Broadly speaking, there are three types of mentors:
1. The Mentor-Mentor. Someone you like/admire who has knowledge or experience you currently don’t have but would like to have some day. You converse from time to time, share experiences, and when you’re in a bit of a bind you go to them with your questions.
2. The Coach-Mentor. Similar to the mentor-mentor, except you pay them - usually to help you work through a specific problem. Unlike a mentor-mentor, they may not have dealt with the specific problems you’re facing themselves, but they have the skills to guide you through it and keep you honest.
3. The Sponsor-Mentor. Someone in a position of power in your field (an employer, leading employee, leading light, etc) who thinks you’re uber talented and so actively advocates for you to get more and better work.
The ideal mentor, in my head at least, would be some combination of the first and third: someone whose work you’re in awe of who admires your work in return, with whom you exchange regular tips, contacts and regular social meet ups. Kind of like a workplace parent, older sibling or cool aunt.
In practice, of course, it doesn’t usually work like this. (Although if you’ve had that kind of mentoring relationship, please tell me about it in the comments.) Most of the mentoring relationships I’ve had have been both less intense and less formal: older people I’ve admired and struck up friendships with over time, whom I’ve called up when I’m in a bind or want some feedback. Usually, I’ve built up the relationship for a while before I’ve dropped the ‘M’ word, and usually, I haven’t gone into the relationship trying to turn it into that.
While I’ve been fortunate to have these awesome people in my life (and they are pretty damn awesome), I have to admit I’ve often felt a bit out of my depth when it comes to career stuff. Mostly this is because, while I know where I want to go with my work, there isn’t really a clear career path for what I’m doing. How to get from one level to the next can see confusing and daunting.
Given this state of affairs, I have often daydreamed about asking one of my personal idols to be my mentor - or, you know, to at least look at my book proposal. This has rarely gone very well. Perhaps this is because I am shite at asking for things, but I think there might be something bigger at play. Namely: the person you most want to “be” is not necessarily the person best placed to help you get there.
And also: if you’re going to ask someone to mentor you, you should probably first figure out what you actually want them to help you with. Beyond, “I think you’re awesome and it would totally make my life if we could be friends.” Or “How do I become more like you?”
And while you’re at it, you probably shouldn’t start out by straight out asking them to be your mentor. That’s like asking someone you’ve @’d a couple of times on Twitter to be your best friend, or asking a cute guy or girl at a bar to be your steady partner. It’s a lot of commitment to ask from someone who doesn’t know you.
Instead, think about the things you actually could do with knowing more about in order to improve your work, and think about who would be best placed to teach you about them. Then ask them to meet you for coffee to talk about that specific thing, or ask them a clear and specific question over email.
Maybe you’ll only speak to them once, or maybe you’ll only correspond with them a couple of times a year. That’s okay. Most mentoring relationships don’t look like the fantasy scenario I laid out in my first couple of paragraphs - and if they do end up that way, it’s something that happens over months or years.
I’ll leave you with an exercise. If you were to think about the specific skills and information you need to do your work better, who would you put on your mentoring dream team?
I’ll go post mine in the comments now.