Having a mentor is something that has been increasingly valued in the last few years, at least here in Finland. There are several good reasons to have someone more senior in the field you are looking to get into, or so senior that age and wisdom weights more than any particular accumulated industry experience.
A mentor can give you guidance through a tough spot in your career, allows you to see and think things outside the box, has contacts to reach out to, or even provide concrete next steps to consider when preparing for the turbulence that hits many of us in one way or another in the current volatile work life. People can benefit from mentor(s) in different parts of their life. It’s never too late to have that someone special to give you advice; however I feel that the young professionals, recent graduates or soon-to-be graduates, need the help more than anyone else. The best time to find that mentor for your first steps in your chosen field is often through alumni networks or internships.
In Finland students have many occasions when they do short internships during their studies. The students that often find themselves a mentor among the more senior people are the students that seize these opportunities to the fullest. They’ll learn something new every day even if they are working by a conveyor belt, they seek the right people to clarify things they fully do not understand, they study the key activities of the whole company, not just their own tasks, and they keep an open mind with whatever is presented to them. Those are all key necessities in the work life.
Many times I have been this more senior person giving guidance, and even though they never referred me as mentor, it was essentially what I was to them. As I have a relatively versatile experience from various industries, one of the people I have helped has never been in the same industry as I have, but it wasn’t an issue at all. Even today she gives me praises and hopes someday to be able to play as significant a role to someone else. This kind of feedback is always very nice to hear.
In the other end, there once was another person who at first was very eager to learn. But the more freedom I gave him to find his own path and his own ways to do things, the more managing pressure was put on me. Agreed matters and tasks went forgotten unless I reminded him and tried to get him back on track. He had assumed for a rather long time that I would plan things for him and he would just need to execute them. My interest in helping ended right there, and I still haven’t fully overcome that. A clear failure on my part. I wasn’t able to communicate to him how important it is to take the ownership of your own choices, without expecting someone else to choose things or make decisions for you.
A friend of mine who has experienced a similar negative experience in mentoring sent me a link to a blog post by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University in the United States. “At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.” Cowen writes in his relatively short blog post (which is the reason I personally love the Marginal Revolution blogs) and we both found the message powerful.
We had a longer chat about the topic shortly after. When we went through our negative experiences, there were a lot of similarities, yet we both realized that our “protégés”, as we called the ones we were helping out, found the experience as a moment of personal growth in the end. Sometimes when your own actions make you lose someone who has been supporting you out of his/her good will without the necessity to be there, it makes you face the reality that you are the one making your own choices and choosing your own paths. By failing our mentoring we managed to still inspire those people to find themselves.
Don’t fear being a mentor or finding a mentor – it’s always an opportunity to grow and learn, for both parties. Even if it fails.