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.
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.
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!
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!
And if they turn back to you — and ask you for some help in return — don’t shrug and ghost.
The other day, I received an email from a young friend I met in Tucson a few years ago and who has since gone on to work in Nigeria, teach English in Turkey, do volunteer work in Mexico, compete for a London-based fellowship and intern at CNN in Atlanta.
He only graduated last May.
Nor is he a person of privilege, quite the opposite, making his trajectory even more impressive.
His email thanked me for my belief in him.
We had had a long and deeply personal conversation during a student program I was teaching in. I was touched he trusted me enough to ask my advice and was happy to give it.
It made me stop and think about the people who’ve shown their belief in me along the way and how that trust and confidence in my skills and strengths kept me going when I thought I couldn’t.
While some of today’s millennials have won trophies for showing up and some have been told Good job! for almost everything they do, I’m a Boomer from a challenging and demanding family. Everyone is a high achiever and kudos were not the norm. So the people named here made a serious difference in my life.
I know that I know how to photograph. It’s hard to take creative risks without some encouragement!
My high school art teacher, who allowed us to use her first name. Funny, warm, down to earth, she saw how troubled and unhappy I was, (bullied every day there for years), but she nurtured and appreciated my talents for drawing, painting and photography. I needed a safe place to be good at something, and to be liked, even on my worst days. She offered it and belief in someone who might not be bullied forever.
A friend of my father
He loaned me a Pentax SLR camera, knowing I wanted to become a photographer. Even more generously, he told me about an annual contest, open to anyone in Toronto to submit their images of the city to Toronto Calendar magazine — which used them as their sole cover image. Still in high school, I sold three of mine. That boosted my confidence in a way no high school grade ever could have.
I started selling my writing to national magazines when I was 19, still an undergraduate at university. I still can’t quite imagine what they thought of the kid who showed up in their offices with a multi-page list of story ideas I went through until they finally said yes to one of them.
Or sent me out to report stories I’d never done before — like sitting in the open door of an airplane to watch a skydiver or calling the German headquarters of Adidas for a story about running shoes. I was hired at 26 as a staff reporter for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best national newspaper, without a minute of daily newspaper experience after eight years’ freelancing for them and my editors there sent me out on major stories that ran front page, terrifying me but giving me opportunities to grow, learn and shine.
Once in your life, if you’re lucky, you meet the right person at just the right moment. Not romantically, but in a much deeper sense.
A former Resistance hero, he was the founder of a Paris-based journalism fellowship I was selected to participate in, (and also founder of a home for wayward boys; Glenans, a sailing school, and a major daily newspaper.) He introduced me to everyone, proudly, as “Le terrible Caitlin!” — which I thought rude until I realized it meant terrific.
I was 25, desperate to somehow get a great journalism job, to build my skills and self-confidence. To have someone so incredibly accomplished like me and deeply believe in my potential? He did, for which I’m forever grateful.
I’ve had some amazing adventures as a journalist. I’ve spent a week crewing on a Tall Ship and sailed with an Americas Cup crew.
The best adventure (so far!) was in March 2014 when I joined a multi-media team in rural Nicaragua for a week’s reporting on the work of WaterAid there. We worked in 95-degree heat in Spanish and Miskitu and became so close that we all stay in touch still. It means a lot to me that clients trust me to tell their stories.
My fencing coach
How cool was it to be coached by a two-time Olympian? Amazing!
I had arrived in New York with no job/friends/family/college alumni — and had to re-start my journalism career at 30.
I landed in Manhattan, a hotbed of fencing talent. My coach, who was teaching the sport at NYU, was a former Navy man, who decided after a year or so of our mediocre foil fencing to turn a small group of women, then in our mid 30s, into sabre fencers. This was unheard of — and we couldn’t even progress beyond nationals because there was then no higher-level competition available to women.
It meant learning a new weapon, new ways of thinking and behaving on the strip, and most of all, simply being willing to try something that looked weird and impossible at first.
His faith and belief in us — much deeper than any we had in ourselves! — was truly transformative. I went on to become nationally ranked for four years, happily surprised at what you can do when someone sees talent within you, pushes you hard to develop it and celebrates the results.
My first agent
I found him through a friend. Quiet and soft-spoken, he took me to lunch at one of the city’s most elegant restaurants, Balthazar, where we ordered Kumamotos. (Oysters. I had no idea!)
I wanted more than anything to write non-fiction books, to do deep, national reporting on complicated subjects. Ambitious stuff. Finding an agent isn’t easy — you need to like, trust and respect one another, knowing you’re entwining your reputation and career with theirs.
And when an agent takes on a new writer, one who has yet to even publish a book, they’re gambling on a raft of things: your skill, your determination, your ethics, your ability to see it through to the end.
He fought hard for my first book as 25 publishers said no, some quite rudely. It did sell, and we’re now working together once more on my third book proposal.
She’s opened her home to me for decades and treated me as family, even though we met professionally when she was a PR rep in Toronto and I wrote about the organization she worked with. After I became a victim of crime here in New York, she let me stay in her Toronto home for three weeks to recover to decide if I would come back to the U.S.
My husband, a fellow journalist, has been-there-done-it-seen-it-all — he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for editing 9/11 photos for The New York Times, photographed three Presidents as an eight-year member of the White House Press Corps, covered two Olympics, several Superbowls, the end of the Bosnian war. He knows what excellence in our field looks like and demands.
His faith in me — even as our industry has lost 40 percent of its staff since 2008 — is enormous. He’s seen me write two books, (with two tired fingers!), and encourages me every day to take even more creative risks.
Who believes — or believed — in you along the way?
“When people are self-employed, you absolutely need to think of how you’re spending your time,” says executive coach Mike Woodward. “That said, charging for the occasional mentoring service is a slippery slope. It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.”
But call the concept “consulting” and all of a sudden it makes sense to charge.
‘It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.’
– Mike Woodward
The eponymous creator of Anne Chertoff Media, a boutique marketing agency that caters to the wedding industry, found a similar niche.
“I honestly got annoyed with people taking me to lunch and thinking that the cost of a meal could equal my contacts, expertise and advice, so I created a service called ‘Pick My Brain’ on my website. For $500, I give 90 or so minutes of whatever advice the customer needs,” she explains.
We’ve got two competing impulses — the urge to be generous and helpful to others, which reflects our better nature and realizes that other have done this for us, likely, along our own path.
But in an era of $4.05 (yes, here in NY) gallon gasoline, when my weekly grocery bill has literally doubled in the past few years — and when my industry is offering pennies on the dollar for the most skilled among us, what’s the upside?
Time is money! You take up my time, without payment in any form, you’ve cost me income.
And some skills take decades to hone and sharpen. Anyone who thinks that “picking my brain” will vault them into The New York Times is dreaming; I’ve helped one fellow writer get there because she deserved it.
So I bill my time at $150/hour for consultations and individual counseling. I’m going to raise it in 2015 to $200 an hour.
But…didn’t a lot of people help me? Frankly, not really. A few, yes.
I have mentored many other writers and am, very selectively, still happy to do so.
But when and where and to whom is my choice. In my younger and more idealistic days, I assumed that my generosity would be reciprocated, even thanked. Wrong!
Now I’m too busy funding my own basic needs, and a retirement. I can’t afford to give away hours of my time. It is what it is.
The people I choose to mentor are: bright, highly motivated, say thank you, follow through quickly, and don’t argue endlessly with my advice, (they can ignore it, but arguing feels rude to me.) They do whatever they can in return and, I trust, will share their good fortune with others as well.
I went back to my Toronto high school, (the same one Margaret Atwood attended), yesterday to guest lecture about what it’s like to write for a living. But if it hadn’t been for the powerful encouragement of my English teachers there — Mr. Bullen and Mr. Bickell, one who has since died and one retired — would I even have become a writer?
Or felt as confident of my choice?
From my earliest years, I was winning awards for my writing, a clue that this might be a good choice for me vocationally. We look to teachers, for better or worse, for adult appraisals of our talents and skills. A cruel or indifferent teacher can crush us, (and often does), pushing us away from a life we might have enjoyed or thrived in had we simply ignored them.
Our teachers, from early childhood on, leave powerful and lasting impressions on who we are and what we might become.
Like you, I suspect, I can still name my grade school teachers and some of their quirks, like Miss Dalton, ferocious and Irish, who taught us to memorize the shape of countries by tracing their borders with carbon paper or Miss Brough, (rhymes with rough!), who had us use dictionaries in Grade Eight to read The Scarlet Letter. Every fresh paragraph meant flipping it open to find a new word — but she taught us never to fear the unfamiliar.
My ninth-grade English teacher, in my most turbulent and unhappy year at private school, left the most lasting impression of all. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, with long, thick black hair and single. Unlike most our ancient, widowed or never-married staff, she offered a vision of someone we might like to become.
I was a mess then: angry, lonely, in trouble all time. Yet she was kind to me and treated me with the same attention as the better–behaved students in her class, for which I was miserably grateful.
In high school, bullied, I was difficult again. This time it was Ana, (we could — daringly — first-name her!), our Yugoslav art teacher, who added joy, beauty and humor to our tedious suburban Toronto days.
I ran into her years later and she introduced me, affectionately, to a fellow teacher’s wife: “This is Caitlin. She was always pain in ass.” True.
But she loved me anyway and, like Ms. Z., had still welcomed me into her classroom, her compassion and calm a needed refuge for me.
In their classrooms, I was allowed to be all of me: smart, sassy, funny, difficult. There were consequences, but there was also badly-needed comfort, acceptance and encouragement of a messy, creative complicated girl.
Great teachers see the pilot lights that flicker within us, that of our possibility and potential, sometimes long before we even know it’s there. They help us ignite the flame of our passion — for biology or German or computers or watercolors — that may light and warm us, possibly for decades to come.
A great teacher can also help us grow (up) emotionally and intellectually, can show us a different, perhaps more useful or social or interesting way of being or thinking or behaving than what we see inside our own families or amongst our peers.
My husband, Jose, is a photo editor at The New York Times, and helped them win a Pulitzer prize for photos taken on 9/11. He’s photographed the Olympics, three Presidents, war, Superbowls.
He was once, though, a minister’s son in Santa Fe, modestly expecting, and expected to become a teacher, as had many of his relatives.
But in tenth grade a teacher saw some photos he had taken for the high school yearbook. Mrs. Frank told him he had talent and should consider pursuing it as a career; when some of his basketball photos ended up in the local paper, that was it.
I’ve done a fair bit of teaching — at the undergraduate college level, and to adults. I love it. It’s such a thrill when students “get it.”
Here’s a powerful and moving video about a teacher in Los Angeles — faced with suicide attempts by fifth-graders — determined to help her young students feel good about themselves.
Which teacher most affected you and your later life?
How and why?
As a teacher — which I know many of you are — how do you feel about your power to affect your students?
It profiles Wharton professor Adam Grant, 31, whose compulsive generosity seems a little…weird…to the writer, who is, (I met her, competing on the same story), ferociously ambitious and competitive:
Grant might not seem so different from any number of accessible and devoted professors on any number of campuses, and yet when you witness over time the sheer volume of Grant’s commitments, and the way in which he is able to follow through on all of them, you start to sense that something profoundly different is at work. Helpfulness is Grant’s credo. He is the colleague who is always nominating another for an award or taking the time to offer a thoughtful critique or writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a student — something he does approximately 100 times a year. His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!”
Grant suggests we each fall into one of three categories: takers, matchers and givers.
Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders…The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.
I find this question of professional generosity interesting — and always have. I’ve been a giver for decades.
Oh, I’ve seen the looks of confusion or bemusement or pity when American colleagues — big-time takers, highly skilled matchers — see me giving away my time, expertise, contacts or skills.
The idea of actually helping a potential competitor best me, at anything, marks me, in zero-sum America, as slow-witted, a rube, someone who simply doesn’t know any better.
The default position, certainly in journalism in New York City, is to stab everyone in the eye who stands in your way and suck up really hard to anyone you think could possibly advance your career.
Trick is — which one is which?
The old farts who used to rule this town journalistically are all desperately trying to re-invent themselves at 55 or 63 or 47, while the 23-year-olds are running the ship. Even A. J. Jacobs, a 38-year-old best-selling author, only half-jokingly, describes himself as “doddering.”
So I make a point of being nice to some people half my age — these days, in my industry, they’re the ones with jobs and work to hand out!
I also give away my time far less often than I used to, I admit. I’ve watched some people I once helped skyrocket to positions of power and acclaim. And, yes, it pisses me off that they’ve never once thought to reciprocate or even drop a “Thanks!” email or note or call.
But that just tells me what sort of selfish ingrates people they are.
In my view, helping someone succeed (intelligently), doesn’t mean choosing a life of ramen and homelessness. It means we both get to celebrate success, maybe not at the same time.
It does mean having the self-confidence you, too, will succeed. So, for me, being helpful is also a powerful measure of confidence in what I can do, and have done. And will still do.
I’ll still extend a helping hand whenever and wherever it feels right.
Because — it feels right. Helping others, judiciously, is the right thing to do.
Much is made of mentors — finding one, keeping one, making sure you have the right one.
Many younger and/or less experienced writers look to me for help. I just got an email from another of the many Caitlin Kellys out there, this one a college sophomore who hopes to become a writer or editor and asked my advice.
I, too, look to my peers and colleagues for their wisdom. I turn in the final manuscript (yay!) of my second book today, and it’s much stronger for the generosity and skill of my four “first readers”, fellow professional writers who made the time to read it and offer their comments and insights.
The secret of mentoring is that we’re all doing it, all the time.
My two most helpful mentors, recently, are women both 10 to 15 years younger than I. In this economy, even the most seasoned of us have to change gears mid-career — ready or not!
Where to find wise and generous help? Maybe not from the equally dislocated people our age, but from those successfully navigating different fields or industries a few steps down the ladder.
It’s counter-intuitive to look down instead of up, but these two women have taught me a lot. One comes from the world of business and corporate life — where people use words like “value-added” and “deliverables” — helping me prepare for a speech this week to some of the nation’s largest retailers.
My other friend is a successful blogger who began her career on-line. When True/Slant, my paid blogging gig for a year, was sold and 95 percent of the contributors who had built its value to 1.5 million uniques a month were tossed away, she consoled me. Print is brutal, but editors have loyalties. Not so in the online world, she explained.
This week, my partner spent an hour on the phone with a young photographer who turned to him for his wisdom — while he, too, is being mentored by several veterans of the new niche he is moving into.
Fellow T/Ser Michael Salmonowicz blogged recently about the need for, and the power of, volunteerism. There’s no question that choosing to offer your time, skills, intelligence and compassion to someone in need — and that someone might be, or have been, you as well — is the right choice.
It’s the moral choice. What if it doesn’t work out?
My goal is not to dissuade anyone from doing it, but my experience of being a Big Sister was sadly instructive and left me very wary of making such a commitment again. That quite likely deprives me, and others, of some good results.
We rarely hear about the ones that don’t work out because, after all, the idea is to encourage volunteerism, not scare people off.
I became a Big Sister in 1997 or so, handed into a relationship with a 13-year-old Hispanic girl I’ll call Pilar. She lived in a small, crowded, squalid house in my county, a mere 15 minute drive away but might have been in another country. Her mother had disappeared five years earlier and she and her younger brother were being raised by their grandmother, a woman of astonishing ability to lie, spin, deceive and manipulate. But it took me a while to learn this.
I liked Pilar from the first minute we met. Feisty enough to be fun but sweet enough to be likable, she said she wanted to become a writer. We spent about a year and a half together, seeing one another every three weeks or so, as mandated by our agreement. I took her sailing with friends — her first time on the water, she learned quickly and eagerly. Same thing on the squash court. God bless her, she was game for all sorts of new WASPy adventures.
Sometimes we’d hang out at my apartment or go for drives or just talk. I took her to her local library one day to work on homework, but she had no idea what a librarian was or how she could help.
By the end of our time together, I decided one way to help her escape the craziness of her home life — lots of shouting, a mother who’d returned suddenly a week after our match and now lived in the basement watching videos all day, junk food, nowhere quiet to read or study — might be boarding school, at a prep school near me that accepts full scholarship students. We went for the meeting, Pilar in her best clothing, her manners eager, awkward. I didn’t even think, I’m ashamed to admit, she’d need coaching for that interview.
They agreed to let her sit in on a full day of classes, to see if there was a fit. She never called, never showed up. I never got an explanation from her family or caseworkers. I had started calling her three days beforehand to help her choose her clothes and talk the day through. No one returned my calls and at 10:00 p.m. the night before, her brother casually mentioned she was at a a relative’s house.
Had she lied to me about her grades? Her eyes lit up when she saw the grounds and buildings of the prep school. “I’d love to go here,” she said that day.
I was, clearly, naive and idealistic. The more I got to know and like her and see her potential, the more I wanted to do to help her get a great education, make new friends, work with her athletic potential, get into college. My family had warned me from the start that this sort of aspirational intrusiveness was dangerous territory.
Her family wanted her as is, even if her granny made a habit of poking Pilar’s belly in front of me, barking “Are you pregnant?”
Only half-way through this increasingly challenging relationship did the caseworker finally admit: “This is one of our toughest families.” You think? Her therapist told me she thought Pilar one of the most manipulative girls she’d met.
Great — liberal, middle-class optimism/guilt/hope meets…what?
Volunteering demands humility. You have no idea, often, what effects — if any — your relationship has on this other person. Should this matter? Matter a lot?
Maybe you teach them a new skill and you can see that happen. But maybe not. If you are a goal-oriented person, this can be confusing.
I often think about Pilar and wonder who and how she is. She’s now in her 20s. Did she ever go to college? Avoid early single motherhood? Is she happy?
If you’re lucky, we all find someone — maybe several someones — just when you need them most. Wise, compassionate, no bullshit, they’ll listen to your woes just long enough to let you know they’ve heard, then offer some of the optimism, ideas, direction you so badly crave. They’re a hit of pure, fresh oxygen.
They’re probably not friends or neighbors or colleagues. Maybe a former teacher or a minister or rabbi you trust. Someone who’s been bruised enough to know how much that hurts, but who has successfully healed and gone on (and up) to better things, whether that’s work, marriage, friendship. They can see the silver lining when all you see is clouds. They know you and know what’s a crappy (or wonderful, unimagined – really? you think?) choice for you, no matter how sexy it looks or well-paid it is or how much your parents think you should do it or your husband or all your grad school friends.
They’re a lot easier to find when you’re 16 or 23 or maybe even 35, in and around others seeking, questioning, a little uncertain what happens next…not so much when you’re old enough to be someone’s parent or grand-parent. It’s not cool, certainly in New York City, to admit much, if any, professional doubt or fear. Then, your Ethel needs to be someone who also understands how much you trust them even asking for some of their time.
I spent an hour today, a miserably rainy day in Manhattan, with Ethel, and thank God. I hadn’t seen her in perhaps a decade, back when when I was an adult student at her school, recovering from a brief, miserable marriage and trying out a wholly new identity, a new career I might enter and wondered if it even held a place for me. I got mostly A’s there and was inordinately proud of them. I was studying interior design, a passion of mine. People laugh and scoff, but it demands some of the skills that work well in journalism — see a space, envision a finished room (see the world, imagine a book or a film or a story) — and I loved every minute of my classes there, small, supportive, so challenging we’d go home and cry with fright. Then we’d pull it off and grin with victory. I showed one of my lighting designs (a nearby cupola my inspiration, glimpsed from school’s second floor window) to a manufacturer who said he’d consider producing it. That was cool.
I didn’t go into the field then, but as journalism increasingly resembles the Titanic, I needed to talk to someone who could see past my resume and my fears about what else I might do next. We caught up with one another, brainstormed, and I took plenty of notes. Today I was anxiously awaiting the outcome of a crucial writing-related meeting, and feared the worst. She reassured me there were many other opportunities out there should this one not come to pass. I left calm, comforted, grateful.
The meeting produced the result I hoped for, which I’ll describe more when I can. It’s good. But what a blessing and a gift to know, and be able to turn to, this lovely woman who replied within an hour to my fearful, questing email after a decade’s silence.
Who’s your Ethel? What have they helped you conquer or face?