Don't Go Looking for a Mentor. Your Best Teachers Are All Around You, Right Now.
Recently, a friend of mine wrote a book about how she’s always longed to go to Paris but finally resigned herself to the fact that she won’t. And she’s okay with that. Because Paris, for my friend, is not something out there -- it’s what’s right in front of her. She’s given up on the veneer of a life captured on Instagram and rejected the promise of fulfillment a city can bring. Instead, she’s embracing the life she has to live right now and discovering some extraordinary lessons along the way.
When I heard this, I couldn’t help but think of Hemingway’s move to Paris in the 1920s, and how it changed the course of his life forever. But for every Hemingway in Paris, there’s a Bronte in Haworth. In spite of what we’ve been told, creative success rarely happens in isolation. It is often the result of complex systems and networks. There are no lone geniuses -- only collaborative communities that seemingly produce extraordinary individuals.
But what network did the Bronte sisters, living in rural England in the 1850s, have? Certainly not the host of influential artists and authors Hemingway was privy to in 1920s Paris. What team of mentors led to their inarguable contribution to the world of literature? Well, for one, they had each other. And in light of my friend’s book, I am left wondering:
What if the thing you’ve always wanted was actually right in front of you?
The other weekend, I hosted a conference of 150 people from all over who had come together to learn how to build an audience around their messages. Those in attendance were aspiring authors, novelists-in-the-making and bloggers of all types. At the conference, we kept bringing up the metaphor of the “table,” which meant the place where life is shared. We had attendees sit at round tables and discuss takeaways from the different sessions.
At one of the breaks, an attendee stopped me and said, “For the longest time, I’ve been trying to get a seat at the wrong table. This,” she said gesturing to the table of people she had met only 24 hours before, “is what I’ve been looking for. This is my tribe.”
It’s a powerful idea. Maybe the community we’re called to, the one that just might change our lives, is not a new network after all but an all-too-familiar one we’ve been neglecting. Maybe the place where our greatest growth happens is the place where we find ourselves right now. And that little idea just might change everything.
Maybe the place where our greatest growth happens is the place where we find ourselves right now.
The myth of the self-made man
In the Middle Ages, we had a different way of gaining access to professional networks. Under the apprenticeship system, a person worked for free in exchange for an education. The student lived in the same house as the teacher, ate the same meals and watched what the master did, internalizing the process. For hundreds of years, this was the way a person became a professional. It was a totally immersive process, and it began as early as age twelve.
After completing the first stage of apprenticeship, the student -- now called a journeyman -- could travel to other cities for work. What a journeyman could not do, though, was take on apprentices. That right was reserved exclusively for masters.
In many ways, a journeyman was still a student, though now able to be paid for his work. To be a journeyman meant applying the techniques your teacher had passed down to see if they worked in the real world. It was a test, to see if you had what it took. And not everyone completed the process.
There was a certain amount of angst to being a journeyman. It was a restless season in life that demanded resolution, ending in either success or failure. After a period of wandering, a journeyman would return home and submit a work to the local guild -- this was called a masterpiece -- and if it passed the test, the guild would accept the journeyman, giving him the title of master.
How long do you think this process took? A far cry from the modern internship, where you spend a summer fetching coffee and bagels for your boss, an apprenticeship usually took about 10 years to complete. It was a way of learning a skill under the dedicated guidance of someone wiser and more experienced. But in modern times, this ancient art has all but disappeared.
Now, the responsibility for reaching your potential is up to you.
Despite what we’ve heard, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. We are all products of our environment, influenced by the people we encounter and the places we live. In other words, we need help. So how do we find it?
Finding your life’s calling does not happen without the aid and assistance of others. Every story of success is really a story of community. Some people will help you willingly, while others may contribute to your education on accident. But if you are wise, you can use it all. This is what I called an accidental apprenticeship in my book, The Art of Work.
Here’s how it works.
Designing your own apprenticeship
Three years ago, three people I barely knew got together and decided they wanted to start a mastermind group. Each person asked three other people to join the group, and that’s how the twelve of us started meeting together every week to discuss our businesses and lives. We’ve been doing it ever since.
This was not the table I’d hoped to be invited to. I didn’t even know it existed. And yet, this group has been the single greatest source of my professional and personal growth in the past decade. Finding your own network may lead to a similar breakthrough. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t immediately recognize it.
Here’s how to find your own accidental apprenticeship group:
1. Decide what you want to learn. Try to get as specific as possible. Listen to your life and pay attention to what it says. Once you get clear on this, share it with people you know so that you can get connected to others who want similar things.
2. Identify a community you can learn from. Don’t look for a single mentor -- look for a group of them. Most mentoring is not between individuals but amongst peers. Even in the Middle Ages, this was often the case. In the studio of a master, there were sometimes a dozen students all working together under the tutelage of a teacher but also learning from each other.
3. Use the resources of the group to help everyone reach their goals. If the group is not already meeting together, then it’s your job to call them together. Help everyone understand what each individual brings to the table, and encourage them to share their talents.
This was what the Bronte sisters did for each other. They didn’t have access to the world’s greatest writing teachers, so they became the network they needed. They created their own group of mentors that would help them succeed, writing stories as little girls and sharing them with one another.
I think the lesson here is obvious: Don’t neglect the opportunity you have to create the network you need with the people who are already around you. Don’t miss where you are right now.
Back to that conference I hosted the other weekend.
On the last day, when we were saying goodbyes to each other, I noticed people who had sat together all weekend exchanging phone numbers and email addresses. Yes, I thought to myself. They got it. Community creates opportunity. And if that’s true, then one of the best things we can do is create more community.
Sometimes, I think, we get the wrong idea when we see people who succeed because of their network. We think the largest groups with access to the most important people are where growth happens. But often, success is the result of everyday effort multiplied by a small group of people.
We forget that when Hemingway went to Paris, the world didn’t yet know who Gertrude Stein or Ezra Pound was. James Joyce was only beginning his literary career. And Paris was just a cheap place to live. So when you think about your Paris, that place where your greatest growth may occur, try to remind yourself that these places can exist anywhere -- in the hustle and bustle of 1920s Paris, on a farm in 1850s England and all points in between.
As you consider who should be sitting at your table, that small group of people who will change your life (and hopefully you, theirs), remember -- these people do not have to be famous. They just have to be committed. What makes a group special is not the prestige of any single member but the collective wisdom it shares.
This is where that old quote by Margaret Mead still rings true: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."
When we gather around any given table, we create community. And what that small group of conference attendees taught me is that we can always squeeze in at least one more chair. So if you don’t have your seat yet, then you just might be the one who’s supposed to call everyone together.