The Trouble With Mentors

Our correspondent seeks out the counsel of great men (and women) and learns a valuable lesson: The best advice to follow is your own.

Mentors are the Holy Grail for working women. We desperately seek them out, believing that they're our guides to the top. I have spent half of my adult life seeking out teachers, and, looking back, I have to confess that even from the best, I received no more than so-so help.

Women -- and men -- need to stop looking for advice outside of themselves. You already know your most valuable mentor.

I once heard a story about George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who, among other things, is considered a father of scenario planning. It goes like this: When he was a young man, Gurdjieff would go out on his porch with an armload of books. Invariably, one of his neighbors would come out on his porch and start whistling. Gurdjieff would try to read through the annoyance, but, after a few weeks, he'd find that he'd been too distracted to concentrate on the wisdom in the pages. Thank goodness, he concluded: If I'd read those books I might have filled my brain with useless information. Instead, he came to hear his own thoughts.

Advice is overrated. Before you learn what others know, you need to learn what you know. My search for mentors came to an end when I got to spend a day with a man who is still considered a mentor to thousands. After a discussion that was utterly confusing, a photographer came to take our picture. I was told to sit at the great man's feet, and he stood behind me. While waiting for the camera to go off, he farted. Right in my ear. You take revelations where you can get them.

So, aware of the irony of giving advice about the limited value of outside advice, here is an unorthodox guide to getting and making the most of your guides.

To learn, teach. Women typically feel that they need to be "credentialed" to claim authority. I've found that the worthwhile things that I learned in life I taught myself. I learned the finer points of grammar as a high schooler coaching elementary-school kids. I mentored in writing long before I'd written a book of my own. Find someone whom you can mentor on the subject that you want to master. You'll learn quickly and indelibly.

Give help, don't ask for it. If there is someone whose knowledge you need, offer to help that person. You'll find yourself in a role in which you are treated not as a second-rate "mentee" but as a peer.

If you must ask for help, be discreet. An ambitious young woman confided that she planned to invite a recently promoted colleague out to lunch to "tell her I want her job and ask her how to get it." I shuddered at the thought. This young woman should instead ask her colleague about her five-year plan, for example. A direct question, journalists know, always puts a source on the defensive.

Watch, don't talk. Mentors are everywhere; you don't have to sign someone up for the role. If you start watching how people do things, you'll find people tacitly noticing that they are being observed. Often they're flattered by the attention and they will start teaching you.

Try the Polish generalissima's paradigm. Two women in the Polish military are said to have made a secret pact: They would help each other to rise in the hierarchy. When Magda went to a meeting, she'd be sure to work praise of Theresa into the discussion. Whenever Theresa wrote a report, she'd recommend Magda for new responsibilities. And before long, third parties were saying, "I hear Theresa is brilliant," or "Magda is being considered for such-and-such position."

Dig your well before you're thirsty. This old saw bears repeating. Cultivate your relationships with important people before you need them. Send cards, notes, or things that you think will be of interest, and ask nothing in return.

Male mentors require a safe distance. I've had great male mentors, but when I look back, I realize that I underestimated what they took from me: I paid them in spirit, enthusiasm, help, self-understanding, and empathy far beyond the value of any advice they gave me. Make sure that the deal is reciprocal. Don't ever underestimate what you have to give. And don't give more than you get.

Don't look for praise, look for (gentle) criticism. Praise reinforces what you know; criticism forces you to learn more.

Don't despair if you don't have a mentor. Two of my heroes, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Eleanor Roosevelt, never had mentors. They engaged the best teacher in the world: namely, the world itself. Jackie read constantly and even in her tender twenties knew so much that she went on to become the source behind Camelot. And Eleanor was a committed student of literature, language, and history. Each triumphed as a result of what she taught herself, not what mentors had to offer.

Know when to fold your tent. There always comes a time when you have to cut off a mentoring relationship. What looks like help can turn into a case of psychological abuse when the mentor, demanding more mirroring or praise, stops giving. Or when you've learned all that he or she has to offer. At that point, say good-bye before the relationship turns painful.

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