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The Art of Being Mentored: 7 Things to Make the Most of Your Relationship

My mentor and friend, Pat Mitchell, posted a piece this week: “What does it really mean to mentor?” It got me thinking about the fact that being mentored is as much an art, and a confusing one at times, as being a mentor.

Now that I’m in the “messy middle,” as discussed a couple of weeks ago, I’m experiencing both sides of the equation quite often. Sometimes I’m the mentor, trying to puzzle out how to bring the best out in people without being overly directive. Sometimes I’m the mentee, aching for more feedback.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned about being a good mentee along the way:

Ask. Many people don’t even know you’re looking to be mentored unless you speak up and ask for it. You don’t have to make things formal, but at least express how much you admire your potential mentor — the more specific the better — and be concrete about the kind of interactions you would love to have. Is it totally ad hoc? Would it be possible to institute a monthly lunch? Can you collaborate on a project together and, in the process, do some mutual mentoring?

To get really practical, it’s not a bad idea to hone the craft of a beautifully worded, succinct email. That’s what Courtney Baxter did, fresh out of college, and it leapt out of my inbox, leading to not just a lifelong friendship, but bonafide employment and her first byline, in The New York Times no less!

Women work on a brainstorming chart at a group coaching event in Brussels, Belgium. Image by Foam/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Express your gratitude early and often. We sometimes assume that the people who have spent energy on us — whether recommending us for an opportunity or taking a panicked phone call — know how much we appreciate their generosity. They don’t. Thank them gratuitously. The best thing is that giving thanks makes you feel richer. Bonus points to my friend, the journalist Chloe Angyal, who has a Sunday tradition of writing thank you notes to people to whom she feels grateful that week.

Make your mentor’s life easier in some small way. Look for small opportunities. Help your mentor set up her Instagram account and explain how it works, recommend an article or young thinker in her field that you think they might have missed, even offer to babysit (here’s looking at you Mara Meyers, Rachel Garlick, and Catherine Baxter). Do the basic stuff — hustle and show up and work hard, and the rest will be icing. Note: This doesn’t mean doing a lot of unpaid work. Good mentors shouldn’t expect that, and in fact, should discourage you from it.

Your mentor is not your mother. A very wise person once told me that the first organization you ever work for is your own family. As such, it’s easy to unknowingly project your issues with your mom onto your mentor. Don’t do that. A mentoring relationship is so valuable precisely because there’s no familial tie, so there’s more room for an intergenerational interaction free of the inevitable push-and-pull that emerges between even super-close mother-daughter pairs.

Don’t expect perfection from your mentors. They are human, and therefore imperfect. You have to make room for them to disappoint. I feel like I spent a lot of time in my 20s searching for the perfect mentor and feeling let down by people, women in particular, when they weren’t as ethical or accountable or present as I thought they’d be. Now that I’m in my 30s and often hanging on to the ledge by a pinky, I have so much more empathy for all the compromises that leaders have to make. It doesn’t justify them, but it does make an expectation for perfection seem not only unfair, but unwise.

And on that note…

JD and Mario, two men living in San Francisco, pose for a mentor-mentee portrait. Image by Sharat Ganapati/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Create a team of mentors. Maybe one mentor has created a professional life you love and want to emulate, while another has a way of interacting with her family, neighborhood, or community in way that you admire. Take bits and pieces from a range of people. Mentors who really have your best interest in mind shouldn’t be territorial, but actually crave to share the exuberance that is you with their friends and colleagues. I love seeing how Krystie Yandoli has taken even the most casual introductions and nurtured really special relationships with other people.

On the other hand…

Be brave. If someone you hold up as a mentor does something that puts you in a position that feels like it violates your integrity, tell her. If your mentor says something that’s racist or sexist or hurts you in some important way, tell her. Just because she is your elder doesn’t mean that you have to bite your tongue when it really matters. If the relationship is hardy, the communication will actually make it even stronger in the long run. Rest assured, nothing feels better than having a sense that you have actually helped connect someone to an opportunity that lights them up. Now that I mentor, I realize that the reciprocity is not just lip service. It’s deeper than opportunity or vocation.

In fact, the other day, I sat in the room next door and tried to work as I listened to my husband take a phone call with someone we have both mentored at times. He wasn’t connecting her to any particular opportunity. He was helping her see how hard-working and gifted she is, how she deserves room to make mistakes, and how long and beautiful her career and her life is going to be. I was moved to tears as I heard his gift of simple perspective.

Sometimes mentoring is as simple as saying, “You’re more than okay,” and “Life is long.” And being mentored is as simple as saying, “Thank you for seeing me.”

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