Finding a Mentor — Tricky Business for Pioneers

My grandmother died a few years ago. She was 93. At her wake, a 70+ year old friend of hers stood up and told the story of how she was always going to my grandmother for encouragement.

“I’d say, ‘I’m scared,’ and Sophie would say, ‘You just have to do it. Even if you’re scared, what choice do you have? Just stand up there and do it.'”

It made me think — the need for such encouragement never ends! As a child, one gets way too much advice and biased attempts at guidance. As an adult, one has to work at identifying mentors and crafting relationships with them. I hope my experience is unusual, but I have found it very difficult to find mentors who are willing or able to provide suggestions along alternative or unconventional paths.

The traditional role of the career mentor, as I’ve observed it, is to point out the hidden or unspoken realities of the normal path. What’s appropriate or not appropriate. Who to approach or not to approach. How to power-dress. I have gotten mostly unhelpful responses to questions like: “I don’t have a graduate degree or the money to get one. I know it’s not legally required; how would you suggest I get a foot in without going back to school?” or “I know the usual path is to start as an ‘assistant’, but I’m 40 years old with 20 years of work experience. Is there something else I could offer as I apprentice, other than entry-level, office work?”

The one exception I’ve encountered is telling. I have rarely met a self-employed PhD (in something other than academia or a licensed profession) who didn’t tell me that I don’t need one, that they don’t “use” theirs, and that they wish they’d use the time they spent getting it doing something else (often, that something else is “learning how to market myself.”)

I believe that what’s behind this is a form of insecurity — perhaps imposter syndrome. Even very successful people have bought into the notion that their specific education and training is what makes them qualified to do what they do. I don’t think it works that way.

It seems to me that we’re born with gifts, talents, and sensibilities that our educational experiences (and not just the formal ones) nurture. We all need to learn specific skills and gain particular knowledge to apply those gifts responsibly in the world; however, the notion that there is only one path to this learning is dangerous.

What gets lost to the world when we prevent talented people from sharing those talents because their dress and manner doesn’t please the people in position to hand out the credentials? Or, when the only credentials that count cost tens of thousands of dollars?

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