Your ability to find mentors and harness those relationships is a key factor in the success you’ll have in life. With a mentor, you can save years skipping the conventional career steps, and you’ll have rare doors open for you—which allows opportunities that few achieve in life or business.
Related: 8 Traits of Healthy Relationships
Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is the Way, dropped out of college to study under author Robert Greene. Now 28, Holiday is a best-selling author, marketing strategist behind authors Tucker Max and Robert Greene, and an editor-at-large for the New York Observer.
If you fail to develop mutually beneficial relationships with people who are where you want to be, you’ll most likely stay right where you are. Start with these steps:
1. Drop any mentors who aren’t propelling you forward.
The fastest way to move forward is to remove the things holding you back. Before you start exercising, reduce your junk food consumption. Once you remove the obstacles, you can take one step forward without taking two steps backward.
Time is a non-renewable resource. You can’t get it back. The wrong mentorships will not only cost you time, but can send your life and career in the wrong direction. I know from experience.
Knowing I wanted to get into psychology Ph.D. programs after my undergraduate studies, I looked for as much research experience as I could get. I worked under five different professors in their research labs. And although these professors meant well, the hundreds of hours I spent working in their labs didn’t get me any closer to my goals and I was rejected from two graduate programs.
Einstein says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So I dropped all the professors and started back at ground zero. Ground zero is better than investing time into a sinking ship. Cut your losses. You’re in control—and your external world will soon follow.
2. Be picky.
“Never take advice from someone you wouldn’t switch places with.” —Darren Hardy
Just because someone is willing to be your mentor doesn’t mean they should be. There are lots of people willing to “impart their wisdom.” But if they aren’t where you want to be, then their advice is irrelevant to you and might be lacking the practicality of someone with tangible experience.
That’s why it’s important to know where you want to go. If you don’t, anyone could be your mentor. Your criteria should be finding people who are where you want or who are “closer to the mountain” than you. Actually, people a few steps ahead of you have incredible insights to offer.
3. Speak from results, not vague ambitions.
“We need to stop telling them, ‘Get a mentor and you will excel.’ Instead we need to tell them, ‘Excel and you will get a mentor.’” —Sheryl Sandberg
Knowing the types of people you want as mentors isn’t enough. People are busy. Why should they invest their time in you? If you can provide concrete evidence that you’re serious, your chances of getting help increase dramatically.
To earn the title of serious, start with these tips:
- Learn everything you can about your field of interest.
- Start building (whether that’s rockets, articles, music, etc.).
- Ask lots of questions to people further along than you.
- Be relentless until you start getting some results.
Once you have some results, you have something interesting to discuss with potential mentors.
“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” ―Tim Ferriss
You miss every shot you don’t take. You lose nothing by asking and getting rejected. However, you fail by default when you don’t ask at all. Are you willing to put yourself out there?
Twenty seconds of fear is all you need. Practice confronting fear for 20 seconds every single day.
Make that call.
Ask that question.
Pitch that idea.
Whatever it is you feel you want to do, do it. The anticipation of a scary situation is far more painful than the situation itself. So just do it.
In many cases, your fears are unfounded. As Seth Godin explained, our comfort zone and our safety zone are not the same thing. It is completely safe to make an uncomfortable phone call. You are not going to die. Don’t equate the two. Recognize that most things outside your comfort zone are completely safe.
5. Put yourself in the right place.
Social psychology research shows that people grow to like others whom they encounter or interact with on a regular basis. Proximity ends up being the number one factor in who you become friends with.
Consequently, you need to be—physically or digitally—close to the people you want to be your friends. If they keep seeing you around, they’ll be far more open to liking you—what psychologists call the mere-exposure effect.
I found my most influential mentor during a community service function. Every week, we would see each other. One day, I sat next to him and we started talking. I realized he was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. I told him about my experience and goals, and a friendship quickly formed.
It all started with me asking him if I could help him with his research.
6. Help the right people.
“It’s not who you know, it’s who you help.” —Jeff Goins
Mentorship is a service. How can you help this person? The best way is to save them time.
You need to care more about their goals than you care about your own. Actually, your number one goal is to help them with their goals—even if you’re doing it for free.
Under promise and over perform. When you get an assignment, blow them away. Do more than expected. Make their life as easy as possible. Get them excited to work with you more.
7. Become accountability partners.
True mentorship is mutually beneficial. When your mentors let you into their world—into their struggles and ambitions—you’ve earned their trust.
In order to gain that level of trust, you must be discerning. You can’t be self-absorbed. You can’t be fearful of losing the relationship. What’s going on beneath the surface?
- How can you help?
- How can you save them time?
- What are they really trying to accomplish? Often, what they’re working on doesn’t accurately reflect their true ambitions.
Such was the case with my mentor. He was a young professor who was publishing more than anyone else in his department. But he was bored. He wanted to be challenged in different ways. So I’d wait after team meetings until the other research assistants left to ask him questions.
Those questions led to long and vulnerable conversations. My mentor and I decided weekly accountability meetings would be mutually beneficial. We emailed each other our weekly and big-picture goals. We took “accountability walks” to present updates on our goals.
8. Take on greater responsibility.
Peter Parker’s uncle had it backward. The president doesn’t have responsibility because he first had power. Rather, he has power because he assumed a huge responsibility.
Most people avoid responsibility. They’d rather someone else carry the load. They’d rather not have to deal with the consequences. Fear of failure stops them from trying in the first place. But when you take on the right responsibility, life will get easier. It’s like injecting yourself with motivation steroids — urgency and desperation.
Ask your mentors for more responsibility. Do anything you can to make their life easier. Do anything you can to make them look good to their mentors.
During our weekly accountability walks, I told my mentor that I wanted to take on more responsibility. I asked what else I could be doing. He then made me the leader of a team of five undergraduate research assistants. My level of learning and understanding deepened when I moved from student to teacher. All because I asked.
9. Ask again.
Once you’ve made your mentor’s life (not just their work) better, there are no limits to the possibilities.
After a few months, I made a proposal to my mentor. I told him I would put my personal goals on the backburner and dedicate 40 hours per week to his research. My goal was to have more than 20 papers submitted for publications.
He (of course) accepted my offer and it was nose to the grindstone for the next three months. Looking back, I’m still amazed by how much we got done.
After only a few months working together, I was positioned to get into any graduate program I wanted. I attribute it all to the mentorship, not myself. The right mentorship will change everything for you.
Most importantly, you will change as a result of a good mentorship. That’s the real outcome. You will be a different person, with a new worldview and new abilities.
10. Pay it forward.
Recently, Jeff Goins, author of The Art of Work, spent two hours on the phone with me. He taught me so much about the book industry and how to connect with influencers. He even featured one of my articles on his blog. I asked him, “How can I ever repay you for all that you’re doing for me?”
His response was simple: “Pay it forward.”
Never stop seeking help from those who are where you want to be. At the same time, don’t neglect those who could use your help.
Never let a goal become more important than helping people. Help others generously, abundantly. Help others without expectation of a return favor. Serving others will turn you into a mentor yourself. And you will always find more joy in helping others succeed than in achieving your own success.
The best mentors are attracted to you by the work you do. And often, they will gladly help you accelerate your progress.
The biggest obstacle to getting mentors is your own confidence. Once you truly believe in your vision, amazing stuff will happen for you. When the why is strong enough, the how takes care of itself.