I learn the most from people I’ve never met.
I’m constantly reading books, listening to podcasts, and attending conferences weeding through a tidal wave of information and applying specific lessons to what I’m working on.
In theory, I would refer to these individuals I’ve learned from as mentors, but the relationship doesn’t seem to fit the typical mold.
Mentorship implies some sort of contractual relationship. One individual is designated the mentor, tasked with providing innumerable bits of knowledge, while the other is the mentee—the fortunate recipient of this insight.
But these days that’s not how it goes.
“Asking someone to be a formal mentor is the absolute best way to never have a good mentor.” Tim Ferriss
So, if you’re not supposed to come out and ask, how does anyone ever get mentored? More importantly, how exactly do you ask for help? I dug through advice from experienced mentors and drew from a recent interaction I had with a mentor of mine to come up with some do’s and don’ts when looking for and building a relationship with a modern mentor.
How to find the right mentor
Finding the perfect mentor to pursue can be broken down into three actionable steps:
- Identify your field. It might seem a bit obvious, but your mentor should be involved in and successful at your chosen line of work. More importantly, they should have a specific interest in your niche.
- Figure out what you want out of the relationship. Are you looking for a new job? To perfect a new skill? To get feedback on a project you’re working on? Your desired outcome will help to narrow down the list of potential candidates.
- Find the right person for the job. It can be tempting to swing for the fences and try to land the Richard Branson’s of the world. While that’s a great eventual goal, you’ll have more luck right off the bat reaching out to rising stars.
A little over a year ago, I came across the work of Belle Beth Cooper. After working as the Content Crafter for Buffer, her work was popping up everywhere including Fast Company, The Next Web, and even this very blog. But, while her work was becoming more and more popular, she was still reachable and would often respond to individuals on Twitter when they shared her writing. Belle was the perfect combination of knowledgeable and accessible.
In general, identifying rising stars can be tough. Here are some helpful places to look:
- Twitter — Social media is an obvious choice for identifying and connecting with potential mentors. Run searches on topics related to your area of interest. Once you find a handful of individuals, scan their list of accounts they follow for more. If possible, find an already established list of Twitter users pertaining to your niche. For example, I follow a list of Social Media Editors and leaders in Quantified Self.
- Guest posts — I had never heard of Shane Snow until I saw his posts pop up on Tim Ferriss’ blog. Since then, I’ve followed his work and read many of his posts. His work is similar to the kind of content I want to produce. You’re likely already reading publications related to your particular industry, but are you looking at who is writing those articles? Many times, you’ll find potential mentors appearing in bylines of other publications while they build their own audience.
- Event speaker lists — Industry events are a terrific place to network with potential mentors. More often than not, attendees are there for the sole purpose of meeting others. Instead of focusing on the heavy hitters like SXSW, start off with smaller events that recruit rising stars for presentations. Scan the speaker list ahead of time and identify two or three individuals you want to meet. Even better, try to establish a relationship with them ahead of time and mention that you’re excited to hear them talk.
Figure out how to get noticed
It’s one thing to identify someone you can learn from. Actually getting their attention is a whole different story. Here are three tactics you can use.
1. Use writing as a Trojan horse
When Ryan Holiday first met New York Times Best Seller Tucker Max, he was writing for a school newspaper. Holiday wrote a column reviewing Tucker’s website and sent it to him to read over. Over time, a relationship was born.
With Belle, I knew she was working on a startup called Exist, which helps users to track all of their quantified self data in one place. Whenever I wrote an article on the subject of health tracking I would make sure to include a mention if possible (I’m a beta user of the platform as well).
If you’re a writer that can offer a featured quote in an upcoming publication, that’s great. If not, you can still use writing as the vehicle for an introduction. Start a blog and feature other individuals within your field. Ask if you could interview them and offer to feature their recent book or product. Everyone likes a bit of good press.
2. Volunteer at relevant events
Tim Ferriss used volunteering as an opportunity to meet influential individuals when he first moved to San Francisco. He met Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and catalyst of The Four Hour Workweek, through a volunteering event for The Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs (SVASE).
Find an organization or event that could offer you a chance to interact with potential mentors. Many events will even offer you a free ticket for pledging your services for a few hours. Use that time to interact and network with attendees.
3. Actively engage with your potential mentors
Everyone loves to have their work shared with others. Blog comments and social media interactions are a terrific way to get noticed. Alex Turnbull used both as a way to engage with a list of ‘target’ influencers while building his company’s blog. His method for reaching out is a perfect starting point:
- Follow on Twitter
- Two tweets
- Two blog comments
- Two blog shares
- Personal email
How to put together the perfect ‘ask’
Your potential mentors are busy individuals. More importantly, they receive dozens of emails a week from individuals just like yourself looking for insight and advice. How do you make your request stand out?
Do your background research
Has your mentor already answered your questions in a blog post? Do they offer consulting or teach a workshop that might answer your question while also giving you hands-on experience? Failing to acknowledge either one of these items shows you didn’t do your homework.
With Belle, for example, I noticed she offered consulting at the bottom of her website. In my ‘ask’ email, I made sure to mention that I was happy to pay for an hour of her time.
Articulate what you’re looking for
While potential mentors are often eager to impart their wisdom onto others, they likely won’t spend hours reviewing your business plan. Asking for hours of their time is a quick way to get shot down.
Instead, make it easy for them to say yes. Keep your request simple and to the point. As investor and entrepreneur Brad Feld says, “If you want a response, ask specific questions”.
In my email to Belle, I had two specific questions in mind:
1. Based on this piece, any critiques on the writing style or content overall?
2. Outside of continuing to pitch pieces to larger publications, any tips for making myself a more attractive freelance candidate?
Bring something to the table
You’ve found a mentor and received some priceless wisdom to carry your career to the next level. How can you possibly repay them? Deliver.
Just like coaches love to see their players smash a home run, mentors like to see their mentees hit it out of the park. The best thing you can do is put their advice to work.
Executing on the advice might take a bit of time. What if you want to repay them sooner rather than later? Here are some recommendations:
- Recommend a book you think they might like (Bonus points if it directly relates to your conversation).
- Make an introduction you think they would benefit from. This can be touchy since you don’t want to come off like you’re the one offering advice. I would only go this route if you think the introduction will be really beneficial. Even then, I would ask for permission to make the introduction ahead of time.
- Share their work. This is a common thread throughout: Everyone appreciates having their work shared.
Don’t be annoying, but don’t be forgotten
In the past, I’ve built relationships with individuals I consider to be mentors. I asked the right questions, listened to their insight, and executed on their advice. My worst nightmare after all of that? Being forgotten.
There’s a fine line between staying relevant and being annoying. Too many email updates is a surefire way to end the relationship, but too few? Well, you might as well be Joe Schmo on the street.
If someone invested in you enough to impart some advice, they care about what you do with it. The frequency of updates is going to depend on the relationship, but I’ve found that a month is a good timeframe provided you have something to update them on. “Still working on it” doesn’t cut it. Be specific and let them know about big changes you’ve implemented.
The expression ‘Pay it forward’ fits perfectly with the modern mentorship narrative.
Mentors get where they are by following advice bestowed upon them by other smarter, more successful individuals.
If you’ve been fortunate to benefit from a mentor, consider mentoring someone else that’s sitting where you once were. Share what you’ve learned; help them grow; and then, watch them flourish. Often times, the act of imparting wisdom is equally as exciting as receiving it.
Photo credit: Groove