“A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because
someone else thought they could.” (Unknown)
A Shortage of Support
In the past, the driving force behind all of the fine arts has been “the support group.” Artists would find mentors to show them the ropes, then the artists would acquire patrons to support their work, and then these artists would become mentors themselves. A miniature circle of life. But a lot has changed since the times of da Vinci.
Nowadays, over 80 percent of Americans want to write a book—that’s 250 million people in the US alone! So you’d think writers would have the biggest support group in the world, but in fact, far too many of them have no one to turn to.
The Devaluation of Mentors
Our current culture is obsessed with technology. It has largely replaced human interaction with tweets and blogs and online courses and self-help books. But here’s what I’ve learned:
One good mentor is worth all those combined—a hundred fold.
My Mentorship Story
I started this blog four years ago. For the first two years it felt like I was pushing against a brick wall. Then one day I published a blog post where I broke down Rowling’s outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and compared it to Stuart Horwitz’s methods in his book Blueprint Your Bestseller. Within a few months Stuart had contacted me and asked if I’d like to coauthor a chapter for his second book, Book Architecture. (Um, yes!)
Stuart and I emailed back and forth throughout the year as we developed our chapter, which went so well that I also ended up beta reading and offering feedback on the rest of the book. Even though I was excited when Book Architecture went to press, I was also sad for the experience to end—I had learned and grown more in that one year than my past two years of blogging combined.
I felt incredibly lucky, then, when Stuart contacted me yet again and offered me an internship—a first for him and his book editing firm, Book Architecture.
During my year-long internship, I delved into everything in the publishing world:
- drawing up contracts,
- creating style sheets, editorial letters, and agent databases,
- walking through the entire self-publishing process,
- and editing on all levels—developmental, line, and copy.
I also was a beta reader for Stuart’s third and final writing book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It.
In an internship, you’re simply learning “stuff”—a knowledge checklist. But in a mentorship, someone is getting to know you one-on-one and addressing your personal experiences and goals.
Along with all of the valuable “stuff” I learned, Stuart also set aside time for mentor talks. The talks revolved around any questions I had about the editing business as well as advice from him based on questions I should have asked but didn’t know enough yet to ask them.
In the end, I learned more during my one-year mentorship than I could have learned on my own in five years (or more). In fact, I have not found a single success story where the individual did not have some form of mentorship along the way.
Examples of Modern-Day Mentors
Lena Dunham was mentored by the late Nora Ephron. In a beautifully written piece in the New Yorker, Dunham memorialized Ephron:
[Nora] explained how to interact with a film composer (“Just say what you’re hearing and what you want to hear”) and what to do if someone screamed at you on the telephone (“Just nod, hang up, and decide you will never allow anyone to speak to you that way again”). She called bullshit on a whole host of things, too: donuts served in fancy restaurants; photo shoots in which female directors are asked to all stand in a cluster wearing mustaches; the idea that one’s writing isn’t fiction if it borrows from one’s life.
Oprah was mentored by Barbara Walters. In an interview with Walters, Oprah said, “Had there not been you, there never would have been me.”
Oprah was also mentored by Maya Angelou. At Angelou’s funeral, Oprah gave a eulogy and said, “I think mentors are important . . . Nobody makes it alone. Nobody has made it alone.”
Usher has frequently spoken about mentoring Justin Bieber. In an interview with Pharell Williams, Usher paraphrased a line from Italian diplomat Galeazzo Ciano:
Success has a million fathers. Failure is an orphan. [Tweet This]
Now the Question Is: How Do You Find Your Own Mentor?
1. Never stop chasing your dreams.
Jon Hamm didn’t get a single acting gig for the first three years after moving to Hollywood. Not surprisingly, his talent agency dropped him. Hamm gave himself five years to get his acting career on track; if nothing happened, he’d quit. He said:
I knew a lot of 40-year-old waiters and I didn’t want to be one of those.
In the nick of time Hamm landed his first big Hollywood movie, We Were Soldiers, and he was able to quit waiting tables. A few years later he became the infamous Don Draper of “Mad Men,” which was voted the seventh best-written TV series of all time.
Paula Hawkins has a similar story. Hawkins got her start in the book industry when she wrote a guide to finance. The publishing house that took on the guide asked Hawkins to also write some romance novels under the pen name Amy Silver. Hawkins said she never felt comfortable with the genre and realized that she wanted to write suspense and psychological thrillers. When her fourth romance novel flopped, she decided to try writing one last time before giving it up for good. The result was the fastest-selling hardcover ever recorded—The Girl on the Train.
My question is: How many people in history have given themselves a deadline, not knowing that success had been waiting just beyond it?
This mindset of “all or nothing” is not healthy or helpful. I realize we all must face reality—we have families, jobs, bills—but facing reality does not mean throwing away your dreams.
Maybe you have to figure out a different approach or perhaps you have to go at a slower pace, but at least you’re still in pursuit. Because if you’re not actively trying to help yourself, you have very little chance of finding someone who will want to help you either.
As Stuart says in Finish Your Book in Three Drafts:
If you look at the subset circle of people who didn’t make it, the entire subset of people who quit is contained within that.
2. Keep an open mind as to whom your mentor may be.
The secret to success is not in having a mentor but in having the right mentor. Luckily, the “right” mentor can come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t limit yourself by thinking that your mentor has to have higher credentials than you or has to be more successful than you or even has to be in the same field as you.
Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said:
Here’s an important warning: you don’t have to have mentors who look like you. Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.
And the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, said:
Don’t always look high when creating your mentor network. Colleagues have great insights about you that you may have overlooked.
Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, John Glenn, and Walter Cronkite all had mentors who were either high school or elementary teachers.
One of Colin Powell’s greatest mentors was his father. Ansel Adams also credited his own father and so did Cal Ripken, Jr., who said:
I don’t know what value you can place on [a mentor], but the right words spoken at the right time from a person that’s been through it before can make all the difference.
More than anything else, a successful mentorship is founded on mutual respect and admiration. One of Steven Spielberg’s mentors was George Lucas. Spielberg has himself mentored many people, including J. J. Abram. Spielberg said:
The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.
Stuart and I are very different people at very different points in our lives. We live over 1,400 miles apart and have never even met. But the mentorship has been successful. I attribute our success to the fact that we not only respect our differences but also capitalize on them—we treat them as assets rather than as deficits
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who mentored Henry David Thoreau, summed it up best when he said:
What I need is someone who can make me do what I can. [Tweet This]
3. Look first for mentorship moments. Then let them progress naturally.
Robert Herjavec, TV star of “Shark Tank,” wrote:
As you consider mentorship, I encourage you to take the pressure off.
Stop the “will you be my mentor?” emails and start being present to embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Ask your colleagues and executive team members for their points of view. Seek advice from your direct leader or leader once removed.
Start having conversations and soaking in the mentorship moments.
Three years ago when Stuart contacted me to coauthor a chapter, I could never have guessed that I’d end up where I am today with an editing business of my own. All I was focused on then was embracing the opportunity and learning as much from it as I could. Don’t be concerned if a mentorship moment doesn’t turn into a full-blown mentorship.
Herjavec also wrote:
When I consider mentorship, I see it as a series of moments with key individuals over the course of my career. Have I always had one individual guide me along the way? No, that wasn’t my experience. But there are multiple people that have offered advice or a sounding board along the way . . .
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, agrees with Herjavec:
Throughout my career, I’ve benefited greatly from the wisdom and experiences of mentors. Some executives credit one or two key people for coaching them to success, but I believe effective mentoring takes a network.
Different people see different aspects of us as we progress in our careers and handle the opportunities and challenges along the way.
Financial advisor Suze Orman, who mentors personal trainer Jillian Michaels, said:
Everyone in life can be your mentor whether they know it or not. [Tweet This]
4. Ask not what your mentor can do for you, but what you can do for your mentor.
The most important thing to remember about a mentorship is:
THE MENTOR DOES NOT NEED THE MENTEE.
Stuart, for example, has twenty years of experience as an editor. His book Blueprint Your Bestseller was named one of 2013’s best writing books by The Writer magazine and his clients are bestselling authors who have appeared on “The Today Show,” “The Tonight Show,” and “Oprah.”
Stuart mentors me as a favor—not out of necessity. But like all great mentors, he also treats me as an equal. Not once during my internship did he give me a go-get-the-coffee job. That’s not to say that all my work has been enlightening and rewarding and inspiring—every job has its drudgery—but a mentor shows you how to most effectively and efficiently tackle the drudgery.
In the end, you only get as much out of a mentorship as you put into it.
A mentor’s job is not necessarily to make your road any easier. It’s to show you that the road is worth taking.