Why the cool kids won’t hang out with you: A guide to mentors

teenager and toddler in deep discussionMany years ago, when I was a young MBA student, we were all advised to find mentors who would help our careers.  However, I found that many people I was interested in were not particularly interested in me. That was disappointing and irritating.  After all, I believed I was a smart, hard-working person and I even had some degrees and awards to support that belief.

Now that I am older and occasionally wiser, I have gained a little perspective in why young people don’t always find the mentors they believe they deserve.

It’s nothing personal.

  1. They don’t have time for you. Anyone who has obtained a fair degree of success has a lot of demands on his or her time. Your potential mentor has proposals to review, budgets to approve, meetings in six states and three continents. You are interested in this person because of the knowledge and connections they have.  Meeting with anyone, including you, cuts into the time available for applying that knowledge and strengthening those connections.
  2. Someone else beat you to it. I’m very fortunate to know people who are both very successful and very empathetic. These people take on a limited number of graduate students, interns, formal or informal mentees. Each of those junior professionals gets a certain share of that person’s time. Just like number 1, when that allotment is used up, they refuse to take an interest in anyone else because they just can’t.
  3. Some people really are jerks. This is the minority, in my experience, but there are those with the attitude, “I got mine and screw everyone else.” They won’t mentor you unless they see something it for them, say, you have a family member who is president of General Motors.

It is personal.

  1. You don’t have the right school, personal or family connections to help you get hooked up with a mentor. There are people who, if they ask me a favor, I have to say, “Yes.” If one of them calls me, I will make time to help you, find a project for you.  The fewer people like that you know, the harder it is for you to find a mentor.
  2. You have almost nothing in common with your want-to-be mentor. Maybe you are both passionately interested in Widget Design. Other than that, they are worried about managing their investments so they can both retire and send their children to good prep schools. They have problems with their spouse of twenty years wanting to move to the mountains and start an apple orchard. You are worried about how to pay your electricity bill and getting laid on Friday night.
  3. They feel uncomfortable around you. You are a different gender, religion, race and generation. They wear designer suits to the office. You come to work every day in clothes they wouldn’t wear to the beach, swear like a sailor who just hit his thumb with a hammer.
  4. You are a jerk. (This was often my problem.) Maybe you were the smartest person in your high school. So, even though you were a bit of an arrogant prick, people cut you slack because you were the smartest person in the school. Then you go to college, and on to a good graduate program. Guess what? Probably half the people in your graduate program were the smartest kid in high school, and if you are a pompous ass, no one needs to put up with you.

I once overheard a manager give terrific advice to a mutual friend of ours,

“No matter how brilliant you are, there comes a point when it is not worth the pain in the ass of putting up with you, even if you are the best person in the world in your field. They’ll just get the second-best person in the field. More likely, they will just get someone equally good who is not a pain in the ass.”

What can you do, to increase your odds of finding a good mentor?

It is too late for you to be born into a different family, but there are some steps you can take.

 1. Meet lots of people. Yes, networking. Go to conferences. Go to meet-ups. Accept the fact that 90% of the people you meet will fit in one of the first three categories above. However, the more of those people you meet, the more you increase your odds that you will meet someone who has just had a student graduate, intern get a new job or in other way have some time open up for you.

2. Follow-up WITHOUT being crazy-stalker about it. Send someone you met an email telling him or her how much you liked their presentation/ product/ demonstration/ conversation. Don’t take it personally that they often won’t write you back. (See #1 through 3 above). Whether they write you back or not send another email a few weeks or months later if something comes up.

“I read your book on widget design and I noticed that you did not mention widget type #123Grape. I was wondering if that was because you saw some flaw in it or did it just happen to come out on the market after your book went to press?”

3. Try to fit in. This doesn’t mean don’t wear your St. Jude medal to work or change your name from Tanisha to Tammy.  It does mean try not to swear (I tell myself this every time I open my mouth in public), try to conform to the dress code for your organization. If everyone reads the New Yorker, attends a certain conference, reads a certain book, check it out. The key word here is “try”. If you absolutely hate the New Yorker or think Widget World blows, you don’t have to do it again. When the subject of Widget World comes up, you can honestly say that you thought the keynote by the inventor of the widget was awesome. You don’t have to add that you thought the rest of the presenters were a bunch of douche bags. I never learned to golf and the number of times I have worked 9-5 this year can be counted on two hands. However, I own a closet full of suits and read thousands of pages a year of everything from the New York Times to Statistical Medicine.

4. Be a person who saves your mentor time. I’ll be honest with you – most interns and new employees take up more of my time than they save. Many conversations with junior people outside my office take up time that I won’t get back. If you suggest something you can do to save me time, and then you actually do it and don’t screw it up, I will definitely remember you.

“I noticed you had some graphics in your widget design book. I was a graphics art minor and I thought those could be re-done in photoshop like ….”

I just used that example because I suck at art and I love the editor for my book coming out this fall because she has magically made all the art stuff happen.

5. Don’t be too impressed with yourself. Many young people I have had work for me over the years have an unwarranted attitude of superiority if they know something I don’t. Believe me, if I don’t know every option in Final Cut Pro it is not because I am unable to figure it out and if I ask you what is the capital of South Dakota it isn’t because I can’t find Wikipedia on the Internet. It’s because I’m busy doing the things that enable the company to pay your salary.  They often felt that the office schedule should rotate around their needs and whims – thought we should meet at 7 a.m so they could leave in time to watch the Dodgers game and wear shorts to that meeting with the client from the Church of Old Conservative People because it is hot out. Um, no.

On the other hand, if you have done all of those things, don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t think that all of those people you were hoping to impress think you are an idiot. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I certainly don’t think that.  In fact, when I have some young person who does all of the above, I often think to myself,

“This is how God punishes people who were complete self-important smart asses when they were young. He makes them become successful and then spend the rest of their lives meeting people just like they were.”

Don’t ask me how I know this.

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