Why We All Need Mentors

Throughout time mentors have played critical roles in shaping some of the world’s most influential figures. As much as we’d like to think that we can go it alone, we can’t.

Oprah had Maya.

Luke had Yoda.

And Plato had Socrates.

During his commencement speech to the University of Houston graduates, Arnold Schwarzenegger emphasized how the concept of the self-made man is a myth.

“I didn’t just materialize out of nowhere like the Terminator through a fireball in the streets of Los Angeles, and then all of a sudden I was there. He said. No. I would have never made it in my life without the help.”

For some reason, we like to think that we can go it alone. Figure stuff out by trial and error. And to a certain extent, that may be right. I have learned a lot from my screw-ups.

But, I have learned much more from the people I like to think of as my mentors. I have several and they each help me in different areas of my life. One helps me understand all the complexities and nuances of race. Another helps me with business and big life decisions. Another helps me with school-leadership matters. Two more help me with trying to get where I think I want to be. And the final group is, to borrow from Tim Ferris’ book title, my tribe of mentors.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t go searching for either of these mentors. They sort of just happened organically. I know. I know. Sounds like a fairy tale. But that is really how it happened. And if I may be so bold, I would suggest that that is how you will find your mentors.

I say mentors—plural—because I think we need different folks for different areas of our life. The person that you look to for advice on your next writing project may not be the person who helps you craft your next fitness plan.

While I am fortunate to have these mentors in my life, there are a few things that I have learned and am still learning, about how to properly maintain and sustain that relationship.


Don’t Just Listen, Do!

There are few things more frustrating than when someone asks us for advice and then we go off and do something totally different. It’s like, well then why did you ask me?

I’ve been guilty of this. Not smart. Remember, your mentor, more often than not, knows better than you. So when they give advice on what to do. DO IT! Hubris may tempt you—once you’ve heard what they have to say—you overthink and do your own thing.

Don’t do that!

Remember, they know more than you about whatever it is you were asking them about. So, just do it damn it! Don’t let your ego get in the way and convince you that you knew best all long. You didn’t. That’s why you went to them.

And here’s another bonus. By taking their advice, it allows you to not waste another moment thinking about what it is you are going to do. Remember, they’ve been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt.


Expect & Accept Radical Candor

One of the quickest ways to learn is to receive rapid and honest feedback. It’s not always going to feel good and many times you may walk away mumbling to yourself, what do they know blah blah blah.

What inevitably happens, is that after further reflection, you realize that they were right. And the time you spent mumbling and grumbling could have been time spent doing.

Or, you decide to ignore their advice and you regret it. You promise yourself that you will never doubt them again. That is a lie. You will. It’s human nature to think we know better. But, at least now you know that they are your mentor for a good reason. They know better.


Give Them Space

Once you find the right mentors, it is tempting to want to bombard them. You have so many questions. There is so much you want to learn.

Be careful. This is a trap that I have fallen into. Mentors need space and time. They have personal and professional lives just like you do. Ease up from time to time. Don’t smother them.

Once I found my mentors I wanted to know everything. How did they get where there are today? What would they do about this? How should I respond to that? I have an idea for X, what do you think?

Don’t do that.

Also, remember that even though your mentors are the ones you look to for advice and wisdom, you also have an obligation to contribute. Maybe not in the same way that they do. But pay attention. And look for ways you can help them, without being asked.


Remember That You Too Can Be a Mentor

Up to this point, this article has been about your mentors. But just because you have mentors doesn’t preclude the fact that you can be a mentor yourself. Most likely, you already are.

Pay attention to the advice that you give your mentee. Be vulnerable. Be honest. And above all else, be patient. As mentioned previously, remember that your mentee may have a lot of questions. Heck, you once did. You probably still do.

And that’s okay.

It’s how we grow and it’s how we get better.


“A good mentor can be more informative than a college education and more valuable than a decade’s income.”

Sean Stevenson