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7 Surprising Truths About Mentors

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I can tell you that everything happens for a reason. That all good things in your career are the result of your own actions. That you’re in complete control. But none of those things are true. Over the years I’ve made lots of good calls, lots of bad calls and plenty that really could have gone either way but for the luck of the draw.

One thing’s for sure. Everything that mattered – everything that made a real difference in my life – was influenced by others. Who are these mysterious “others?” You can call them mentors, if you'd like. I didn’t call them that and neither did they, but that’s neither here nor there. In every case, it went down more or less like this:

Two people just happened to be somewhere – an office, a car, a restaurant, a living room, an airplane – anywhere. One opens the door with a question or a problem, the other tells a story or provides some advice and, for whatever reason, it just magically sinks in and changes your perception. Just like that.

Since the subject comes up a lot these days, I thought I’d dispel some myths and shed a little light on the many mysteries of mentors.

They don’t wear labels. I guess is right up there in the top 10 list of fabulous entrepreneurial fads these days. Forget that. The people who changed my life all had real lives, real jobs and other titles: father, friend, teacher, girlfriend, girlfriend’s father, coworker, wife, business associate, boss, boss’s boss – everything but mentor.

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Timing is everything. Priceless advice that really sinks in is usually a function of three related conditions: you’re in need, you open yourself up and someone says something that really resonates with you. Why that particular person? Perhaps you’re drawn in some instinctive way, but it’s usually situational – your need and openness at that point in time that makes it work.

Pay attention (to what they say, not what you want to hear). If you just want someone to reinforce your beliefs then you’re wasting both of your time. In every case that mattered, what I heard was not what I wanted to hear. And it always amounted to lots of work on my part: sometimes personal, sometimes educational, sometimes work-related. I guess if I knew the answer and it was easy, I would already have done it.

If you don’t ask, you won’t get answers. I could be wrong but I think most people are a little shy about revealing too much and asking others for help or time. First, if it’s important to you, don’t stand on ceremony. Just ask. People don’t bite. Second, I’ve always lived my life more or less like an open book and it’s never really burned me yet. Privacy is overrated. Put yourself out there. People are usually happy to help with a little chat and advice.  

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It’s not logical. Logic and information may make sense to us but only stories and anecdotes that really move us can change our behavior. That’s why psychoanalysis takes years and reinforcement. A shrink can just tell you what’s going on, but that won’t change a thing. It has to sink in deep to change a long-held , self-image or process.

No strings attached. There were no executive or life coaches when I was in the market for advice, so I’d better navigate this one carefully. Professionals that come highly recommended by credible sources to coach you on specific skills know how to keep things on a professional level. Look out for conflicts of interest, personal entanglements, and those out to make a buck off you.

Look for experience and empathy, not ego. There’s a very good reason why we all manage to get decent advice from our moms and pops: they’ve been where we’re heading. The voice of experience has always resonated with me. And the less ego the better. Getting advice should be all about respecting the giver; giving advice should be all about empathy for the receiver.

When I landed my first director-level job in a startup I bought a former big-company VP I knew a couple of drinks and asked him what my first move should be. He said, “Set your sites on something that will really make a difference to the company and find a way to make it happen. That’s how to get started at a company.” I used that advice time and again throughout my career. He was right.

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