Mentors are like careers. We still want them—yearn for them in fact—but they don’t exist anymore.
I probably spend at least 20-30% of my time talking to other humans about their careers. What people are working on, what their struggles are, what they hope to do next, etc. And one of the questions that comes up again and again is: How can I find a mentor?
It’s not surprising. Who wouldn’t want to find a sage older person devoted to advising you on becoming a more accomplished, successful individual? Imagining such a dream scenario is extremely comforting. Finally, all of your decisions will be guided by someone who knows better; you won’t have to just muddle through, hoping you’re making the right choices anymore—you’ll know you did the right thing.
Unfortunately, such people—the wise and all-knowing mentor—no longer exist, if they ever did. First of all, they’re just too busy. Whether it’s your manager at work, or someone you know through other channels, that person is likely struggling just to keep up with their own workload—the overflowing inbox, the over-ambitious to-do list, the over-scheduled daily calendar—with little time to spare for thinking about you. Much less put any deep thought into how you’ll develop over the next 5, 10, or 20 years.
But beyond the niggling issue that possible mentors are highly unlikely to have the bandwidth to be your own personal Yoda, they are also highly unlikely to be as all-knowing as you might hope. The fact of the matter is that the work landscape has changed dramatically since our elders—the ones who so frequently adopt the role of mentor—embarked on their careers.
Success in your career is dictated by both accumulated expertise AND the ability to constantly update the tools, skills, and methods by which you deploy that expertise.
We switch jobs on average every five years. Even when we’re in a stable job, we are juggling a variety of projects that demand vastly different skills. And rapid changes in technology mean that the tools we use to do our jobs are changing constantly. Which means that: Success in your career is dictated by both accumulated expertise AND the ability to constantly update the tools, skills, and methods by which you deploy that expertise. Wizened mentors have much to offer with regard to the former, but little to offer with regard to the latter.
Thus we have two key lessons about modern mentorship that we desperately need to absorb: a) Most people are too busy and frazzled to mentor you in a deep, long-term way, and b) Even if they could, they are unlikely to be qualified to advise you on every aspect of your career.
So let’s go ahead and slay that one-golden-mentor-who-will-solve-all-my-problems idea, and move onto a realistic portrait of what mentorship looks like in the Age of Distraction:
- Mentorship is distributed. A few decades ago, our sources for educating ourselves were largely limited to school, books, and clubs. Today, the amount of free educational resources available online is almost limitless, from iTunes U to Khan Academy to Lynda.com to Skillshare, as well as podcasts devoted to almost any topic you can imagine and YouTube videos that will show you how to do anything. If you want to learn something, there’s no need to wait around for a mentor anymore.
- Mentorship is real-time. Jobs that require us to learn a fixed, unchanging set of tasks are dead or dying at this point. We now have malleable roles that require us to wear 17 different hats a day while constantly responding to unexpected situations on the fly. In this context, being a mentee is less about learning one big thing from a single person than learning many little things from multiple people. It’s about “observational learning,” the act of working and observing and learning in real-time, rather than waiting for someone to synthesize the lessons and present them back to you.
- Mentorship is proactive. There’s no reason a mentor has to be someone you’ve worked with, or even someone that you know anymore. Online, you can access biographies, interviews, and conference talks from almost anyone who is successful. Rather than waiting for someone to come to you, get out there and proactively research the lives of the people you admire and find out how they got to where they are. Or, go a step further, find their email address, and politely reach out and see if they might be open to a 20-30 minute interview.
- Mentorship is networked. A recent study showed that 50% of a person’s predicted difference in career success hinged on whether they were part of a large, open network or a small, closed network. Not only is it important to regularly meet new people, it’s also incredibly important to meet people who are not like you. That is, people who work in different industries, come from different backgrounds, or have different areas of expertise. Rather than looking to a single individual for mentorship, you will be better served by cultivating a diverse network of relationships with people who offer you new and different perspectives.
- Mentorship is ageless. More than anything, the new era of mentorship is about not looking—only—upwards to our elders for advice. In an age when technology is constantly changing the way we work, we have to look equally to those adjacent, across, and underneath us on the career ladder. Collaborators, colleagues, junior team members, and interns could have as much, or more, to offer you in terms of how new technologies and approaches might streamline, enhance, or innovate the way you work.
And if you don’t believe me, I’ll leave you with this quote from Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to new technologies:
- Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
- Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
- Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.