It’s a myth that you need to find a mentor to get ahead at work—here’s why


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All the job opportunities and institutional knowledge you could ever need will suddenly be revealed to you, you think, if only you could find a mentor. Ehhh, not so fast. In this week’s Good@Work column, all-around boss Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor (AKA HBIC) of Cosmopolitan.com and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—shares why, when it comes to career advice, mentorship might be the biggest myth out there.

Question:

I love my boss and my job, but feel I would really gain insight from having a more senior person in my industry as my mentor outside my company. Do you have any recommendations on how to find someone?

Answer:

The idea that you need a work mentor, that your professional life will be somehow stifled or unfulfilled without an older, allegedly wiser person waiting in the wings for whenever you think you need advice, is a load of crap.

I understand why you and many other young professionals (particularly women) feel this way. The idea that you Need a Mentor like you Need an Annual Physical is drilled into your brain by cliché’d “boss babe” books written by professional personalities who don’t know what work is actually like and random articles you find when you Google “how to negotiate for a raise,” also probably written by people who don’t know what work is actually like. Or maybe you got this idea from your career services department at school, which would be of better service to students by finding them well-paying jobs instead of advice-givers.

You do not need to try to find a mentor. A mentor will eventually find her way to you in the form of a friendly work relationship that extends beyond the workplace. This will be of greater value to you than a relationship you gin up at a phony mentor-mentee matching event over a plastic cup of bad chardonnay. Why? Think about it: Who’s going to give you better advice over the course of your life? Someone you know, who values you and your friendship, who is rooting for you because you have spent enough time together to feel kinship.

This is not to say that you can’t go forage for a mentor. Of course you can try to recruit someone older and wiser in your field to act as your on-call career counselor. The problem with this is that it’s hard to forge a relationship without really having the opportunity to know one another. Say you reach out to someone who’s successful in the way that you would like to be successful. You don’t know this person, but you introduce yourself and ask for her advice. It’s a ballsy move—I would be impressed at your determination and enterprise! But what exactly are you going to ask of her? You can ask for a few minutes of her time on the phone, you can ask her to coffee, you can ask to come see her in her office for an “informational interview.” These are all, according to career textbooks, very good things to do. I disagree with those textbooks.

A mentor will eventually find her way to you in the form of a friendly work relationship that extends beyond the workplace. This will be of greater value to you than a relationship you gin up at a phony mentor-mentee matching event over a plastic cup of bad chardonnay.

Now, imagine you’re the person at the other end of that email. You’re in a senior position, so you’re busy. You’re older, so you might have a kid, maybe two or three kids. If that’s the case, your days are spent sandwiched between the precious few waking hours you get with your toddler, so you try to cram as much work into your working hours as possible. (Your working hours already spill into your toddler’s waking hours, and you feel guilty every time you pick up your phone to read email or check yesterday’s numbers, but doing this is the only way you can actually leave the office at 6 every day.) You’re not a bad person, you’re just a person with a busy job and a busy life, and you’re trying to keep everybody happy. Your priority list of people to keep happy is probably your kids, your partner, your mom, your friends, your boss(es). You enjoy helping people you don’t know, but they don’t make the list because time is precious and again, they’re people you don’t know. It has nothing to do with your passion for your industry or your desire to inspire young people who look up to you. It’s just really difficult for you to justify cutting into your over-scheduled life for a stranger.

But say that you are this busy person and you do decide to cut into your day for a stranger. You get emails like this every so often, and you don’t know how to say no, so you often don’t respond, which makes you feel guilty. But today, you decide to tell the advice-seeker that you will talk to her on the phone for half an hour. You get on the phone, and it’s awkward for both of you. You don’t know this person, you don’t know how good they are at their job. You can answer her questions, but the call doesn’t leave you with anything that would inspire you to recommend her for an open position you might know about simply because a half-hour conversation wouldn’t inspire you to recommend anyone for an open position. You can talk to her again, but you already gave 30 minutes, so what else could she really ask of you? So she emails you a thank-you note (hopefully she emails you a thank-you note!) and you feel like you did your good deed for the youth for the month, and then you go back to your crushing inbox, that report your boss needs, and scheduling your toddler’s make-up gymnastics class and trying to make it home by 7 for dinner.

This kind of interaction isn’t likely to lead to a mentorship. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find one—or don’t already have one. Imagine your boss left for another job. Would that be the end of you talking to your boss and enjoying a relationship with her? Hopefully not. When that day comes, ask her if you can have coffee before she leaves. Once she does leave, stay in touch with her, tell her about what’s going on at your company and with you. She’ll be interested because you have a history together and because everyone possesses a perverse curiosity about their past workplaces. When you really need advice, you won’t even think twice about asking her because you talk regularly and you know she cares about you and would be happy to help you. When you need a reference for a job, she’s the first person you think of for exactly the same reasons. You won’t ever think, “Golly, I should have a mentor” because you have one—you just don’t even think of her as a mentor because she’s a friend, albeit a professional one, and she’s there for you.

I used to have the same thoughts you do about needing a mentor. I felt like I was a failure or inadequate as a worker in some way because I couldn’t check the “has mentor” box off my early career to-do list. I was just starting out and had no idea what having a mentor was really like. Now, I’m lucky to possess a number of professional friends from my various jobs whom I feel I can call or text or Gchat when I need advice about something relating to work. And I know a lot of incredibly smart, talented young women who come to me for advice or references when they need them, though when they do, it just feels like another conversation versus “I’m giving this person advice because I mentor her.” I suppose we could call each other “mentors,” but the relationship is more natural, less textbook than that.

The great fault in the canon of career advice we’re seeped in since college is making young people believe that mentors are a requirement for success when you’re far too inexperienced to have one. Success should lead to mentorship—not the other way around.

Amy Odell is a journalist and author living in New York. She is the former editor of Cosmopolitan.com, which became one of the most popular and award-winning sites for millennial women during her tenure. She is passionate about mentoring people starting off in their careers. She is from Austin, Texas.

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Have a career question for Amy? Email us at goodwork@wellandgood.com.

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