The word "mentor" has always had a mysterious air about it to me. Where do people get mentors, and is there some sort of formal agreement made between them? Is anyone who gives you advice a mentor? Do mentors get weirded out when you call them “my mentor”? Does your mom count?
Whenever an author or celebrity mentions their “mentor” in an interview, I picture a woman in her sixties dressed in vintage and Chico’s, wearing funky glasses and eclectic beads. She meets her mentee at some old cafe in the West Village and name drops like it’s her job. Her advice is cryptic, but delivered sternly—and she definitely has tattooed eyeliner.
I don’t know anyone who fits that bill (though I so wish I did). So for a long time, I didn’t think I had a mentor. But after speaking to people with mentors and doing some research on mentorship, I realize I’ve had many—though I didn’t always take full advantage of their kindness and expertise. Here’s what experts, mentors, and mentees said about finding a good mentor and getting the most out of the experience.
What is a mentor?
Before you lock down a mentor, you need to understand what exactly a mentor is and does. According to the online mentoring platform Mentor Scout, “A mentor is someone willing to spend his or her time and expertise to guide the development of another person.” Usually, that person is someone who has a great deal of experience or has found success in the area or field that the mentee is interested in, and is someone you look up to. Mentors can help with both professional and personal matters. That is, you can have a mentor that gives you advice for work and another that helps you navigate your personal relationships—or one mentor that does both.
Not all mentorship relationships will take the same form. “Mentoring happens in lots of settings and spaces,” says Erin Souza-Rezendes, Director of Communications at MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. “While there are best practices for quality mentoring, mentor-mentee relationships are ultimately relationships between people, and they can reflect the diversity and complexities of the people in the relationship.”
John Quiwa, a web developer in his twenties, has a group chat that functions as a space for mentorship. “I made some friends at a coding boot camp that have a few years on me,” he explains. “They all had their own paths before becoming developers, so each of them can offer advice in different areas of life. I come to them a lot for financial advice and they usually have a story or two about what they wish they did at my age, so I always take their opinions into account.”
Choosing a mentor
If you’re looking for a mentor, it can be hard to know where to start. Luckily, there are a number of personal and professional relationships you already have that can turn into mentorships like those with professors, family friends, and coworkers. It’s best to have or form a relationship with someone before you start asking them for advice or discuss mentorship. People don’t usually respond well to “Will you be my mentor?” emails from strangers.
Like any relationship, that between a mentor and mentee needs time to develop. If you frequently visit a professor during office hours and they’ve shown interest in helping you succeed, think about asking them to meet outside of school when you have a particular career or academic question you’re stumped on. (It’s best to do this after your semester with them ends.) If they’re open to it and follow through, they may just be a potential mentor.
If there is a stranger who you would like to mentor you, you can try initiating a relationship with them by commenting or inquiring about their work. Don't be afraid to reach out to someone you admire via email and straight up ask if they'd be willing to share some advice, but try to keep your expectations low. You can also offer to help them out with their work, almost like an internship. But remember, being a mentor is time-consuming and can take a lot of energy—not everyone can or wants to be a mentor, especially not to people they don’t know well. If that happens, it's OK; there are a lot of successful people in the world, on to the next one.
"Mentor-mentee relationships are ultimately relationships between people, and they can reflect the diversity and complexities of the people in the relationship.”
“My best advice when choosing a mentor is to be sure to find someone who you can foster a friendship with outside of the professional space,” says Margaux Aquino, a 24-year-old who first met her mentor three years ago when she started her first job. “My favorite mentor is a woman that I look up to in my field of work, but can also grab brunch with on the weekends […]. Ultimately, the best mentor is someone who will be your cheerleader in life, not just the office.”
A mentor can absolutely be a friend, but just because someone is your mentor does not mean they’re your friend. It’s important to understand what kind of mentorship relationship you have and set boundaries if necessary.
How to get the most out of your mentorship
Don’t be afraid to ask your mentor questions that you’re worried seem dumb. They’ve been there! And if you’re asking for help, make sure you’re listening to your mentor and actually acting on their advice. Youth is great in so many ways, but it can also mean being naive and stubborn. If you ignore everything your mentor tells you, you’re wasting their time. Your (likely older) mentor is your mentor for a reason; they’ve lived through and overcome the problems you’re facing right now. Respect them accordingly.
Remember that mentors are people, too. “Mentoring is about being present, not being perfect,” says Souza-Rezendes. “Key qualities of a great mentor include willingness to listen, accessibility, providing clear expectations and meeting them, and showing up.”
While most of the focus in a mentorship will be on the mentee, your mentor should also be getting something out of this relationship. As a young person, you have insight that your mentor does not. Keep your mentor up to date on the way that your industry has changed since they were last at an entry-level position in the field, and let them pick your brain sometimes, too. They’re giving you life advice for free, they won’t expect, but may just appreciate something in return.
If we are fortunate, we have people we look up to for advice and guidance—whether or not we call them mentors. But it is nice to have a designated person there to calm your nerves and show you the way when you’re lost. With that, go forth and find yourself a mentor. Your future will thank you.