When we think of mentorship, it has historically meant a top-down approach. You search within your industry to find someone 20 to 30 years your senior, to tell you about their experiences, and give consistent guidance. But career trajectories look significantly different now. As the workplace and our jobs become more entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial, that means mentor guidance needs to change too.
If you’re struggling to find mentorship — or at least what we think mentorship is — don’t fret. You can find mentorship all around you, and there are likely people in your life whose advice can help you at any stage, regardless of age or seniority. I call this process the “advice mosaic” — cherry picking pieces from everyone in your life, not just the corner-office types — to create the mentorship you need.
I’ve written before about the career octopus — you need tentacles to find all of the different voices and sources that matter in your life. Once you have those people or tools or ideas, you have to cobble them together mosaic-style, fitting the pieces in to form a whole you. Outdoor Voices founder Tyler Haney speaks about weaving together all the best advice and figuring out what applies to her. In a recent Elle piece, Haney talks about finding mantras that suit her life, not mentors.
That’s the issue with advice — when you’re struggling, someone’s two cents can feel like a quarter. Though I’ve had tremendous luck in finding people to give me guidance, reliance on a certain mentor’s opinion about my career meant I turned down an opportunity that I shouldn’t have. My mentor thought a job wasn’t senior enough, and he was wrong. I came off poorly, and didn’t get the chance to learn from that particular project.
Another danger of relying solely on a solitary, more senior voice: When you’re too bought-in to someone you admire, their judgments about your life might preclude them from giving you proper feedback. This can be particularly true for woman in business. I’ve had senior mentors share great career advice, but it’s sometimes biased by their traditional views of the world, marriage, and a woman entrepreneur’s place in it, which is where creating a more holistic and diverse career advice mosaic can help.
Part of my mosaic is from my peers — my friends, confidantes, and even exes. A few examples:
Always put on pants and leave the house.
I usually work from home, so one of my best friends told me to always put on pants so I didn’t go insane. And to leave my house even if I had a light workload.
The “Valley of Death” exists.
Another friend taught me about patience, a very difficult thing for a type A person like myself. She taught me, likely from her career in law and finance, that the “valley of death” exists, and that waiting something out — making an investment — was crucial to my career.
There was the ex-boyfriend who taught me that creating boundaries around your availability makes people respect you. I have no doubt that being a man made that easier for him, but I was mystified by the idea. I remember us sitting in his car before an event, listening to him tell someone on the phone he was free the next day only in a three-hour window. When I first started my business, that proved very helpful, even though I was pretending I had a jam-packed schedule.
Take a personal inventory day.
A recent episode of “Call Your Girlfriend,” a podcast run by best friends and shine-theory peer-based champions Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, had one of the best pieces of peer-delivered professional advice I’ve ever heard. They interviewed their friend Sabrina Hersi Issa, a VC, strategist, organizer, and incredible operational mind who introduced the idea of personal inventory days. It inspired this Lifehacker piece, but essentially Hersi Issa suggests taking one day a month to check in with your bigger goals, the ones that get pushed down to the bottom of the list. It has changed the way I think about my time. It took someone else to give me the permission to take one day a month, despite my working for myself, to get to those long-term goals that always seem to never be addressed.
And know that part of building your career advice mosaic is accepting that it might not become a full picture all at once. The key is knowing where to get your “bread buttered,” or rather, who is going to give you what you need? Talking to a mentor who is uber-successful might not eliminate your fear that you can’t make rent. Bending the ear of a C-suite executive with a staff of nannies to take care of her kids probably won’t assuage your fear of choosing career over family (though this book might help).
This is not to say that advice from experienced professionals is not worth listening to. It’s hard to find, and rare, so if you are able to come by a mentor in the traditional sense of the word, by all means learn from him or her if you are able. It doesn’t even have to be someone in your industry, but those decades of perspective can help you immensely.
No matter how you build your mosaic, though, the pieces are going to come from places you might not expect. But also, stay true to what you want to do, trust your gut, and rely on your own ideas, even when it’s hard. It’s easy to be influenced too heavily by the opinions of others, something I’ve constantly struggled with. But it’s your career, your path, and it’s entirely unique to you.