How to Identify the Right Mentor

At the time of this writing, I’m 37 years old, and I’m still not doing what I want to do.

I think a lack of strong mentorship is something partially accounts for my struggles. Anyone I’ve met who are doing what they want to do talks about the mentors in their life. I’ve just been so stubborn for so many years that I thought I was supposed to learn things on my own. That’s gotten me nowhere so I’ve begun to find some new mentors and I wanted to take some time to share some things I’ve learned, in no particular order. (If you have a suggestion for ordering these please let me know!)

  1. Learning from a mentor is about copying their habits.

  2. Mentees provide a ton of value to their mentors.

  3. Your mentor should be doing exactly what you want to be doing.

  4. Your ideal mentor might not be convenient

  5. Showing up is nine-tenths of the value you provide


You Adopt Your Mentor’s Habits

Working harder and smarter are two great ways to get ahead in your desired industry and a good mentor will show you how to do both. But the opposite is also true. You’ll learn the habits of laziness and ineffectiveness from the wrong mentor.

You want to be learning from someone who produces top-quality work because you will end up copying them, for better or for worse. You’re not just copying the job-specific tasks you see them do; you end up copying their persona. The same thing happens with our parents. We end up being a lot like them. We absorb those behaviors from people we spend a lot of time with and their behaviors become a part of our work ethic.  With this in mind, make sure your mentor is someone who is respected in the industry and brings a lot of value to the people they serve, whether they’re in customer service, entertainment, law, business, construction, etc. You want to learn from people at the top of their game which will help you get to the top of yours.

Mentors Are Not Doing You a Favor

I used to think that being a mentor was just being really nice and willing to give up their time. Now that I understand much more about the value of everyone’s time I’ve completely abandoned that philosophy! A good mentor is probably going to be quite giving of their time but they’re still human. If they are not getting any value from mentoring you then you’re not going to get their best time or their best advice. How do you fix this? Think of it as a business transaction. They have something to offer you that will help you in your career. What can you offer in return?

In my situation, I really should’ve been pursuing mentorship from a recording engineer. Since I had very little skills to offer a recording engineer I could maybe have offered to clean their studio before and after every recording session in exchange to sit with them in the booth during the recording session. Here’s how that might unfold:

Me: Hello, I’m Philip and I met one of the bands you’ve worked with recently. I loved the sound of their recording. I wonder if there is a way I could spend some time observing recording sessions. Maybe I could help clean the studio a few times a week in exchange for some time watching recording and mixing sessions.

Engineer: Well, it’s nice to talk to you. I’m glad you liked the quality of the recording. The studio can get a little messy sometimes. Come on by and help clean it up and then I’ll show you around.

Then, of course, I would clean to the very best of my ability hoping to score more opportunities to help. If I can show up enough and not get in the way I’ll eventually be helping them load gear, set up microphones, tune instruments, adjust settings on equipment, and I may even be able to earn a spot at the mixing board during a session.

To be honest, writing this makes me wish I was still into recording because this would totally work.

Your Mentor Should Be Doing Exactly What You Want to Do

What do you want to do? Do you want to be a millionaire? A recording artist? A special ops soldier? A janitor?

Don’t settle for less. Find someone who is doing what you want to be doing exactly and figure out a way to provide value to them in exchange for spending time with them.

I wanted to be a recording engineer and I made the mistake of thinking that working at a music retail store would help me get closer to my dream of being a recording engineer. It didn’t. If anything it probably distracted me from that pursuit. It wasn’t a bad job; it just wasn’t mentorship. My employer actually even had a lot of experience recording sessions but I didn’t even want to be a session player. I wanted to mix and produce music.

Did I learn valuable lessons? Yes.

Did I learn what kind of habits make a good recording engineer? No.

Figure Out What You Want

Before you can find this mentor you should know what you want. It will help to be specific but if you can’t be specific then at least be ready to change mentors as you get more specific.

General goal: I want to record music.

Specific goal: I want to record the top artists from the region I live in.

See the difference? If you choose the first goal you’ll end up working with anyone who records music and you may learn some but you might learn a lot of bad habits too, not just in sound design but in the way you run your business. There’s a big difference between the way your uncle lands recording clients in his basement vs. the way the top studios land clients. If you want to do basement recordings then, by all means, work with your uncle. If you want to record the top artists then you better find a top studio and figure out how to get your foot in the door. I promise you won’t be the only one asking for help so that’s why learning how to provide value to them is so important.

Your Ideal Mentor Might Not Be Convenient

The top studio in my area was 25 minutes away from my house growing up and I didn’t know anyone in the industry. Trying to get in the door and find a way to be mentored there would’ve been difficult. But I bet it would’ve been worth it. You’ll be tempted to just find someone that’s close and comfortable, and maybe they’re the right fit, but chances are they’re not. The less convenient the mentor is, the more likely you’ll take it seriously. Find someone who is at the top of their game and work backward from there. Maybe that person is 7 hours away…okay, too far, let’s find the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th rated people…4 and 3 hours away, that’s better. It’s helpful to remind yourself that chasing dreams isn’t easy; if it was then everyone would be doing it.

Showing Up is Nine-Tenths of Your Value

It’s difficult to organize a business or large creative projects. When you can show up and do something helpful with as little prompting from the organizers as possible, you will get noticed. Some acquaintances of mine were working on a movie project just after we got out of high school. I asked if I could help and they said sure – they gave me the time and the place and I showed up. I helped set things up and they got ready to shoot, but there was a problem. One of their speaking extras wasn’t there. Who did they choose? Me! I went from helping out to be on camera! I kept showing up to all their shoots for this project and instead of just being an acquaintance we became very good friends and I ended up providing a much larger role in the movie project. This group, which became known as AnC Movies, held award ceremonies at the end of every project. The award I got was, “Always There.” We even did several other projects together over the years.

Did I learn a lot of valuable things? Yes.

Was this a mentorship? No. I didn’t want to make movies for a living. I wanted to be a recording engineer. All those things I did in my youth had value but they weren’t moving me toward my final goal, recording engineering.

I hope this provided some real value for you. Now that I’ve written it I understand that I need to step up my own mentorship game. I need to figure out what my next step in life is and take my own advice. I need a mentor. But I’m going to be a lot more careful this time around. I need to find someone who’s doing EXACTLY what I want to do and find a way to learn from them.

There’s a world of difference between what you could do and what you want to do.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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