“It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” -Austin Kleon
When I was in my early twenties, everyone told me I needed a mentor. It didn’t matter what my question was – the answer always involved a mentor.
“My mentor said” was a comment many of my friends used as they began their careers. It was almost like a badge of honor to have someone authoritative speaking into your life.
I had the privilege of discovering two mentors while I was in college, both of which I remain in contact with today. I am incredibly grateful for their investment in me. But what they did was not enough to deal with all of the challenges I faced.
If Austin Kleon is correct, then those who encourage us to get a mentor may be trying to help us avoid their own mistakes or follow their own pattern of success.
However, the flaw of this advice “get a mentor” is that any one person cannot guide us with wisdom through every arena of life.
The truth is you don’t need a mentor; you need lots of mentors!
In our twenties, we are navigating so many landmines in so many areas. To think that we can find one person who is excellent in every one of those areas is ludicrous.
We don’t need a mentor – we need ten mentors!
We can go further faster if we learn from and listen to everyone we meet. Not everyone will share advice we should heed, but we can learn from anyone.
The 5 Kinds of Mentors We Need
I believe there are five kinds of mentors we need, especially during the beginning of our adult years.
1. Mentors in person
In our digital-driven world, we need mentors in the flesh. Emails and calls are great, but they can’t replace looking someone in the face across a table or giving a well-timed hug or placing a hand on their shoulder. It’s far easier to disregard a disembodied voice than a person staring you in the face just a couple feet away. We need mentors who live where we live, not in disembodied pixels.
2. Mentors from a distance
There are some mentors we cannot access in person, but we can from a distance. Many of my greatest mentors are men and women I’ve never met. They’ve mentored me via Skype calls and emails, through their books or video teachings. From a distance, I’ve been mentored by Seth Godin, Dallas Willard, Patrick Lencioni, Henri Nouwen, Andy Stanley, and Jeff Goins. None of them know my name, but my life carries the mark of their legacy.
3. Mentors for a season
Some people will pass on the opportunity to mentor us because they fear we are asking for a life-long commitment. However, not every mentor relationship needs to last decades, much fewer years. Some mentors are seasonal, lasting only a few meetings or a few months. The couple who did pre-marital counseling for my wife and I only met with us a handful of times, but what they uncovered and helped us address is still transforming our marriage nearly a decade later.
4. Mentor for a specific topic
One of the biggest flaws of the “you need a mentor” advice is that one mentor is an expert on every topic. In fact, there are certain topics I don’t ask certain mentors of mine about because I don’t want their advice in that area. If I was mentoring someone, there are certain subjects where I’d direct them to learn from someone else.
This means each of us may need a financial advisor, a spiritual mentor, a relational coach, a fitness and health coach, and someone to give us direction with our career. Now before you think that sounds too exhausting and expensive, recognize that you won’t find those all at once. None of these have to be paid advisors and some of them can be people we speak to one time or once a year.
5. Mentors for life
While I have cautioned against the one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring, I believe there is value with sticking with at least one mentor for life. In relationships, nothing competes with history. When someone knows you throughout life transitions and across seasons of growth, that person gains a unique perspective on you. This kind of insight cannot be replicated in someone’s first conversation with you.
Quick Tips for Your Next Mentor Relationship
If you’ve identified that you need to develop a relationship with a new mentor, I’ve got a couple words of wisdom. As someone who has been on both ends of that relationship, these are the product of my experience.
1. Respect the mentor.
What you may perceive as “not a big deal”, they may perceive as something much greater. An email from someone who wants to “pick my brain” is often a commitment to a lunch or coffee of unknown length. If you mention a 30-minute coffee or 60-minute lunch, give your potential mentor an out before you get to the end of that time window. Respect them by coming prepared with questions. If possible, consider sharing those in advance. They may not have time to read your email, but it shows them you are intentional.
2. Be honest about expectations
If you are asking for one meeting, say that. If you have more questions than one can answer in one meeting, admit that. If you are hoping for a more protracted relationship, ask for that. In my experience, most relational frustration has come from unstated and unmet expectations. The same is true for mentoring conversations.
3. A “no” is more about them than it is about you
Be prepared to get a “no.” The kind of people you want mentoring you are busy and involved in important work. You aren’t likely the first, nor the last, person to ask them for coffee, lunch or a prolonged mentoring relationship. While it will be very easy to take a “no” as a personal insult or assessment of your worth, recognize a “no” is often more about them than it is about you. Their schedule could be full. They could already be investing in someone like you. It’s their job to say “yes” or “no”, and it’s your job to ask. Ask wisely, but be bold in your ask.
In the book of Proverbs, the writer suggests, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”
If you want to be successful, use your twenties to gain wisdom and lay a foundation for a successful future. Assemble and engage a team of wiser, more seasoned veterans who can provide immediate and ongoing feedback for you. There’s no greater investment you can make than pursuing wisdom through mentorship.