Finding mentors

A friend asks me a question:

I lack a professional network, and don’t really know anyone who is a leader in the general sector I’m interested in. I wish I could find a mentor or have more ways to find about what kind of steps would be helpful in the larger picture of my career. How do I go about building this kind of network or finding people with good advice to give? I realize I don’t even know where to get started, how to initiate such a conversation and with whom. Do you have any suggestions? What’s worked for you?

Great question. There is a perception that networking is about collecting business cards and phone numbers. It is transaction-like. It is forced. It is scary. Fortunately I’ve found that networking does not have to feel this way. Rather I think of networking as making friends with cool people, helping them, and letting them help you. Having friends that have similar career interests is a nice thing. You get to geek out about things that you are passionate about. You can support each other even when everyone else might be doubting what you’re working on.

A special case is when the relationship between you and your friend is like advisee and mentor. The person may have knowledge that improve your thinking or some power to help you achieve your dreams. Maybe they are people in your field whom you want to emulate. It is intimidating to get to know them, but the process is really not so different from making friends! Here are a couple approaches I try when meeting people with similar career interests:

Have something to offer. It is hard to develop a deeper relationship with someone if there is no economic incentive for you to interact. If I find someone who’s doing work I believe in, I try to find some way to help that person. This doesn’t mean I spend weeks digging through their work to try to change their lives. I just try to give them a reason to feel good about talking to me. For example, I try to tell them something interesting or let them know that I believe in their work.

Have a story. To help people understand what I’m interested in, I try to optimize how I communicate my story. I want people to understand where I come from or where I want to go; this helps them give me more relevant and helpful information. This blog post from HBR about how to put together a personal story explains it better than I can.

Know the field. Knowing more things about your field and the people in it is very valuable. I try to follow relevant blogs and publications. I try to go to relevant events. When I do this, I am better at knowing about people whom I might want to talk to, bringing something to the table, and asking good questions.

Just show up and introduce yourself. When I learn about someone who can help me, I try my best to work up the courage to introduce myself. I go to that book talk or seminar where they’ll be, briefly tell them my experience and my goals, and ask them if they knew about any interesting opportunities or ways to get started. If I have time, I tell them I’m interested in their work and see if they could use a person like me. If the person is not near, I cold-email and ask for a 5-minute phone call. It surprises me how well it works. When I was in college, I found out about a project at the MIT Media Lab that I thought was super cool, so I just emailed the person in charge telling him I was super excited about his work. Fast forward a week, I was in the Media Lab writing algorithms that could make the project better. People are generally willing to listen to you and help when you seem like a genuine and nice person. A lot of times getting advice is as simple as asking a question.

Persist. When I was working on my start-up idea, I was surprised by the degree to which passionate persistence can convince people to spend months helping you with a project you dreamed up. It is often said how Steve Jobs would harass his business partners with speeches for hours until they bent to his will. Emotional appeal and persistence can help you too. If you don’t get a response from a cold email, write again to show you’re really interested in learning about their work. Of course, there is a line when persistence can turn into annoyance, but this can usually be avoided by setting the right tone in your communications.

Be a friend. Ideally the strength of your bond with a mentor or colleague goes beyond a purely professional setting. In my experience the quickest way to make a friend is to be genuinely interested in their lives and problems. Help them if you can, open up about your own problems, ask them for advice, listen, be supportive, and be thoughtful. Find out about the people in their lives. Find out what they care about. Show them you care. If you can, meet their families. Bring them into your lives too. Have them meet your friends and family, however briefly and awkwardly. They will start thinking of you as someone whose well-being they care about.

Follow up and stay in touch. Under-promise and over-deliver. Reply to an email as soon as you get it. When you are responsive and responsible, people take you more seriously. For someone you’ve gotten to know, stay in touch to show that you care and you want them to stay updated. Tell them about your latest troubles and thoughts. With a mentor, frequent short email exchanges are great. As you develop this friendship, let them know what you’ve been up to. Let them enjoy your companionship and depend on you.

Take time to reflect. It’s always a good idea to continually reflect on what work you enjoy and keep refining your career goals. It’s easy to just heed to advice that sounds nice, but that advice might be wrong! Reflection makes you more aware of your situation and your desires, which makes you more efficient in your search for good advice: you ask better questions, know what type of person to seek out, and can think more critically about their advice.

Enjoy. It should be fun and very rewarding to become friends others who are interested in similar things! Even if you are worried or anxious at first, this process will become easier over time. I hope you enjoy it.