Why You Need Mentors (and Why You Don’t Have Them Yet)

I recently had a chance to sit down with a friend who has been doing incredible things with his career and business. He offered to sit me down, walk through my current operations and help me figure out a strategy to take things to the next level.

We ended up talking for a little over an hour, and the chat ended with a concrete plan for the next twelve months to redefine my strategy and mindset. It’s hard to say the impact this conversation will have, but I’m optimistic—the last time I had a serious chat with this person, it led to creating Learning on Steroids, which ended up saving my business and allowing me to go full-time as a writer.

This person is incredibly busy and charges a lot for his time. Most people I know would have killed to get this kind of personalized advice, yet they probably won’t get it.

Mentors Matter Because Most Knowledge is Hard to Write Down

I’ve been lucky. This person has mentored me in key aspects of my business, but I’ve had dozens of other mentors who have all given me incredible advice. These people are world-class in the advice they imparted. If I were paying for it, I would probably need to pay thousands of dollars per hour. Instead, I’m getting the advice for free.

Mentorship is incredibly important and it can shave years off your learning curve. While I’m a big fan of self-education, most knowledge isn’t accessible in books or schools. Instead it’s held tacitly by people with experience. This is as true of business as it is of science, art or sports. It’s just really difficult to write a lot of knowledge down.

Why Mentors are Hard to Get

Unfortunately mentorship is a lot less accessible than reading books or going to school. Books and schooling isn’t always free, but at the very most they just require payment. Most mentors won’t even work for money, so they have to like you and want to see you succeed in order to invest time in you.

I get dozens of emails a day from people who want me to give them advice. Unfortunately, I can’t usually spend more than 10-15 seconds per person, sometimes less. Giving advice doesn’t just take up time, it can be emotionally draining—especially when the recipient is anonymous and doesn’t reply back.

Does that mean I dislike mentoring? Not at all. I like helping people succeed, whether it’s starting a blog or learning something new. Getting to see someone apply your advice and grow is an incredible experience. I don’t need to privately benefit from the relationship to enjoy it. Just helping someone is intrinsically rewarding.

I think this is a point a lot of people mix up. Most potential mentors aren’t looking for mentees, and they’re active screening out most people who want their time and energy. But, that doesn’t mean you need to offer something transactionally beneficial to them to get their time. I’m not looking for mentees who will do cheap work for me, and none of my mentors are people I’ve had some kind of explicit quid pro quo arrangement in order to get their advice.

By all means, if you have something valuable to offer a potential mentor—do it. If you’re a world-class artist, and want to help them design something, go for it. If you’re a fantastic programmer, and can build them a quick widget, make it. But it’s misleading to say that this kind of transactional relationship is anything more than a foot in the door. The real benefit to mentors is getting to see you grow.

What People Screw Up, When Looking for Mentors

There are three main things people screw up when looking for mentors:

  1. They ask for way too much time and energy.
  2. They are losers, not winners.
  3. They are looking for status connections, not actual advice.

Each of these things is a killer. If you can fix them, you’ll find it much easier to get potential mentors, even if you don’t have some obscure talent that can allow you to benefit them directly.

1) Asking for Too Much Time and Energy

Mentor/mentee relationships come in a lot of types. I have people who I talk to almost every week, sometimes for hours at a time. Other people I have brief email discussions with every couple years. There is no default template.

When you start reaching out to someone you see as a potential mentor, you need to be extremely considerate of their time. The default reaction will be to ignore you or brush you off, so having expectations of weekly coaching calls is unrealistic and impolite.

What I feel most mentors are looking for is a high action-to-advice ratio. Meaning, that you actually go out and follow-up with their advice at a rate highly favorable to the amount of time they gave you.

If you asked me for advice on self-studying computer science, I gave a one-sentence reply, pointing you to my article here on which courses of the MIT Challenge to take, and you actually went out and did them, I’d be far more willing to get on Skype with you for a short time to suggest a next step.

If you asked me what’s the best way to build a popular blog, and I told you to write your first 100 articles, you did it and got back to me, I’m going to be curious and want to follow up.

The mentor who I mentioned in the opening gave me an hour of advice which will probably result in a few hundred hours of work for myself. I know this, because an earlier twenty minute chat resulted in a similar level of effort. That kind of follow-up makes him want to give me more of his time, because he knows that a small amount of his time will result in a large action from me.

Contrast this to most requests for advice. People wanting advice on how to study for an exam, even though they haven’t bothered to look at any of my other articles or books on the topic. People who want to know how to start a blog, but haven’t even read the first hits that would come up in a Google search. These people are draining, and will never get high-quality mentors.

Side note: Saying you respect someone’s time and energy and actually respecting it, are not the same thing. Just because you preface a monstrous, autobiographical email with an ambiguous request for advice with the phrase that, “I respect how busy you must be,” doesn’t make it so.

2) Being a Loser, Instead of a Winner

This one is harsh, but true. Mentors like mentees who are go-getters, make things happen and get results. They dislike people who complain a lot, require hand-holding and can’t take action.

Being a winner isn’t simply a matter of being smart, or never making mistakes or even having an enormous track-record for success (although those help). It’s about taking responsibility for your own goals and not being dependent on anyone, mentors included, to take decisive action.

Part of the reason a mentor will offer advice is because of your ambition and potential. Even if you’re not in a position to help them now, they’ll recognize that you may one day outpace them and can be in a position to help. I’ve always been most eager to coach the people that probably would have succeeded without my help.

This isn’t fair. The people who need mentorship the most, in this instance, are probably least likely to get it. The bright students get doted on by the teacher, instead of those who need help.

But once you recognize this fact, you can use it to your advantage. Always position yourself as someone who is both very humbled to be receiving advice, but tenacious and aggressive in implementing it. Even if you don’t have a track record to prove to people your abilities, you can still take whatever small pieces of advice mentors toss your way and implement them.

3) Looking for Status Connections, Not Actual Advice

I remember when Cal Newport and I ran the first pilot for our deliberate practice course. We told people to find someone they respected, in their career, and attempt to interview them to extract some of their thinking on how to improve their skill.

What we had envisioned was a junior software developer interviewing someone with 20 years of experience at their firm. What we got was people wanting to have a one-on-one with Tim Ferriss, even though they weren’t even writers.

Wanting to network with famous people is great, but don’t confuse a request for advice for anything other than what it is: a vain attempt to connect with someone important. Tim Ferriss can’t offer you better advice on being a management consultant than someone with a few decades of experience. Worse, he’s completely inaccessible.

A request for advice from mentors has to come from a place of honesty: that you actually care about the advice they have, and that you aren’t primarily interested in rubbing shoulders with fame and status.

How can you tell whether a request for advice is sincere or not?

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is this person the most accessible person who has the knowledge I need? Sometimes you’ll need to network with world-class people to get the knowledge you want. But often you don’t. Someone a little further ahead will do, and they’ll be far easier to talk to until you earn the status to talk to your idols.
  2. Have I already read all the public advice on the topic? Getting personalized advice is helpful, but it’s a waste if you haven’t already dug into everything that person has already shared publicly. If you aren’t willing to do basic research, but you’re eager for mentorship, that’s a big red flag that it’s a vanity connection you’re after.
  3. Am I looking for vague “help” instead of a specific request for advice? Sometimes the best advice mentors will offer won’t be specific tips, but changing your way of thinking. That’s fine. But going into a potential relationship without any clear idea of what information they could even possibly provide, is usually a waste of time.

Getting status connections is important, and it can sometimes be more useful than actual advice. However, the rules of the game here are different, and mentors resent it when you pretend to be seeking advice, but are really interested in having a new high-status friend.

Side note: People are notoriously self-deceptive about this practice, claiming to desire advice when they really want vanity connections. If I had to go through the emails in my inbox which were sincere requests for advice versus vanity attempts, they latter would outnumber the former by an order of magnitude, yet most of those people wouldn’t even be aware they were doing it. Being honest with yourself is the first step.

The Best Mentors are Friends, not “Mentors”

Finally, nobody who will be a mentor to you will explicitly call themselves a mentor, or respond to that title. They’ll just be a friend or colleague who happens to occasionally give you advice. Drawing attention to the nature of the relationship is often unnecessary and potentially damaging.

Good mentors are friends whom you occasionally ask for advice. Even if the flow of advice is mostly one-way, treat them like friends: not objects of worship or status symbols to be associated with. If you’re good at finding mentors, you probably won’t even think of them as mentors, nor will they think of you as a mentee.