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.

  • Alain P. Fundi

    Excellent post !

    I guess somehow you are saying that mentors are all around us but we aren’t open minded enough, not receptive enough if we don’t know them. Is this correct ?

    In a way, are you saying listen to the friend who gives you advice that work for you. They care enough to take the time for you and give you what you need. Only you can call them a mentor.

    I really like this because it is deep and requires personal work.

    Thank you.

  • Jefferson

    What a insightful post!

    In other words don’t be lazy and needy. If you want something from other people it’s better to give something back to them. Something as valuable as what you want. It applies in all life endeavours such as relationships.

  • Bruce Harpham

    As a die hard book fan, it has taken my years to learn and deeply appreciate this point:
    “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 one of the reasons why I have become a fan of interview-based podcasts. It`s one more way of getting that tacit knowledge out into the open.

    On a different point:
    “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.`

    Noted! 🙂

  • Melvin

    This is what I needed to hear: mentors get the most benefit of seeing you grow. So when they see the fire in your eyes to implement it, and the results 3 to 6 months later, they’ll love you.

    So here’s a question. I could google it (and I will when I need it), but you might think it’d be an interesting topic to write about. How do I find the non-famous experts?

  • Dana Griffin

    Thank you for this post. It was both candid and refreshing. Regarding your last point, however, some people make time in their schedules specifically to “mentor” others. While they also may be friends or colleagues, it is for their own benefit that they add space in their otherwise busy calendars to mentor others. Were this not the case, you might not bother to read any of your emails. 🙂

  • Vince

    Couldn’t agree more on that. Mentors are great for connecting with and see if there are things that could help on your field of work.

    There tends to be a lot of work for finding help and connecting with mentors along the way. I have read a bit on the subject, and the fact that most successful people (famous or not) have a lot on their schedule everyday, that we need to spend some bit of time and effort preparing whether we could find solutions to our problems or not.

    Of course, if you’ve attended a meet up or conference, do make the chance to talk to someone who has been where you are. Offer them help when you can.

    Regarding the last point about approaching potential mentors properly, asking questions tends to be something important to prepare too. I have had to realize how important to ask good questions if I want specific advice to my situation, as most people are busy and simply cannot afford to work with un-specific questions.

    Here is a great post I found from the Personal MBA blog, and I think this is important to add here: http://joshkaufman.net/how-to-

    There are some specific kinds of situations where if you need help and you just couldn’t find help elsewhere, and you want to reach out to this person for help, formulate it appropriately. Make it easy for the other person to answer.

    Overall, a great topic that I can relate to.

  • Tim

    Great post! Especially liked how you emphasize that yeah, sometimes the ‘mentee’ doesn’t have anything to give back to the ‘mentor’, but those relationships can and do exist.

    Dissecting what makes someone a good ‘mentee’ was also very helpful.

    Will look forward to (hopefully!) a future post on your thoughts on how to best leverage a mentor-mentee relationship when you have one, e.g. what to ask, how to prepare, what not to do, etc.

  • Khama

    This article was great! I’ve been really struging lately and thought that maybe having a mentor would be helpful but reading this article made me realize, I need an accountability partner not a mentor. Thanks again!

  • Carina Spring

    Interesting post. In my profession, I have enjoyed friendships with people who “mentored” me. As the years have passed, I have mentored others, too. It is a wonderful experience to be on both sides of that kind of relationship. I agree, though, that there exists a power imbalance in that kind of friendship, so it is a unique and more delicate kind of relationship where genuine respect (on both sides) is important and rewarding. As one gets more experience, sometimes the mentorship-relationship becomes more equal and therefore evolves into a more traditional “friendship”. In the last month I have started to blog – and since I am a total beginner (doing it for fun and not technologically inclined!) I could learn a lot from a mentor! I hadn’t considered this until now! Lol. Thanks and good work.

  • Bruce Harpham

    Comment regarding Melvin’s question:
    ” “

    Here are ten ideas to help you locate “non-famous” experts:
    1) Look for “silver medal” winners (credit to Tim Ferriss with this idea)
    -> Someone who comes in second place (e.g. for sports, for business, for research) knows a great deal and yet they don’t get approached as often.

    2) Pick up a book in your niche and look at who the author thanks in the acknowledgements section
    -> This is also adapted from Tim Ferriss.

    3) Consult a University directory of experts
    -> Example for the Unviersity of Toronto, Canada’s largest university:

    4) Look at Associations and organizations in your niche and contact people in leadership roles
    -> example: if you are looking to meet leading entrepreneurs, you could contact the Entrepreneur’s Organization

    5) Look through a list of influencers as identified by a major outlet (skip the top 5 or top 10)
    -> example: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ha

    6) Do a Google search for “topic” + Award or nomination
    -> Example: search for “entrepreneurship award nomination”
    —> Result: http://www.ey.com/CA/en/About-

    7) If you are looking for business experts, consider paying for a meeting using a service such as Clarity.FM

    -> In many cases, you can book a 30 minute phone call session for $50 or $100

    8) Look at the list of speakers at a conference in your niche (especially a conference list for a year or two ago)

    Topic: online marketing
    Conference: New Media Expo 2013 (http://nmxlive.com/2013-lv/)
    Example Experts: Jon Morrow, Jay Baer and John Corcoran

    9) Open the iTunes Store and browse for podcasts. Look up the top 10 podcasts in your area of interest.

    -> I recommend listening to at least two episodes, writing a rating & review on the podcast and then sending an email introduction to the host. A fair bit of work but you could easily do that in an afternoon.

    10) Look for “connectors” in the topic area who know many experts and find out who they know.

    -> Example: find a journalist who writes about your topic. Read 5-10 of their articles and see who they quote as experts. Now you have a list of people to contact.

    Good luck!

  • nishant jain

    sometime you dont need to get personalized advice . you just started following amazing people and you get your advise yourself . this is amazing article

  • nishant jain

    sometime you dont need to get personalized advice . you just started following amazing people and you get your advise yourself . this is amazing article

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  • facultyrow

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    Faculty Row also recommend this where you find top professors for yourself.

  • wow man now that u mention it i have quite a few close friends who are pretty much mentors wow

  • u rock for this eye opening post im gonna call me buds let em know i care.