No one ever started their first day at a job knowing everything. New workplaces are unfamiliar and even intimidating at times to younger employees who want to showcase their competence and fresh ideas but worry about screwing up or overstepping boundaries. A career mentor is someone who can fill in the experience gaps and guide you through the rungs of your career ladder because they’ve already dealt with all the new challenges you’re facing.
For anyone just starting out in the workforce or long-term employees looking to move to a new phase in their professional life, a career mentor is an invaluable resource. A good mentor will understand your skills and provide opportunities for further training, give you the heads up about important industry events, and offer advice on navigating tricky situations like salary negotiations.
Even our greatest fictional heroes like Luke Skywalker and Bilbo Baggins needed an older and wiser figure to guide them along their journeys. If you’ve always wanted your own mentor to help you take on the workforce there are countless books that can bring you timeless career advice.
Here’s our list of the top fictional mentors of all time and what lessons you should take away from them in your own career.
1. Mentor: The Odyssey by Homer
The invention of the word “mentor” as we know it today goes all the way back to Ancient Greece in Homer’s “Odyssey,” where the goddess Athena disguised herself as a man named Mentor to advise Odysseys’ son Telemachus through the Trojan War while he awaited the return of his father.
The most important thing employees can take away from the relationship between Mentor and Telemachus is time. Meaningful mentorship relationships don’t happen instantly. They have to grow from each person observing the other’s work style, building a sense of trust, and learning how best to communicate personal feedback without trying to force too much change too soon.
2. Dumbledore: The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
He may have had his faults when it came not to telling Harry the whole truth about his upcoming battle with Voldemort, but Dumbledore is the mentor you need in those moments of office panic. Whether you’re overwhelmed by an oncoming deadline or a workplace bully, he’ll always be there to remind you that, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
3. Merlin: The Legends of King Arthur
Another magical man with an impressive white beard, Merlin is one of the most well-known mentors in the English canon. As a scientist, counselor to royalty, practitioner of magic, and father figure to young Arthur, Merlin proves that a mentor’s role extends beyond their job duties and can grow into a valuable lifelong relationship.
4. Miss Honey: Matilda by Roald Dahl
“Miss Jennifer Honey was a mild and quiet person who never raised her voice and was seldom seen to smile, but there is no doubt she possessed that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care.”
Sweet and strong, Miss Honey from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel Matilda is the teacher we all wished for growing up. When Matilda demonstrates her immense intelligence by reading Dickens and multiplying large numbers on the first day of class, Miss Honey instantly takes her under her wing to help her learn as much as possible. With this instruction, Matilda is exposed to challenging material others deemed “too hard” for someone her age and discovers incredible powers within her mind.
As a manager, Miss Honey would never see talented employees as competition or overstepping their position. Instead, she’d work to promote each individual worker’s career development and special skills, so they can rise as high as possible on the career ladder.
5. Julian: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
To do a complete 180 from the sweet and nurturing educator-type, we have Professor Juilian Baker from Donna Tartt’s epic murder mystery “The Secret History.” Described by the narrator as a “magical, marvelous talker,” Julian serves as a godly figure to his group of 5 undergrad classic majors. He never wavers when presenting his knowledge and pushes his students to invest themselves so deeply into what they’re learning that assignments feel less like chores and more like sublime, exhilarating adventures. As a mentor and role model, Julian exemplifies finding love within work and never settling for anything less than your dream career.
6. Glinda the Good Witch: The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum.
There’s been some debate over if the classic Good Witch of Oz is actually a good person or friend to Dorthy at all. I mean, if she had magical powers and knew that the ruby slippers would bring Dorthy home all along, why couldn’t she tell her and take on the Wicked Witch by herself?
But the biggest lesson we can take away from Glinda is that mentor’s don’t have all the answers. While they give you the tools (or shoes) to help you down your career road, at the end of the day it’s up to you to take responsibility for your success.
7. Virgil: The Divine Comedy by Dante
Hopefully, your own career path won’t feel like a slog through the ten circles of hell…but you can still appreciate the excellent guidance Virgil gave Dante during his epic exploration through the afterlife in “The Divine Comedy.” Dante selected Virgil to be his companion throughout the three novels because he greatly admired his writing and hoped that his own poetry would someday live up to Virgil’s legacy.
Similarly, you should choose your career mentor based on someone whose work or demeanor you’ve always admired and whose path you would love to emulate as you get further in your career.
8. George: The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
George from Allegra Goodman’s contemporary coming-of-age story, “The Cookbook Collector” is a grouchy, quiet owner of a rare bookshop who acts as a boss and mentor to the young, flighty college-student, Jess.
George embodies the stern yet fair mentor type, treating Jess kindly but scolding her for mistreating delicate copies, forgetting to close-up the store properly, or looking down on the importance of protecting what matters most to you. George would be the perfect mentor to a young employee or intern full of passionate ideas but unsure of how to navigate the more corporate and serious sides of the career world.
9. Buddy Glass: Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
The first page of J.D. Salinger’s novella “Zooey” opens with Zooey Glass lying in a bathtub and reading a long letter of advice from his older brother Buddy, that he has clearly read many times before judging by it having been”unfolded and refolded on too many private occasions during the last four years.”
This cherished letter cautions Zooey to treat people kindly, thinking before he speaks, and quit “running back and forth forever behind grief and high delight.”
These timeless pieces of wisdom are ones we can all use in a fresh workplace. Your career mentors will give you things (both physical tokens and ideas) that you will carry with you years later even if you choose to leave your position or start over in a new field.
10. Gandalf: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Series by J.R.R. Tolkien
And fittingly, we’re rounding out our list of the top fictional career mentors with another iconic bearded wizard. Gandalf the Grey is a mentor who would be right at home serving as a mentor and leader to an entire team of younger workers. Throughout Tolkien’s work, he offers guidance to all of the Hobbits and saves them from peril with his power and expertise.