What do you do when you have questions about relationships, career opportunities or next steps in education? Find a mentor! For many people, finding someone who has been in your shoes is a great way to obtain advice. Typically, mentors know you well and can offer a perspective outside of your inner circle. I often go to my mentors if I have questions about my relationships or career and I appreciate having someone who engages in a professional conversation to offer advice. This post addresses several factors to consider when selecting a mentor and some common mistakes to avoid.
How to Select a Mentor
Selecting a mentor can be like finding the right size shoe. It’s not “one size fits all” and it may take a few try-ons to find the right fit. Many people look for someone who can speak into a specific part of their lives, providing clarity and a sense of direction to make informed decisions. Some areas of guidance include general life questions, career paths, relationships, spiritual matters, questions about specific industries and many more. I believe mentorship can exist at any time, regardless of age. You can be in your late 40s and have a mentor. You can also be 21 and mentor someone in high school. Knowledge and skills built through experience dictate a mentor’s ability to teach.
Who should be your mentor?
When selecting a mentor, consider what kind of person you want to be. Identify someone you know and admire that you believe you could learn from in this season of life. Look for someone who has worked, failed and persevered through challenges who is willing to give back. If you have a professor or a previous supervisor you admire, try reaching out to them and asking them to be a mentor. However, it is best to avoid a mentor relationship with your current boss because that can create a conflict of interest and a power imbalance.
Please note there is a distinct difference between a teacher and a mentor. Mentors are personal as they know about your life and can provide more intentional advice. They set aside personal time to listen and dialogue. They are there to understand and support you as long as you pursue them.
While mentors can be friends, they often differ from someone that could potentially be a roommate. Though mentors provide advice and spend time with you, they aren’t someone who should necessarily be invited over for movie nights. Mentors are essentially personal educators to provide support and guidance. It’s recommended to set healthy boundaries about what you share with them. Personally, I try to direct conversations toward an academic tone or discuss my personal life with certain details left out. I try to paint an outline, but not the full picture. This sets up a professional friendship, rather than a personal friendship.
What Makes a Quality Mentor?
When selecting a mentor, think about what specific qualities you admire in that person. A mentor with a desirable career does not mean you should get relationship advice from them. Identify their area of experience and meet with them regarding that! Look for people who have succeeded in several areas, but keep your conversations relevant. For example, if they have told you about their spouse in connection to their career and you are having similar issues or questions come up, then you could ask them for advice. But it might be best to avoid asking your accounting mentor questions about how he met his wife from the beginning. Once when I was meeting with a mentor, I shifted the topic away from a business discussion about marketing toward relationship advice. It didn’t make my mentor uncomfortable, but we didn’t end up talking about the things that we had planned. It’s good to stay focused on what knowledge you came for and to engage on that topic for the most part.
Finally, when selecting a mentor, try not to ask out of nowhere. Some people are not comfortable giving advice or getting emotionally involved in other peoples’ lives without a prior relationship. Get to know the person you want to connect with first. My first mentor was a professor, but I first worked as a TA and developed a personal relationship with them before asking them to be my mentor. To build a rapport, try signing up for office hours or asking them to grab coffee and discuss relevant topics based on what you know about them. Don’t worry about springing the question on them so quickly. Sometimes seeing someone outside of a work environment or classroom provides a different experience than your typical interaction. Be okay with taking time to get to know the person you want as a mentor.
I hope you feel empowered and ready to reach out to your first mentor and build a unique relationship! Bi-weekly or monthly meetings can be helpful to start so that you have time to build a more intentional relationship. I’d recommend starting out with a monthly meeting, and then moving toward a bi-weekly meetup. Mentors are ultimately a great way to learn about a challenge in life from someone who has overcome them. Don’t be afraid to be honest about some worries you have, the mentor can educate you well if you allow them to!
With that, get out there and start connecting!