September 20, 2018

Why you should stop asking “Can you be my mentor?”

A no-nonsense guide to getting mentors

When I was in my final year of being a student, I remember creating a Facebook post saying “You shouldn’t ask people to be your mentor.”

Of course, I had expected to receive interesting reactions— flashes of wit where people ask me the same question, some pushback, and of course the question, “why not?”

A portrait of an ideal mentor.

If you are a mentor to someone, that means you’re personally invested in that person’s growth. You are there for the person, professionally, emotionally, or spiritually. You’re committed to helping the mentee become the best human being they could possibly be, regardless of the frequency or intensity of your interactions.

You want to provide as much value and help to the person, working around their strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for growth. If you’re the mentee’s boss, you will take the appropriate steps to make yourself obsolete so your mentee can replace you in the future.

If this person was you, would you say yes to every single person who comes up and asks, “Can you be my mentor?”

Will you have the bandwidth for that? In spite of all your obligations, responsibilities, hobbies, and priorities, can you possibly help another person achieve a higher state of self-actualization? What more if it were several people? How much time can you provide? What sacrifices are you willing to make to see your mentee succeed?

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this convoluted both for the mentor and the mentee. There are better ways to start off a mentor-mentee relationship.

Ask and you shall receive.

Here’s the good news — you don’t have to keep asking people whether they want to mentor you or not. Chances are, you’re just shying them away from helping you. Remember, you don’t ask a person to be your boyfriend or girlfriend on the first date! What do you do?

The secret sauce is to ask literally anything else aside from “Can you be my mentor?”

  • If you’re a designer looking to build a high-fidelity prototype that requires you to use a tool you’ve never used before, come up to a person who is an expert on it and ask how. (How do I start building this prototype?)
  • If you’re a budding organization officer who has no idea where to start or how to lead, find someone who has done it before and ask for guidance (What can you tell me about being a leader at X? How do I know I am effective as a leader?)
  • If you’re wondering what you should do next for your career, find someone who looks like they’ve figured it out and ask for advice. (I’m feeling lost and I don’t know where to go next with my career, can you help me?)

Mentors can be found anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you approach the person. Whether it’s through online means, a phone call, a bar, or a design meet-up, the fact of the matter is you were vulnerable enough to come up and ask. And more importantly, you were interested enough in the person to muster up the courage and converse with him or her.

Acknowledging that you are weak is a strength.

I like to believe that people are inherently generous and gracious. When you come up to a person to ask for their advice, the mentorship just happens organically.

On the side of the mentor, they feel good when people come up to them as it is their way of paying it forward. It makes them feel validated for their knowledge, talent, and hard work.

On the side of the mentee, it shows that you are humble enough to admit that you don’t know everything and you need help to move forward. You always have something more to learn.

If you ever reach this state, congratulations! It’s the start of a harmonious mentor-mentee relationship.

Keep the mentorship alive.

Once you have started to ask, keep finding ways to bring fuel to the fire. Provide value back to your mentor. It can be as simple as saying a sincere and authentic thank you (which is quite rare nowadays) or even sending a link or article that reminded you of them.

To make sure it keeps going, display a generous amount of motivation to learn. Caveat: motivation is not enough. Demonstrate accountability for the work you do — show that you can actually do what you’re being told to do. Let your passion and enthusiasm shine. This way, you signify to your mentor that you’re not fooling around and that you’re willing to move forward even more.

Here are some more tips:

  • Ask more well-thought out questions
  • Consult them regarding important decisions
  • Regularly check up on how they are doing
  • Do a project together

Doing this enriches the relationship and opens up more opportunities that never would have emerged if you were just casually asking a question. This is how you can gain access to your mentor’s years or decades worth of expertise and wisdom.

Diversify your learning opportunities by finding different mentors.

Elmerei shared how he made a habit of strategically stalking people of high-caliber. He told me how he would find these people first, like a few of their posts online and finally muster up the courage to talk to them. Admittedly, I also do this.

I love the idea of having multiple mentors for different areas in life. As a strong believer in learning, I abuse the fact that I have access to such a talented pool of mentors who help me become a better person—conference organizers, user researchers, product managers, badminton coaches, designers working on design systems, colleagues, design managers, and a lot more.

If you can somehow conjure a web of mentors you can rely on (or what people call a mastermind group), expect to enter a state of maximised learning. You’ll never have to second guess where you’re going.

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