8 Ways Having a Mentor Can Change Your Life
Getting a mentor isn’t necessarily easy. They’ll be giving up a lot of their time and energy to help you, and they’ll be doing it solely for the satisfaction of seeing you succeed. But many people who have found career success, perhaps after having had a supportive mentor themselves, will want to pay it back by mentoring someone in turn. You could be the beneficiary of that generous inclination. If there’s someone in your field – or the field you aspire to enter in future – who has already been supportive of you, perhaps asking if there’s anything they can do to help you out, then it’s OK to ask them if they might be interested in an ongoing mentorship arrangement. Even if they say no, they might well be flattered that you respect their experience and expertise enough to have asked.
All the same, you might be wondering why it’s worth all the fuss to get a mentor. You might feel that you can learn plenty about the workings of your field through your immediate peers, your teachers, your manager, or even just by looking up resources online, rather than having a mentor taking up your time. But a mentor can help you in a surprising number of ways; having a mentor may even change your life. Here’s how.
1. They can introduce you to people you ought to know
In too many areas of life, it still remains the case that who you know can matter nearly as much as what you know. That is to say, that you can be the best person for a job, internship or place on a course on paper, but that the people making the decision will prefer to pick the person they already know, or has been recommended to them by someone they respect. In some cases, these opportunities might not even be generally advertised; for instance, the lab doing research that you’re interested in might not advertise for a summer intern, but if you know someone who works there, they might be able to find an opening all the same.
If you don’t have these kinds of connections through friends or family members, having a mentor can be a means of getting introduced to the people you need to know to get a leg-up when it comes to getting opportunities. A well-connected mentor can set up phone calls and meetings for you, or invite you to the kind of informal get-togethers of people in the field that can be invaluable for networking. You might not feel the benefit of this until years later, when you see someone you once shared a pot of tea with across the table from you at an interview – or it could result in productive conversations that lead to new ideas and new opportunities straight away.
2. They can help you avoid the mistakes they made
Whatever your field, you may find that there are some mistakes you have to make for yourself in order to learn from them and avoid them in future. Thankfully, that’s not the case for all mistakes – there are some that with the right guidance, you can avoid making the first time. In particular, there may be mistakes that are hard to warn for in literature or conferences, but that a close confidant such as a mentor will easily be able to spot you heading towards.
A mentor can be entirely honest with you about their own mistakes – unlike a teacher or a manager, who might be constrained by the type of relationship that they have with you. You might also feel more comfortable in discussing openly and honestly with a mentor where you think you might be going wrong. These factors in combination help you spot possible areas where you might be making mistakes.
What sort of mistakes might these be? It could be taking the wrong approach in applying for an internship; structuring your start-up in a way that might make it difficult to expand; choosing the wrong subjects or modules for your intended future career; approaching networking in a way that’s off-putting to the contacts you’re trying to make – or any one of dozens of other possible issues that a good mentor will be able to identify and help you with before they become a real problem.
3. They can give you practical advice
Providing you with straightforward answers to practical questions is one of the most helpful things that a mentor can do. For instance, you might wonder whether you ought to work longer hours than you’ve been asked to when doing an internship, or whether that will simply make it look as if you’re not doing your work efficiently (and the answer to such a question can vary considerably depending on the culture and nature of the company where you’re interning).
There are other practical questions where a mentor can provide you with insider knowledge that might not be accessible any other way. For instance, they might be able to tell you what the most important things to have on your covering letter are for a particular role. Or they could tell you what a typical salary range is for the role you’re applying for, so that you know what to ask for without risking underselling yourself. These are just some of the range of questions that you can’t ask a manager, but you can ask a mentor, avoiding missing out on great opportunities or being paid what you’re worth.
4. They can advise you on unexpected situations
There are some situations that you’ll encounter in your academic and working life that no textbook writer will ever have considered. Real life is often more ridiculous and more unpredictable than we can ever imagine, and if you’re a high-flyer, you’re more likely to encounter unusual and surreal situations than your more average peers. Browsing an advice blog like Ask a Manager demonstrates just how strange some people can be in a workplace or academic setting, and there are plenty of other situations that aren’t related to interpersonal issues that can throw you off as well, such as freak weather conditions upsetting an experiment, or geopolitics unexpectedly affecting the product you’re planning on launching.
But having a mentor means that you won’t have to rely on the advice of strangers on the internet when you encounter an unusual or unexpected situation. All you’ll need to do is send them a quick text or email to be steered in the right direction, or at least reassured that the situation is as weird and challenging as you believe it to be. What’s more, because your mentor will have made many of the same mistakes as you themselves, they might also be able to advise you when your strange and unexpected situation turns out to be more usual than you realise for someone in your position. Either way, you’ll be grateful that you were able to consult them.
5. They can let you know about opportunities
It’s estimated that 70-80% of jobs aren’t advertised. Of course, many of these unadvertised jobs aren’t advertised for good reason; for instance, they’re created with a particular applicant in mind, or they’re so specialised that advertising them openly would be a waste of time compared with directly approaching the handful of people who might be qualified for them. But there are plenty of exceptions to this rule, and even in the category of the 20-30% of jobs that are advertised, there are lots that aren’t advertised very well; they might simply appear on an organisation’s website and nowhere else, or on a handful of pages or mailing lists accessed exclusively by people who are already involved in that career path.
When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to miss these kinds of listings altogether, and that’s where your mentor comes in. Infuriatingly, it’s much easier to hear about entry-level openings when you’re already higher up in a particular field than when you’re someone who might actually want to apply for those positions. Your mentor might also be able to tell you about possible openings that don’t exist yet, such as a company or lab that they know to be short-staffed but that have yet to get the hiring process underway. If you can send an enquiry letter at the right time, you might be able to get a position before it’s advertised to anyone else.
6. They can teach you how to accept feedback well
Accepting feedback is never easy. Even positive feedback can be hard to respond to, as it’s not clear what the line is between seeming arrogant and lacking self-esteem, but it’s negative feedback that poses the real challenges – especially if it highlights an issue that you weren’t previously aware of. Having a mentor helps you get better at accepting feedback in two ways: one is through practice, and the other is through having a setting where there are fewer consequences.
How having practice helps is obvious. Your mentor can even help you with this, by letting you know whether they feel like you’ve responded to feedback well, or whether there’s more you can do.
Having fewer consequences is of equal help. Normally, when you get feedback from a teacher, lecturer or manager, that feedback comes with consequences attached – for your final grade, your chances of promotion, or even your salary level. That means you have a lot to think about beyond the feedback itself. None of that is the case when your mentor gives you feedback, making it easier to think about, accept and learn from.
7. They can be someone to confide in
The further we advance in our careers, the harder it can be to confide in people when we’re struggling. In primary school, you undoubtedly went to your teacher every time you bumped your head or grazed your shin. But by the time it gets to the later years of secondary school or the start of university, you’re much less likely to talk to your teacher about problems that you’re having even when they might strongly prefer that you did. In a workplace context, there are boundaries that make some issues you might be feeling inappropriate to discuss with a manager.
For example, it wouldn’t be appropriate to confide in your manager that you feel an irrational, groundless dislike for one of your colleagues – but that’s the sort of thing that you can talk to a mentor about, and they can help you find strategies to deal with it. The same goes for all kinds of conversations that you might need to have with someone, but not be able to have with co-workers, peers or people in a leadership role. And if it is something that you can and should talk to a manager, teacher, lecturer or whomever else about, then your mentor can nudge you towards doing that as well.
8. They can encourage you when you need it
Regardless of your career goals, sometimes what you really need is a bit of encouragement that your work is good and that overall you’re on the right path. You’ll hopefully get this from family and friends, of course, but if they don’t know your field then that can ring a bit hollow – how can they be sure that you’re doing well? Besides, unless your family and friends are particularly strong believers in tough love, it’s likely that they would say encouraging words whether they’re true or not. A mentor, on the other hand, is likely to care more about enabling your success than your happiness; if they tell you that you’re doing well and that you should keep at it, then it’s because it’s true. Everyone has moments of self-doubt, especially if you’re doing something notoriously challenging like trying to launch yourself as an entrepreneur. Your mentor can advise, guide and encourage you to get through these tough times, and be rewarded for their hard work by seeing you succeed.
Images: handshake; coffee spill; friendly meeting; snow day; stressed; feedback; cup of coffee; cheer squad; mentor.