1 Why We Need Mentors | The Billfold

Why We Need Mentors

Earlier this month, I got an email from my alma mater, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, asking me if I wanted to participate in their mentor program, which pairs up a student with an alumn from the school who is working in the field they want to eventually work in (my field being startups and web media). I’ve done this before, and had a great experience with the student I was paired with, and will be doing it again this year.

When I was a young, bright-eyed graduate student intent on reporting from a news bureau in Europe or Asia or the Middle East, I signed up for the program as a mentee, and was paired with a foreign correspondent who worked and lived in Italy.

And, boy, am I glad I had this mentor, because she basically talked me out of pursuing a career in international reporting. Unless I was hired straight out of school by a big, successful news agency that wasn’t shutting down its bureau due to costs (the recession was about to hit and that was going to be very unlikely), or was independently wealthy and could afford to move to a foreign country on my own (hah—not at all), I was told I should reconsider my next career move.

“Establish your career in the U.S., and get as much of your student loans paid off as you can,” she said. “If you’re embedded in a war zone, or if the country you’re in is collapsing, the last thing you want to be thinking about is making a student loan payment. Get your life situated while you’re young, and if you’re still interested in international journalism later, I’ll be here to talk more about some specific things that will be helpful to you.” It was the real talk I needed.

One of the best things you can do for your career is find a mentor, and if you’re lucky enough to have more than one—even better.

This week, New York magazine has a feature by Frank Rich on the late Nora Ephron, which examines why Ephron decided to keep her cancer a secret from so many of her friends and family members. But the most fascinating part of the story was learning that Ephron served as a mentor to several generations of writers who wanted to emulate her—63-year-old Frank Rich being one of them, and also 20-somesomethings Lena Dunham, and James McAuley, who works in the editorial section at The Washington Post. At various times in their lives, Ephron kept in touch with these three talented, and fortunate, writers, and did everything from editing their work, to giving them advice on their careers and love lives. They were (are) very fortunate to have had her as a role model.

We all can’t have Nora Ephron as our mentor, but we can have people who will fill the same role.

In high school, my 11th grade English teacher Mr. B said he thought I had a lot of promise as a writer, and when I told him I was interested in writing in the entertainment industry—maybe for TV or film—he shook his head and told me that the road for Asian Americans in the entertainment industry was a really tough one, and maybe I should focus on something else. I was caught off guard by his comments and he later chased me down the hallway to say he changed his mind.

“Forget what I said,” he conceded. “Forget anyone who ever tells you that you probably can’t do something, because If you’re good at what you do, you’ll succeed. So, let’s focus on getting you really good.”

He wrote letters of recommendation and mailed them to every college I ended up applying to. He would be the first of many great mentors in my life—people who have crossed my path, seen something they thought they could nurture, and encouraged me, by doing everything from offering advice, to offering me jobs.

Choire Sicha has been a great mentor, and so has Mark Armstrong, whom I work with at Longreads. And even until she died earlier this month at the age of 90, Judith Crist was always happy to offer me advice, and, more often, criticism.

Who do you turn to when you need career advice? Who can you ask to look at a conflict you’re experiencing, assess the situation with an even hand, and offer an unbiased opinion? Who has talked you out of doing something that would have probably ended badly for you, or talked you into something that has been exactly what you needed? Who has helped you believe in yourself? Who has, for no reason or benefit to themselves, reached out their hand and offered you a firm grip?

You do not need a mentor to flourish, but you will if you have one.


Photo: TechCrunch


24 Comments / Post A Comment

blair (#1,962)

by coincidence, I’ve been thinking a lot about mentors lately. I’ve had some great, talented, generous people help me out in my (very short) writing career in journalism and its ilk. But what I REALLY want in a mentor (a novelist! preferably one who writes YA!) I’m too scared to ask for, because I have this idea writers either have a novel manuscript shoved in a drawer and are bitter about the whole process, or else they won’t have any better advice than “write lots. Then keep writing. There’s no magic formula.” I’d kill for just one person to be like, “You, Blair, personally. Keep going. You can make it.”

so I guess what I’m trying to say is that if anyone knows a cool person who writes books for teenagers and wants to help out a plucky upstart, I’m all ears! Or whatever the e-mail equivalent of all ears is!

Mike Dang (#2)

@blair I’m emailing you suggestions.

Nick (#1,548)

@blair Have you considered pursuing an MFA? Some programs have writers-in-residence for this very purpose.

blair (#1,962)

@Mike Dang Wow! Thank you!

blair (#1,962)

@Nick MFAs are alluring. But I’m broke, and also instilled with a Stephen-King-borne wariness of workshop writing. But it could be worth it, you say?

goldstar (#1,819)

@blair *raises hand*. Is there a way Mike can exchange our emails, mine is firstname.lastname and I’d prefer to keep it off-thread.

goldstar (#1,819)

@goldstar oh, should say, pubbed novelist, YA.

Megano! (#124)

I WISH I had this type of program at any of my schools. Maybe I would have figured my shit out sooner.

Lily Rowan (#70)

What you’re saying here is so true, and right on — we need mentorS, not “a mentor,” which I think is where a lot of young people go wrong. You need to gather up good advice and encouragement from people all throughout your career, not become BFFs with one magical being who will guide you.

Billfold posts that remind me about shit of mine that needs getting together: so much better than Billfold posts that enable me to misuse economics terminology in snarky comments.

thecoffeestain (#1,483)

@stuffisthings: Preach!

I always wanted a mentor, and when my old boss (who loved to say she was like Meryl Streep on The Devil Wears Prada, and was sort of like that but also terribly interested in her employee’s personal lives) wanted to be my mentor it was really hard for me to listen, I didn’t want anyome questioning my life choices or telling me what to do. When I finally did listen, it changed my life: she actually encouraged me to quit my job and move across the country.

My other mentor is my former creative writing teacher. We are mostly friends, but she is a little over 10 years older, so she has lots of awesome things to say and I love to listen.

ElBlynx (#499)

A large part of deciding to go back to school for me is for the mentorship from my advisor and other professors and professionals. It took me a long time to realize at my previous job that although the peer mentorship was great, all the people who would have been appropriate professional mentors were deeply unhappy in their jobs and thus were unable to be very encouraging in their field. Without mentorship, it is impossible to move ahead in your career because you need to have people that believe in your potential because any promotion involves some sort of leap of faith.

ElBlynx (#499)

Also, I think it is awesome that Mike has (had) so many female mentors! I tend to try to seek out mentors of the same gender as we are still underrepresented in the upper levels of my field, but I think it is crucial to have a mix of mentors to fully benefit from a diversity of experiences and connections.

I’m a computer programmer and have found nothing even remotely approaching direct mentorship, save for some dudes at networking events talking about Rails or Python to hype up their tool-of-choice, and some general suggestions that one ought to learn everything themselves on the web if they want to get anything done.

What’s even worse about this is that there’s a very binary, oft-quoted view in the industry that “good coders are 20x better than bad coders” and that bad coders can’t be (efficiently) instructed to improve their work. So, if anything, this is an industry that abhors one-on-one direct instruction as a worker education tool.

This is why there are thousands of “ninja programmer” spots available while thousands of average or hopeful programmers are constantly rejected for consideration. It’s pretty counter-intuitive.

If anyone in that industry could be persuaded to change their minds about this and invest some personal time into reviewing the work of young hopefuls, that would be great. I think it’s too late for me, because I’m 12 years out of college and I just want an exit from the technical side of things. I feel like I’m better at managing projects, and I don’t have the time to jump among trendy development tools every day of the week.

sony_b (#225)

@Brian Van Nieuwenhoven@facebook I was hired as an engineer at Sun straight out of grad school (after interning there for 18 months) and joined their mentor program, and the experience was awful. My mentor was a really nice woman, but we never clicked and it was just a really uncomfortable year for both of us.

That said, have you ever gone to a user-group meeting? I work in the Java world but *UGs of any stripe can be useful for this. My BF found a great mentor through a JUG in Greenville, SC a few years ago that really helped kick off his career.

The other place I’ve seen some serious mentoring happen is in open source, but you have to choose your project carefully because there are a lot of assholes out there.

Since I was hired at Sun I haven’t written a line of code – they started laying off folks and I have the soft (read: girl) skills that they needed to take over the admin aspects of my team. Now, 7 years later at the-place-that-bought-Sun I run the project. I miss coding, but haven’t done it in so long that re-entry is close to impossible.

If you want to switch to management, have you looked into the PMP cert? I’m doing the application this week. It’s a bitch, but should be worth 120k to start when I’m ready to move on to the next thing.

Megano! (#124)

@Brian Van Nieuwenhoven@facebook My ex was a programmer and kind of lucked out in the mentorship thing, I guess? Basically what he did was connect with profs he felt would be helpful during school, and he spent a summer doing a research program for one. He also worked at a really small start-up company too, and basically the guy there helped him get his first job out of school (a really good one).

@sony_b I’ve been a member of a lot of user groups and meetups. Especially here in NYC, everything is always about showcasing already-launched products and attracting investors. I’ve found that there are only a few select people who actually want to talk systems and coding. I don’t think those few people are to blame because they are busy or immersed in their projects, but the fact that there are so few people to begin with who are visible in the community as coders is a sign that things aren’t good.

There are some unique community-based coding opportunities here, though. But they’re vastly oversubscribed and are rejecting people left/right. It’s not really a mentorship thing, it’s more of an incubator thing. I’m always looking out, though.

I’ve considered PMP certification but I don’t qualify for the PMP exam. I do have project management experience but it’s just not enough. Would it be better to go for CAPM first? That said, I’ve gone to the library and read PMBOK cover-to-cover, and I use that knowledge in projects, so I’m confident that I’m cut out for PMP.

@Megano! – yes, that sounds like a smart move. I had a few professors with good relations but unfortunately I had always planned to move away from college after completing my bachelor’s, and moving into the NYC area meant that I was cut off from my university community and stranded up here unless I enrolled in grad school (which I declined to seek due to cost reasons). I took three different internships up here and none of them turned into any ongoing relationships because that wasn’t really why those managers hired “interns”. (As in, it was never their intent to be mentors, they just wanted free assistants to do gruntwork) I took a lot of temp-to-perm jobs after that, but, no mentor-minded people there, either. And, as I’ve said above, I do go to many meetups but I find that very few people make themselves available for mentoring relationships. I still hold out hope that I’ll serendipitously run into someone who is a willing mentor, I’m a little more worried that I’m at the point where I ought to be the mentor, that I’m too long-in-the-tooth to earn the attention of anyone looking to get people started with their careers. (I called my university alumni association in regards to this, and they were unable to figure out what to do with me when I said I was a graduate looking for a local mentor up here, not a mentor looking for an undergrad to instruct. Useless people.)

sony_b (#225)

@Brian Van Nieuwenhoven@facebook I haven’t cracked the PMBOK yet – I bought it and the O’Reilly Head First PMP, which I did skim when I was trying to decide whether or not to do this. In your shoes I would do the CAPM first, and then look for a job that will help you fill the reqs for the PMP. The CAPM would show hiring managers that you’re serious. Can you get your job to pay for any of it?

You might consider mentoring a new grad yourself – even if you’re not confident in your growth opportunities, you’ve got over a decade of experience now and could probably offer a lot to a new kid. I think that it may be too late for us to take advantage of something like this, but growing the culture of mentoring from the ground up is the only way it’s going to take root in the community as a whole.

ThatJenn (#916)

I picked all (wonderful!) mentors who were in academia, and have had a hard time finding appropriate mentors now that I’ve decided to leave academia (I was previously enrolled in a PhD program and hoped to head for a position as a professor). My two academic mentors are great, and I love them, but they don’t have a lot to say about my current career path.

@ThatJenn That was my problem. I left college both geographically and intellectually, as the research opportunities in my department had nothing to do with any career path that I wanted to take. They were actually quite far behind on interactive media at my university at the time, and I was learning more at internships in the NYC area. But interactive media is no place to look for professional guidance, apparently, unless you want to get told a million times that “all you have to do is get funding and start your own startup. It’s easy!”

bibliostitute (#285)

Wait, I’m going to copycat Blair! In the opposite direction! Is there a mentor out there who will not talk me away from trying to figure out this magazine writing business? I know words and I am a nomad, I do not know the system.

This is very nice blog and informative. I have searched many sites but was not able to get information same as your site. world population day

I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles.
Germany vs argentina live streaming

Comments are closed!