When I first started training martial arts year ago I sucked.

Like you don’t understand how bad I was. It was awful. I was not an athletic child.

I spent most of my time reading books. Lord of the Rings? The Wheel of Time? Dragonlance? That was my jam.

Video games? Forget about it. Atari 2600 & on FTW.

But playing sports was not part of my life.

It wasn’t until college that I finally found something to hook me – martial arts. But I was bad at it! Why did it hook me?

Partially I was finally in the right place in my life, but it was also due to finding and building a relationship with someone who could push me in the right direction.

I found a mentor.

Mentors Are Critical For Professional/Personal Growth

Last week I wrote at length on relationships. Specifically, How To Start a Conversation With Anyone.

I discussed three broad network categories, noting that all the relationships in your life are not equal.

I focused on casual relationships and moving people from that category to the true network category.

But I also mentioned mentors, which is the third of the three big pillars of network categories.

A good mentor is the most important relationship you can have if you are a young lawyer or new associate.

The True Purpose Of A Mentor

Often times, the first word people use to describe mentors is “cheerleader.” Many people think a mentor is someone who encourages and praises you. This has never been true for me.

In fact, if all someone who was “mentoring” me did was offer praise and encouragement, I would not consider them a mentor. 

Sure there will be times a mentor will offer praise. But those times are few and far between.

A mentor who only gives praise is essentially a fawning parent. Nice to have, but not the purpose of a mentor.

  • A mentor is not only there to encourage you.
  • A mentor is not only there to motivate you.
  • A mentor is not only there to inspire you.
  • A mentor’s primary purpose is to cultivate growth.

Guess what? Growth is not easy. Growth is change. Growth is painful.

Growth involves leaving behind certain aspects of your old self in order to make room for what you want to become.

To Sharpen A Blade You Must Break It

In a post a couple years ago I discussed my time as an uchi-deshi (a full-time live-in student at a Japanese martial arts school), and the type of training and classes I endured.

In particular there were special classes reserved for senior students called kenshu (“sword sharpening”). In the post I touch on literal sword sharpening:

…To bring an edge to a blade, to make a blade capable of cutting and piercing, it must be ground and filed. Must be removed – broken away –  again and again before an edge is revealed. An edge is never “created” – it exists innate in the metal. The potential to cut always lies in the metal. Sharpening a blade strips away excess, honing it to a cutting edge.

There are times you might admire a knife, but most of the time you use it to cut stuff. And if you want to keep it capable of cutting, you’ve got to sharpen it.

Which is what a true mentor should do for you.

You need to find mentors who will challenge you. Point out your flaws. Tell you the “hard truths” other won’t.

This is what makes a mentor valuable. Mentors have the ability to see into you and know what is needed to push you towards growth. They are there to help sharpen you, not praise you until you shine.

But don’t tolerate mentors whose criticism veers towards abuse. If someone is hypothetically mentoring you and consistently only offers scorn and belittlement, that person isn’t a mentor, they’re just a jerk. 

True mentors will encourage growth in their proteges through a number of different avenues:

  • Offering honest feedback
  • Doling out constructive criticism
  • Providing advice based on their past experience
  • Serve as a role model and example of success in your pursuit
  • Act as a sounding board for your ideas
  • Expose you to their array of resources and networks if needed
  • Helping plan or devise a strategy for handling a difficult situation
  • Encouraging you to take calculated and constructive risks*
  • A swift kick in the ass

These are all traits and qualities you should seek out when you are looking for a mentor.

Which brings us to the truly difficult task: how to find a mentor?

I’ve got a hard truth for you about mentors most people won’t tell you.

You Have To Already Be Good To Find A Mentor

Mentors are busy people with full schedules and limited amounts of time.

They don’t want newbies.

Mentors are people who are already successful and accomplished. They got there through hustle and grit.

And you expect them to spoon-feed you until you understanding things?

Finding mentors is difficult because they are rare.

Mentors are people who have been there, done that, and feel obliged to give back to those younger or junior to them.

Likely because they were mentored when they were in the same spot you are now.

But because they are special and have achieved success in their chosen field, they are also busy. They have time for mentoring, but not too much time.

They aren’t just going to mentor anyone who comes up to them.

If you’re just starting off in your career or a new avenue of work or activity, you’re likely not good enough to have a mentor.

It’s a hard truth, but it is the truth.

You need to be a self-starter and figure out as much as you can on your own before you find someone who is willing to help. Successful people don’t have the time to bring you up from scratch.

Mentors can spot potential. Mentors look for diamonds in the rough. Mentors want to take on someone who is already good, but not yet great.

You have to work yourself up to good on your own. Only then can you begin to attract the attention of a potential mentor.

Even then, you can’t just show up and beg to be mentored. No one likes people looking for a hand out.

To attract a mentor, you first have to able to add value to their life first.

For people just starting out looking for mentors, this seems counter-intuitive. “Wait – but I want them to help me!”

Sure, but why are they going to help you in the first place? They don’t know you.

Going back to  How To Start a Conversation With Anyone:

No one likes a leech, a hanger-on, or someone begging for scraps. But people do appreciate others who offer to help without being asked and seek nothing in return.

you have to show you are willing to do the same AND you have to do it first.

It’s incredibly unlikely you’re going to meet someone who is going to jump from a casual relationship straight to a mentoring relationship. You have to get on their radar first.

Once you’ve gotten on their radar, then you need to move them into your True Network category.  Then you have to stay there.

The best way to do this is to develop “relationship trust equity.”

Most people don’t know this exists, but it’s what smart people use to get ahead. And I’m going to explain it to you.

Give In Order To Get: Building Relationship Trust Equity

An easy way to understand relationship trust equity is by looking at an example:

Allison, a young associate, meets Barbara, a mid level partner at a different firm who does the type of work she wants to do. Over the course of a few months, Allison interacts with Barbara at various bar events and social functions.

Allison follows up with Barbara, emailing relevant information about their conversations.  Allison sends research or articles she thinks Barbara will find helpful or constructive in some way.

Allison doesn’t bombard Barbara, but touches base with a an article or recent judicial opinion relevant to Barbara’s practice area maybe once or twice a month.

What Allison is creating within Barbara is a sense of obligation. Allison is:

  1. displaying she has some knowledge about Barbara’s practice;
  2. showing initiative by finding information for Barbara on her own time; and
  3. doing so without prompting or asking for anything in return.

Allison is building up relationship trust equity. She is shaping and molding a sense of value in Barbara’s mind.

Only after Allison builds enough relationship trust equity, can she “cash out” some shares and ask for something from Barbara.

  • “Barbara, if you have time next week, can we grab coffee and talk about X issue I’m having at work?”
  • “Barbara, I’m writing an article on [practice area they both work on]. I’ve got a rough draft together, could you take a minute to look it over?”
  • “Barbara, I’m thinking about making a lateral move to a different firm. Could we hop on the phone and talk about it for a minute?”

If Allison did any of the above right after meeting Barbara, she would have gotten nowhere. Instead, Allison:

  1. Got on Barbara’s radar
  2. Followed up
  3. Worked on moving Barbara from Casual Relationship to her True Network
  4. Added value to the relationship for Barbara

Only after the above occurs can Allison develop a mentoring relationship with Barbara.

Building relationship trust equity is one of the most sure-fire ways of building a relationship with someone you want for a mentor.

But there is something else you have to do once you find a mentor.

Trust And Rely On Your Mentor

Perhaps the important thing you can do once you manage to find a mentor is to leave your ego outside the door.

When you want help or advice from your mentor, the first thing you need to do is empty your cup:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Receiving advice from a mentor can be confusing, or even hurtful, at first.

This is part of them breaking you down.

Mentors possess experience and perspective in dealing with situations you can’t appreciate or understand because you are new and inexperienced.

Yet, if you’ve gone through the above process:

  • found a someone you admire,
  • built a real relationship with them, and
  • built relationship trust equity to the point where you can begin to have mentor-protege interactions with them

Then you also need to trust their assessment and advice. You might not understand it immediately, but you should take the time to dwell on it at length and examine their advice from multiple perspectives.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to heed their advice, but it should impact any decision or steps you make.

Remember: a mentor’s true purpose is to cultivate growth in their proteges.

There Can (Not) Be Only One

Just as mentors usually have multiple proteges, you will need more than one mentor in your life.

What you really want is an “advisory group” of mentors.

Three to five people with experience to provide insight into your career. This will allow you to receive multiple perspectives on an issue if needed.

Having an advisory group also helps prevent you from “burning out” one mentor. Instead, you can cycle through mentors as needed and not be overly bothersome to any one person.

Finding mentors is a difficult process. This primer only barely scratches the surface of what is involved in finding one.

Moreover, all mentoring relationships are unique. You can’t approach one like you would another.

You have to navigate the personal and professional bounds of your relationship with mentors in a very active way.

You can’t rest on your laurels and hope to fall into routine patterns of behavior with them. If they’re really your mentor, they won’t stand for it.

When you are looking for guidance, when you are looking for help in developing who you are as a professional, as a person – don’t seek out those who only praise you.

Take the time to find mentors who will push you to grow and change.

Anything else isn’t worth your time.

If you’re looking for peers, I’ve got the place for you. It’s not the same as a mentor, but it really helps.

And that’s not even getting to the exclusive member discounts.

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