When making the decision to start a new career, you might find yourself a little lost. This can lead to a lot of online searches, reading articles and books on the subject at hand, and trying to understand quite a bit of contradictory advice. Instead of more online searches and questions posted to forums, the best investment you can make is in finding a mentor to help you through the maze. Throughout my journey, I’ve come across great mentors, and have been starting to see patterns that emerge during a mentorship that make the relationship valuable and fulfilling for both parties.
An unintended mentorship
Although I had been interested in building websites from the age of 12, the thought of becoming a graphic designer had never crossed my mind as a pathway to web design when it came time to choose a degree. This changed after I had met my best friend’s girlfriend, Beth Steffel, a senior studying graphic design at the University of Akron.
Beth was easy to talk to, and we shared similar taste in art and design. I’d spend time at her apartment, peppering her with questions, leafing through her books, and getting miniature lessons in design. Although we became good friends, I consider Beth my first mentor. Her patience, support, and encouragement led me to follow in her footsteps and join the Myers School of Art with a focus on graphic design, an invaluable decision for my career path.
Being a mentee requires time and focus
Throughout college, I was exposed to many talented professors that taught us invaluable lessons in design, but I didn’t form tight mentor relationships with any of them. Looking back, I don’t think it was the fault of the school or the professors, but more-so my situation. I supported myself throughout school, and would dash off from class to my various jobs, working 30 or more hours a week. I didn’t have the time to focus on becoming the best designer that I could be, my focus was survival.
Over the years, I have found that the best mentorship situations arise when both parties take time to foster the relationship. Taking the time to ask well-formed questions, asking for actionable feedback, and constantly working towards improvement are the best ways to utilize the time of someone that has offered to help you.
Good mentors are all around us
When I wanted to try my hand at organic farming, I lived in a community of many smart, experienced farmers. They offered advice, support, and positions ranging from field hand to farm manager. Each of the farmers I worked with were mentors to me. They answered my questions with patience, they were interested in my progress and experiments, and they taught me (through conversations and first-hand experience) about agriculture, biology, animal husbandry, and human relationships.
Identifying a good mentor is easier than you think. Mentors are interested in answering your questions. They may not know the answers to everything, but they have many resources that they can reach out to in order to help you find the answers. Mentors are patient. They don’t talk down to you, or make you feel inferior because the questions you ask are the mark of a ‘n00b’. They will help you understand tough concepts, whether it’s by asking you questions to lead you to a discovery, drawing a chart, or breaking a problem down into smaller pieces. Mentors break down the barriers between novices and themselves. They present themselves as people, not as gods, and make you feel comfortable and welcomed under their guidance. Most important of all, a good mentor is one that wants you to succeed.
Mentorship with structure
In the field of programming, we are constantly being mentored, whether we realize it or not. At gSchool, we had a structured mentoring program. I was lucky enough to be paired with Matt Rogers, co-maintainer of Jekyll and Lead Engineer at Hireology. Throughout the last 12 weeks of gSchool, we paired remotely almost weekly. We worked on open-source projects like Jekyll and Tracks, and when I had questions about projects, we’d pivot to my specific issues. It worked extremely well to be on a structured meeting schedule. Beyond our weekly meetings, Matt would send me check-in notes and ask about how things were going, whether it was the job hunt, VPS server setup, or meetings with instructors. He was in tune with what was going on during gSchool, and it was great to have a sounding board for ideas and questions that came out of our classwork and projects.
If you are learning something new, starting a new business, or getting your feet wet for a career change, mentorship is an important part of your growth. Structured mentorships are a great way to get going in the right direction, and can help dissolve some of the confusion that can come about from too much new information at once. Great places to look for mentors include your local Meetup groups, business accelerators, SCORE, and if you are in the tech field, open source projects. Find the people that are doing what you want to do, and start a conversation with them. You’ll find that there are many people willing to give back for all the help that they have received during the years.