Mentors for Grown-Ups

As a society, we know about the importance of mentors for children. We want to surround kids with adults who can

provide guidance, serve as role models, and support their growth. We care about their teachers, coaches, tutors, and other adults who spend time with them. We build great teams of knowledgeable, skillful, and caring adults to support our kids.

For some reason, once that transition from childhood to adulthood takes place, we’re expected to have it all figured out. And we’re supposed to successfully navigate that figuring-it-out part solo. What we don’t do, but should, is be just as committed to involving mentors in adult lives—both personally and professionally.

Why You Need a Mentor: A good mentor has experience doing what you want to do and all that comes with it—the hiccups, the roadblocks, the dumpster fires, the accolades, and the achievements. That experience brings with it true empathy rather than platitudes about how it’s all going to be just fine, even if it may not.

She can fill the gap between education and experience, like reminding you that it’s fantastic to promote yourself but even better to make sure you spend a few minutes proofreading before sending that letter out about all the awards you won at your pubic high school (true story). She can “educate” you on what you don’t yet know that you don’t know yet.

A good mentor can open doors for you that otherwise wouldn’t only be locked, but also may be hidden behind a faux set of bookshelves (figuratively speaking, of course, unless fake shelving is your thing and then maybe literally too).

Perhaps most important, a good mentor will tell it like it is. Unlike someone who loves you or is too personally invested in your story, that mentor will give you the professional equivalent of “Yes, Karen. Those pants DO in fact make your butt look big.” And it may hurt. But it will be the kindest thing she could do for you—be real and honest and direct—all with your success in mind.

How to Find a Mentor: So how do you find this mythical creature who will want to help you succeed and invest her time and connect you to others and give the gift of truth? Well, even the most magical of mentors cannot (and should not) be the chief advisor to all the things in your life that perhaps might benefit from mentorship. You don’t have your electrician help with your meal planning, do you? (If you FIND that electrician, please share that phone number this instant.) The person who’s “right” to mentor you as you start a new company probably isn’t going to be the same person you’d seek out to take your business global. Your first priority, then, in finding a mentor is to have clarity about what specifically you’re hoping to do and then start your search with that in mind.

Do your homework. Who is out there who has successfully done that thing you want to do—lose weight, launch a successful business venture, start a nonprofit, adopt a child from a foreign country, (fill in whatever your goal is here)?

Start with your current village; you may be pleasantly surprised to see the experience and expertise that’s already right within your reach. Then expand further out. See who’s on the news or LinkedIn or at whatever industry events are in your field. Be as specific as possible. (For instance, I’d love help getting a book published but have zero intention of writing the next vampire love story. I’d search for successful writers/publishers in the comedic self-help space, if such a genre even exists.)

Once you’ve identified a list of movers and shakers whom you’d love to emulate, dig deeper still. Who on that list volunteers their time? What causes do they care about? What are their interests? What can you glean of their personality and work style? Remember that it’s not just about what they’ve gotten done—it’s about how they’ve done it too. One person’s successful journey isn’t necessarily the secret to your own, and the path they took to their destination matters too. It needs to align with how you operate in this world.

Put yourself out there. Be willing to be vulnerable. Unless you’re looking for help becoming a psychic, chances are pretty good that those potential mentors on your list aren’t tracking your need for a mentor. Open your mouth (or LinkedIn/email) and make the ask. Come up with some version of “You’re successfully doing what I’d love to be able to do and I’d be so grateful for your mentorship” that is authentic for you. Make sure your ask makes it clear that you’ve done that homework referenced above. And that you can share some value a mentoring relationship might bring to them (especially if you’re a meal-planning electrician). Make it clear that you know it will be work and that you’ve got the commitment and drive to put in the effort—in other words, time spent working with you will be a good investment.

Repeat this process again and again. You should always be on the lookout for relationships with others that help you grow. As you gain skills in one area, there will always be other places where you’d benefit from someone else’s expertise. And as you acquire your own expertise, you then have another responsibility that is also a gift. You get to be the mentor. You’ll know the personal satisfaction that can come from contributing to someone else’s growth and achievement. At the end of the day, if we’re doing this “life” thing well, we’re always both mentor and student at the same time. Because there’s always something to learn. And there’s always something to contribute.