5 Ways To Cultivate A Mentor

By Lena Drinkard

Navigating the world through your early twenties is a process that does not come with a GPS—a sudden launch into the “real world” where opportunities feel abundant yet scarce. After years of structured curriculum and light responsibility, you are now the leader of your own academic career. If you’re not feeling engaged the only person to blame is yourself.  College is a clumsy place. You’re living away from home yet still relying on your mom to listen to your heated rants regularly. You have a weird combination of freedom and more responsibility than you’re used to having but you’re still not fully independent. You feel like there should’ve been a clearer warning that you would all of a sudden be that young adult at Thanksgiving dinner who stumbles to answer the never-ending questions on what was it again you were majoring in? And what are you going to do with that major? And what are your internship plans? There are so many questions that you don’t have the answers for. You know that you need to look outside your family for guidance but sometimes that seems nearly impossible. However, finding a mentor in college can sometimes be the beginning of your adult-life. Mentors can help guide you through your academic career and assist you in making choices that will define your life’s path in important ways. Here are five tips on forging that important connection: 


Whether you’re in class or at a new job, observe the topics that spark your fascination and curiosity and the person or people who initiated the interest. Start a list on your phone of the exact moments you feel inspired. Don’t worry if it feels vague—don’t censor your gut-feelings. After your list is well on its way, look back and try to identify patterns or ideas that point you in a more specific direction. Then, approach the people doing the work you think might interest you. Rebecca Magee for Idealist Careers talks about the success of this process in her article, How I Landed A Job Through An Informational Interview. Rebecca knew that she wanted a career in sustainable fashion but wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. She began to reach out to people not only in her address book, but to people she didn't know who shared her interest in sustainable fashion starting conversations about the industry. Cold-emailing and engaging people in her desired industry to get more information on how to enter that industry paid off for Magee. Soon, she was following up with thank you notes and now holds two full-time positions in an industry that she’s fully engaged in. 


Chances are by the time you read this you have had an adult—teacher, family friend, coach—who has noticed and shown appreciation for a unique quality about you. This is the best feeling in the world and they also happen to be a great candidate for the person you want as a mentor. Someone who truly sees your individual strengths can be a catalyst for your own agency and confidence. I remember when I was in a fiction class in High School and we had to read aloud our latest short story. The next day, my teacher pulled me aside and said he had been thinking about my story all night and that he thought it had real potential to be something great. I went home that day feeling so confident about my work and had a newfound energy to work even harder on the next round of edits. I now also know that if and when I meet a similar professor in college, they would be a great candidate as a potential mentor.


Once a relationship begins with your possible mentor, it is important to get to know them beyond the typical classroom or workplace circumstances. As much as this relationship is about learning and bettering yourself, it also is about making a connection with another human being. Ask questions about their life and how they came to be where they are today. Familiarize yourself with their work and attend any events or performances they are apart of. Make sure they know you are observing what they do and respect their opinion and advice. Look for opportunities to have coffee or lunch and show an interest in their day-to day well being. If taking these steps to show interest feels forced, this is not the correct mentor. Your actions should always be genuine. 


In order to get guidance from your mentor, it is important to grant them access to your work. Don’t feel pressured to show them a perfect finished product—you can even approach them to brainstorm. The more you share with them, the more specific their advice will be. Soon, you two will establish an open dialogue to track your progress.

My mother attended Bennington College and established a relationship with her Professor Joe McInnis through her literary class. Through his curriculum, my mom developed a series of short stories. Her Professor ended up seeing a trend in her short stories and suggested that she weave them together to create a larger story. This suggestion led her to combine the stories into a novel, which ended up being wildly successful. Mr. McInnis' insight and guidance helped my mother establish herself as a successful writer. She dedicated that first book to him.


It might happen that a person who shows interest in you is not in a field that you think you want to pursue. Don’t immediately write them off as a potential mentor. Sometimes others can see and teach you something new about yourself. Just because you haven’t considered an option, doesn’t mean it can’t lead you somewhere amazing. A great mentor can also see your next step before you can. Take for example, Creative Digital Director Sally Singer’s relationship with mentor Anna Wintour. In Refinery 29's piece on 7 Empowering Tales Of Mentorship, Singer writes: 

“When I was thinking about leaving T, Anna suggested I take the job I have now as creative digital director. She said it's a job I should have now based on the fact that I've shown I can do it and because it's a job that will define the industry going forward. I felt that was an incredibly generous act; what she was saying was that she was thinking ahead for my interests. She knows print journalism, but she was thinking in the arch of my career what's the next stage I needed.” 

Of course, we can’t all have Wintour as a mentor. But your mentor should be able to see a career step for you that you couldn’t have imagined for yourself and it is important to trust their instinct and take the leap. A mentor is a guide that helps you stretch outside of your comfort zone and a good mentor will be there for you to fall back on no matter what happens.

At the end of the day, the process of figuring out who you are and what you want to do with your life is never easy. Looking to these five steps however, you just might end up with a really valuable person in your life—a person that one day will teach you enough to become a mentor yourself. 

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