to the choice of upholding oneself to a consistent set of life principles. It means refusing to compromise our ideas for an easy life or better margins.
2). Credibility/Track Record
Credibility is a precious commodity. Once its gone its pretty hard to regain. You only acquire credibility through positive track record. Look for a mentor that has been around the block for a while. Someone who knows how the game works, and someone that has already made all of the mistakes you’re trying to steer clear of. Then go and soak up all of the lessons and quips they spurt out like a dry sponge. And even though it isn’t necessary that your mentor is an expert in your field (though it does help having the Mr Miyagi of your industry in your corner) they should be an expert in something. They should have a track record of delivering constantly and of executing when shit really hits the fan. If their name isn’t synonymous with success then pack up your rod and go fishing where there are more fish.
P.S. Beware of ‘empty suits’. People that tell you think ‘less horizontal and more vertical’ (what does that even mean?). People that give you erroneous information and base their advice on straw man arguments. If sophistry is all they bring to the table then their arguments will fall flat on their proverbial nose, and you’ll be left with masses of regret. Avoid.
Honesty is an integral part of any of teacher/student relationship. Your mentor should be willing to be brutally honest and deliver some home truths even when all we are looking for is validation. It took me a little while to get to grips with this, but bare with me. Kill your ego. It’s harmful in a professional environment. Especially if you work in a creative industry. But it is most certainly a necessary step towards producing your best work. People don’t see the 99 pieces of crap you produce that don’t make the cut. They just see that one piece of gold you find amongst that steaming hot pile of dung we call a days work. If your mentor can’t give you honest feedback and criticism without breeding disdain, you’ll continually float around the super crowded market we call ‘average’.
4). A Network
Building a network can literally take a lifetime. Look for a mentor that’s well connected and go perch on their shoulders. You’ll be introduced to a wealth of contacts it would otherwise take years to develop. And if they can help, they will. Why? Because it’s always good to have a cache of bankable favours. If you make it big, expect a call.
5). A ‘Big Thinker’
Choose an optimist. Choose someone that recognises some truly great ideas are often born ugly. If you’re doing something visionary or pioneering then you’ll probably have little empirical data, hardly any case studies and your reference points will be zilch. So make sure your mentor can embrace that originality and awkwardness and help mold it into a workable model. If you find yourself under the wing of your stereotypical ‘shit-scared-of-leaving-the-box’ suit then they’ll probably try and kill your idea because it doesn’t conform.
6). Someone You Like
This is something that gets breezed over far too often, if not wholly ignored. A mentor should be someone you like. You should really get on with them and value their personal qualities as much as their professional influence. People are hard to change, so your values should naturally overlap. Fitting into somebody else’s authoritarian view on how the world should conduct itself is tedious, tiresome and a complete waste of energy. If you find yourself in this position, then the shoe evidently doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make them bad people, and it doesn’t make you some super liberal hippy idealist, it just means you don’t get to go to the ball this time.