Mentoring 3.0

By Caitlin Kelly


Which path should I choose?!


The traditional view of mentoring is that of a wise(r), old(er) person with the time, skills, expertise, insights and contacts to help a younger person enter, or climb the ladder of, their chosen profession.

You might find a mentor in a family friend, a neighbor, teacher or professor, a coworker or fellow freelancer.

But here’s the thing.

I think mentoring is no longer, as many people see it, a one-way street, with the person arguably with all the power and connections helping the person with none, or many fewer.

The economy has changed.

Entire industries have shifted, shrunk or simply died and disappeared.

Books can offer lots of great advice, too!

Many people my age — I’m in my 50s — are scrambling hard now to earn a good living freelance; even if we wanted a full-time job with benefits, at the salary we enjoyed a few years ago, it’s quite likely out of reach.

So while we have decades of experience and skill we can and do share, we’re also now working for, and with, people half our age or younger who are the new gatekeepers.

We all need to adapt.

I’ve mentored many people throughout the years.

Some have become and remained dear friends, like this talented young woman in London. I’m super thrilled to see what a great career and life she has created for herself.

A few others have been, frankly, shockingly ungrateful and entitled, delighted to use me in whatever ways they thought most expedient and then...buh-bye!

Not cool, kids. Not cool at all.

I recently applied for a part-time editing position, one in which I’d be working closely with — i.e. managing — several young staffers. I needed proof of my ability to do so, and asked several Millennial friends, (i.e. mentees), to write me a LinkedIn recommendation.

Fortunately, several came through for me, and their words have been both touching and just what I needed. One blew me off with two snotty little sentences. That was…instructive.

Mentoring 3.0 is no longer the CEO in his or her corporate corner office pontificating.

Not everyone who can be helpful to you now has a Big Fancy Job.

They might not even have a “job” anymore!

It all feels so mysterious, though. Help!!!

Nor is everyone who can be helpful to you de facto eager to have you — (and never ever use this hideous phrase!) — pick their brain. Just because you need help doesn’t mean everyone has the time or energy to help you.

Before you clutch someone’s ankles, insisting you desperately need their help and advice, show us what you’ve already tried to do.

Even if you’ve failed, at least you thoughtfully and sincerely tried. Effort is huge.

We need to know you’re listening and will actually do some of what we suggest; nothing is more annoying than making time to really listen carefully and offer our best advice, contacts or insights — and you fail to follow through.

Oh, and yes, a thank-you, (even on real paper with a stamp), is very welcome!

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who’s flexible, savvy and able to pivot whenever and wherever necessary. Treat them, and their valuable time, with the respect it deserves.

No one owes you this!

The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker — and generous mentor to many in our field

And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.

In the new economy, we all need one another.

9 thoughts on “Mentoring 3.0

  1. sthrendyle

    This is really great advice because, yes, things are cutting both ways, now. There ARE technical chops (analytics, anyone?) that we can learn from younger folks. As the parents of two college age kids, I see more direction and focus (hmm, could be the drugs) than I had at their age which frankly, was not THAT golden an age for writers (like, it’s never been easy, especially if you’ve solely relied on your freelance income). Information and data on its own are not stories; people are. And I think, as elders of the tribe, that’s where we can best share our advice (personal note – I never really had a person whom I’d call a mentor; frankly, I came of age at a time in magazine writing when staff was starting to be pared back and true ‘advice’ on what might make a good story into a great story was not readily dispensed). Still, I tell young writers (hell, young people, generally) that “it’s OK to live the dream. Just make sure you know whose bed you’re in when you wake up.”

  2. sthrendyle

    What, you did not expect that I would like this advice – it’s great! Clearly you have more contact with a variety of young people than I do. All I know is that it’s a tough road. 20 or so years ago, a young guy ‘picked my brain’ and, then, to some degree ‘ate my lunch’. Ironically, he started up a magazine (after mine had folded) and I ended up working for him. But now we are both print age dinosaurs, and wondering what the hell comes next.

  3. Really, really luck to have been both mentored AND friend-ed by you. My life is immeasurably richer πŸ™‚

    Wait, did I miss a call to LinkedIn arms somewhere?!

  4. Great post! I don’t think you do any other kind.

    The thing I find interesting about mentoring is that you don’t often know you are serving as a mentor to someone. Years after, a person may come up to you and tell you that you helped them (without specifically intending to)!

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