The Joys of Having a Role Model

Not everyone is lucky enough to find a mentor, but it’s gold when you do.

Contrary to job descriptions, mentors can’t be assigned. “Mentor” isn’t a role, a job description. It’s not SMART; it can’t be an objective. Mentoring requires two things: a desire on the part of the person being mentored to be mentored, which depends largely on respect for the person they want as a mentor; and a desire on the part of the person mentoring. The latter is far less important than the former.

There’s a right way for mentoring to happen, as well. Mentoring isn’t someone more experienced imparting knowledge on someone less experienced; it’s driven by the person being mentored. It’s someone having someone else to go to to ask questions when they have problems – and, again, someone they respect. It’s not asking “what should I do,” but “how would you handle this?” Telling someone how they can improve isn’t mentoring; that’s performance management. Asking how one can improve oneself isn’t being mentored; that’s navel gazing. Mentoring is asking, “What Would My Mentor Do,” only you can actually ask them and find out.

Good mentoring is rare and difficult, because it relies on multiple factors. It requires a certain sophistication in the person being mentored, to know how to be mentored effectively. It can be rare to find people who you respect in a “they’re better at what I want to do in all the ways I want to be better” sort of way. You can like and respect people without wanting to change yourself to be like them. And then there’s accessability. These people also have to be in a certain Goldilocks zone, within one or two hierarchy levels, so that they’re familiar with the challenges and limitations of the available resources and agency, and have time to have conversations. A developer getting mentoring from a CTO is probably not particularly useful because a CTO has entirely different tools available to her to solve problems, and the challenges facing a developer are entirely different from the ones she has been dealing with for over a decade.

A mentor is a role model, only better, because you can interact with them and get advice you can act on. What’s even better is when your mentor surprises you, such as when you realize that you’re on the same side of an important political issue. This is the best, because it’s a sort of confirmation that you made a good choice is choosing your mentor.

It’s rare to find a good mentor, and if you’re lucky they’ll stay your mentor across role changes, across company changes, across career changes. In fifty years, I’ve been fortunate to find exactly one, and I think it’s the most valuable single thing a person can do for their working life.