Six Ways To Find Your Next Mentor

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In January 2010, Betsy Lerner — brilliant author of The Forest for the Trees — wrote up a quick post in which she remembered two of her early mentors. A month later, Holly Hoffman brought up the topic again. All this mentor-talk got me thinking back on my own favorites, and how important they’ve been to my career success.

I myself have never had one single, larger-than-life figure playing the part of mentor (talk about pressure). Rather, I’ve approached mentorship in much the same way career expert Marci Alboher does: as an ever-shifting collection of people I surround myself with… people I feel I can learn from, no matter what stage they’re at in their career. I highly recommend this approach.

Why do you need a mentor? Because you shouldn’t be working in a vacuum, stumbling along your career path without outside inspiration or guidance. Why do you need multiple mentors?┬áBecause it’s silly to rely on a single person, when an entire community can provide much better support, and a greater diversity of insight and advice.

So where can you find this army of advisers?

1. In the classroom.

It’s been 18 years since junior high, yet I still think of Mr. Meyers — my eighth grade history teacher — whenever I’m faced with the horrors of public speaking. He taught me the mantra “loud, clear, and slow.” Simplistic enough, but key in keeping me calm. And then there’s Burton Klein, an adjunct professor at TCNJ who, 13 years ago, happened to be the first to teach me about cover letters. Now, well, they’re sort of my thing. It’s been years since I’ve been in contact with either of these people, yet they still loom large in my mind. And then there’s Sue Shapiro, well-known in NYC media circles for her generosity and no-nonsense teaching methods. I took post-college classes with her at both the New School and through Mediabistro, and┬áconsider her to be one of my freelance writing gurus. Though I only e-mail her every once in a blue moon, it’s nice to know she’s there if I need her.

Still working toward a degree, or even just taking non-credit, post-college classes in order to hone your skills? Keep your eyes open for mentor options. If you find that you click with one of your profs, the relationship could be well worth cultivating beyond the end of the semester. Just remember that you’re not the only one vying for his or her attention.

2. At your internship.

Sure, you’re there to beef up your resume and gain some much-needed experience. But don’t miss out on the opportunity to also ask your internship adviser some hard-hitting questions about the industry. After proving yourself to be the super-intern, ask your adviser if they have time to chat, or offer to take them to lunch in exchange for the chance to pick their brain. If you prove your mettle at the very bottom of the ladder, they may be willing to help you move up a few rungs once your internship has come to an end.

3. Via informational interviews.

When exploring possible career paths, it can help to target those already in the industry for informational interviews. Draw up a list of your dream companies, and then utilize the company’s website, or perhaps even LinkedIn, to find people who might be willing to talk to you. If you land an interview, use your time together to gather information about their personal experiences within the industry, rather than acting on the assumption that they can — or want to — give you a job. If they’re impressed enough by your initiative, they might be willing and able to help you out in the future. But remember: You career success is not their responsibility.

4. On the job.

So you’re on staff somewhere. I’m going to assume you don’t plan on being there forever. Just as I suggested with internships, try to pick your superior’s brain. The best bosses will feel invested in helping you grow as a professional.

5. Among your peers.

You have just as much to learn from your freelance colleagues as you do from the editors and clients giving you work. Case in point: In running Freelancedom, and in being active on Twitter, I’ve connected with so many fabulous freelancers. And in so doing, I have learned so much. Because, obviously, despite all the preparation, I didn’t jump into full-time freelancing knowing everything there is to know about it. Some things you can only learn by doing. And other things you can only learn from those who have already been toiling away in the trenches. Thank god for all the freelancers out there who were willing to share their experiences, tips, and contacts with me. The very first freelancer I met through Freelancedom was The Urban Muse’s Susan Johnston. I continue to be a bit in awe of her success as a freelancer, and most definitely consider her not only a colleague but a mentor.

6. On your bookshelf.

It was The Anti 9-to-5 Guide that led me to pursue full-time freelancing and, when author Michelle Goodman followed it up with My So-Called Freelance Life, I decided she was the She-Ra of Freelancing. Had I never come into contact with Goodman, I still would have considered her a mentor. Her books are dog-eared beyond belief and, in tandem, operate as my Official Freelance Bible. Still, it seems that not all author-heroes are out of reach, and I eventually connected with Goodman through an online writers’ group. I still feel all ridiculously fan-girl when I see a personal e-mail from her in my inbox. Like: Really? We’re peers now? It’s like receiving correspondence from Barbara Kingsolver (as if). So don’t discredit the possibility that the person behind your favorite how-to might be responsive to your questions. And even if they are out of reach, their books still have much wisdom to impart.

So who’s part of your mentor posse, and how did you first connect?

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