The Foolproof Way to Get a Mentor

Pete Ross

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School didn’t teach you the stuff you actually need (and this is true even if you’re a doctor). If you’re lucky, you learned how to learn. That will help you because now your education is about to actually start. Do you want to learn this on your own by trial and error or would you like some help? — Ryan Holiday.

I think we’ve reached the point by now that anyone truly interested in self-development and excellence in any field knows that getting a mentor and surrounding yourself with people better than you is one of the keys to making your performance skyrocket. The question remains though, how do you even get a mentor? The answers I’ve seen before are often unhelpful and sometimes even downright useless. “You need to add value.” Honestly, what the hell does that even mean? If you can’t give a better response than being vague, then you probably don’t know what you’re talking about and should leave the advice to people who do.

This is going to be a short one, because it’s actually really simple and easy to get a mentor, but probably not in the way you imagined it. Here’s how you do it. First of all, you have to absolutely avoid the following three questions like the plague:

Will you be my mentor? Jesus, why don’t you ask them to marry you while you’re at it, because that’s how this question sounds. As if the formality of it isn't enough, there's also the signal those words send. It’s clear that this will be full of obligation and work for the person you’re asking, and if they're smart, it will make them run faster than a groom with cold feet at a wedding.

Can I take you for coffee and pick your brain? Ugh, again, no. It shows that you’re unfocused and just wanting to grab a whole chunk of their (precious) time to shoot the breeze.

Can you write me a training program / help me do my resume / help me do my business plan? Absolutely hell no. Do NOT do this. Now you’re asking for their time and expertise for free, and the worst part is that it shows you haven’t even bothered to do the work. If you went to someone and said “I’ve been working on this business plan and I think it’s solid, but there’s this one thing I don’t know about,” that is something that might get you a response, because it follows the logic I’m about to lay out now.

There’s only one question you need to start a mentoring relationship, and it’s this:

Hey, I noticed you do x, how come?

This works in literally every field, whether you’re trying to make it to the top of sports, become a famous author, or get promotions at work. It’s a question that will never be dismissed or seen as a pain in the ass. That’s because this innocent little question is code for a whole bunch of things:

· It shows that you’re paying attention to what they’re doing

· You’re asking a direct question that they can probably answer easily

· It shows that you’re only asking them that, and their commitment ends there

· You’re showing them that you value their opinion and knowledge

After that, you want to do one of two things:

· If the question you asked was directly relevant to something you do, finish the conversation with “thanks, I’ll try that.” And then actually go and try it, then report back with what your results.

· If the question was because you thought you knew the answer, use it to continue the conversation. “Oh that’s interesting, I thought it might have been because x.” Now you’ve got a good back and forth going where you can further increase your rapport with the person.

Essentially, you want to show that the advice received has been put to good use. Otherwise, you run the risk of being seen as a flake or worse, a suck up just trying to gain influence. That’s the thing about mentors — you should only be looking for one because you want their expertise and advice, not because you want to use them as a springboard.

From my direct experience, nothing irritates me more than someone who asks for my help and then does nothing with it. Even if that person came back to me and said “I tried this instead, here’s what happened” I’d be happy to hear it, because it means that I haven’t wasted my time.

Another really simple way of starting a mentoring relationship is to ask for really specific advice on something. You'll be surprised just how willing busy and very successful people are to give you pointers if you can show you've done the groundwork. I once reached out to a famous author whose work I admire asking for really specific advice on dealing with an editor, and he kindly obliged by giving me a couple of sentences worth of his experience.

It's worth noting that this wasn't our first interaction - I'd previously told him I admired his work and was specific about the pieces, and very importantly, I was brief and to the point. I didn't drone on or babble, I was very clear in exactly what I wanted to know.

So if you want to take that approach, that's what you want to do. Be clear, be brief. There's nothing worse than a long winded, meandering question where you have to decipher what the person is even trying to say. Be sure to thank them and follow up with how it worked out for you.

That’s how simple it is. What, did you expect I was going to tell you an easy way to suddenly be apprenticing under Tom Ford? That’s not how mentoring works. You aren’t going to get married after one date, and you aren’t going to get the long term mentoring opportunity of a lifetime with a single question or conversation.

I highly suggest you also go and read Ryan Holiday’s take on mentoring.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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