You need a mentor.
Right? Everybody knows that. That’s, like, Career Advice 101, right up there with Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Never Burn Bridges.
Mentors provide all sorts of benefits. There’s academic literature on the subject, literally (figuratively) a million blogs, and formal mentorship programs at just about every company, university, or organization with enough people to pair up. The entire world is telling you that, if you ever want to make anything of yourself, you need a mentor.
I’m telling you that you don’t.
Okay, no, I’m not. That’s 100% not actually what I’m trying to say.
I mean, it sort of is, but not really – I’m not arguing against the importance of having a mentor, or the value that mentors bring – I’m just arguing about this blanket statement that the entire personal/professional development complex seems to hold self-evident.
I don’t think we should hold anything self-evident. Whenever somebody – or lots of somebodies – speak so authoritatively, it’s worth examining... even something as obvious as ‘you need a mentor.’
It may be true – but why not figure it out for yourself?
What Do Mentors Even Do?
First of all, what value, specifically, do mentors provide? According to an extensive review of the literature (i.e., duck-duck-going the phrase what do mentors even do and reading seven blog posts), benefits seem to fall into five major categories: Learning, feedback, listening, encouragement, and networking.
Learning is probably the most obvious benefit. You find a mentor in your company, in your function, or in your industry so that you can learn from them. You can learn hard skills and soft skills from a mentor, you can get advice, and you can learn from their mistakes. Learning is a huge reason to find a mentor.
Makes sense. But if you want to learn something, there are a million ways to do it. There are books, there are blogs, you can read the research, you can take a class. We learn something new every day – life is a learning process – and we manage to do okay without checking in with a mentor every time we figure out some new fact.
We also each have our own learning styles. For those of us who prefer experiential, hands-on learning styles, mentors might be great. For those of us who learn better in a more structured environment, with information laid out systematically, a mentor might not be the optimal route. Depending on what we need to learn and how we prefer to learn, mentor mileage may vary.
So, no, you don’t need a mentor in order to learn.
Feedback is another huge area in which mentors evidently provide value. The literature says over and over again that a mentor will be able to “identify your blind spots.” They can give you constructive criticism on things you don’t realize you can still improve upon. Obviously, if you knew something was wrong, you’d fix it yourself, so a mentor’s outside perspective is beneficial.
If you need feedback, feedback will find you. A mentor will help you find your blind spots – but so will your boss. If you’re doing something wrong, the person whose responsibility it is for you to do it right will let you know if you’re doing it wrong.
Of course, the feedback you get from your boss might be less constructive and more fiery than the feedback you get from a mentor. Mentors generally want to help you improve for your own sake, not just the sake of the resulting performance.
So, no, you don’t need a mentor for feedback.
A mentor serves as a sounding board. You can talk through your challenges with them; the very act of articulating your thoughts is immensely valuable. You can think you understand something, but until you explain it to someone else, you’re never really sure. And, sometimes, just verbalizing something that’s bothering you is enough to make it seem more manageable. Mentors provide a listening ear and the opportunity to talk things through.
Sounding boards and open ears are helpful, definitely – but most of the value stems from the act of articulation itself. It’s amazing how quickly all those swirling, nebulous concepts in your head will crystallize when you’re forced to put them into words.
But if you can get 95% of the benefit just by speaking out loud in complete sentences, then the audience doesn’t matter. You can talk to anyone or anything – your cat, a colleague, or a plant on your desk.
So, no, you don’t need a mentor to listen to you.
Mentors encourage and inspire you. They’re always in your corner, and they always have your back. When things get tough, they help you get going, and many, many other clichés. Seriously, though, sometimes it’s nice to have someone you know you can count on for support, encouragement, and a kind word to keep you going.
Your mom or your spouse or your best friend can tell you you’re doing a great job, or you could program a Slackbot to randomly provide encouragement. You could buy a Motivation-of-the-Day desk calendar, or just scroll through Facebook1.
So, no, you don’t need a mentor to offer encouragement.
A mentor is usually someone in your industry or your company who knows you well, and who knows what you can do. They can be incredibly helpful when you’re looking for a new job, vying for a promotion, or trying to meet other people within your field. They can introduce you to contacts and can put in good words for you in the right places. They may also provide social proof (“If So-and-So agreed to mentor her, she must be good”), which can open lots of doors. A mentor is an invaluable part of your network.
A mentor is not the only way to find a job, however, and is not the only way to get a promotion. Plus, a mentor is only one node in your network. Granted, they’ll probably be a strong advocate for you, and their opinion might carry more weight than your dad’s barber’s nephew’s wife who knows someone in HR. But an optimized LinkedIn profile and a willingness to go to Networking Events to drink white wine spritzers2 and chat will help you connect with people in your industry, too.
So, no, you don’t need a mentor to network.
Results, Conclusion, Ideas for Further Research
Mentors are beneficial – that’s clear. But, as has been shown, you can approximate the benefit from a book, your boss, a cat, your mom, and LinkedIn.
QED, you do not need a mentor. Life without one does categorically imply failure, career stagnation, and professional implosion. It is possible to succeed mentorless.
That said, mentors are efficient. A mentor will provide all of the value listed above in one convenient package – and likely a little better than the sum of the substitutes. You could spend every waking moment cobbling together a mentor-like basket of benefits, but it’s simpler to consolidate.
Thus, upon examination, in this narrow case, the conventional wisdom seems to hold: While you don’t need a mentor, it’s probably a good idea to have one. Q.E.Double D.
So that’s one takeaway.
The second takeaway is the process through which we arrived at this conclusion. Yes, there might have been some straw-manning, because it’s hard to actually argue against mentors, but it was in the service of a higher truth3. I’m serious when I say that, any time you hear something that everyone thinks is obvious or that you’re just supposed to take for granted, dig into it.
Take a few minutes to examine it. Think critically. Decide for yourself. Make sure it’s true – or true for you. And if you need a sounding board as you work it all out, ask a cat; they’re very discerning.
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