Monday, July 14, 2014

Find Your Own Mentor

A lot of businesses and colleges have official mentoring programs, and I have nothing against those (in fact, I participate in one at my alma mater!) But for the former, you need to first get employed at that business, and for the latter, you might have a lot of hoops to jump through and limited selection. How else can you find mentors? (Notice I used the plural? It's good to have multiple sources of advice.)

If there are any family friends who you've always thought seemed sharp and had good careers, ask if you can meet them for coffee. Sure, she might be your mom's best friend and so it might feel awkward at first, but trust me, she'll be flattered and any family friend ought to be plenty willing to put forth some time and effort to help you out.

You can also reach out to your school's alumni base outside of any formal program. Go on LinkedIn and do a multiple-term search with your college and the field you want to go into. Send them an introductory email explaining you're a student wanting to go into X and are connecting with alumni in the field. Then pursue any who either seem friendly (who reply to your initial email with anything, even if it's just a "Hi, happy to meet you" email) or who have worked in particular companies or fields you find fascinating and would like to know more about.

This really can work. I give a speech every fall at my alma mater (these talks are what inspired my new book, The Insider's Guide to a Career in Book Publishing), and after my last talk, one student, a freshman, emailed me to ask if I'd recommend some books for an aspiring editor. Well that's like asking me if I have a favorite ice cream or if I like breathing. Yes I can recommend books! I emailed back. She replied. We've now been emailing for close to a year. I've only met her in person once, but you can truly develop a relationship over email (think back to pen pals of yore). What we talk about mostly depends on what questions she asks and what kind of week I've been having. I do tell her about my work week a lot, even if I suspect that a discussion of billable hours is pretty boring for a 19-year-old (but one of many things that these eager young things need to learn about the real world is that large swaths of it are boring.) She's always sent me thoughtful responses and when I occasionally go more than a week between responses due to my workload, she's never given me a hard time.

Some questions she's asked me over the last many months:

  • Have you read any mystery/thrillers that have literary value as well as thriller value?
  • Do you ever use Goodreads in a professional capacity, like for networking purposes, or is it just for fun?
  • At the meeting you said that editing manuscripts is now something that editors are expected to do on their own time, so what does a typical day on the job look like for you (if there is a typical day!)?
  • Have you gained any new insight from playing the author rather than editor?  
She never asks so many questions at once that I feel like I'm answering a quiz, but the questions are good for keeping the conversation developing. So unofficially, I figure I'm now a mentor for her. All she had to do to get a mentor was to be brave enough to cold-email an alumni she heard speak at her college, and to ask a smart question. I truly now love our email exchanges and I look forward to seeing her name in my In Box. 

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