Blog post by ELP Student Ilya Poltavets (Computer Science | Class of 2020)
I used to believe that mentorship wasn’t as important as people said.
Sure, I thought learning from other people was important, but that the in-person or the personal aspect of it was exaggerated. Why should I try to find my own mentor when I could get advice from someone way more experienced and critically acclaimed by using their books, courses, or podcasts?
Every time I read a thread on a forum about the importance of a personal mentor, I pushed back. I would list all of the advantages of having a celebrity mentor who’s never met me like:
- Being able to learn on my own time- I could read a book written by an expert at 2pm or 2am. I didn’t have to wait for them to be available and for our schedules to sync up.
- Being able to learn from the best of the best- What are the chances that I would’ve been able to learn copywriting, advertising, and marketing psychology from world-famous experts if I wanted to learn from them in person? Pretty slim, no?
- Not taking up their time- Not everyone struggles with this, but I had a mental block that stayed with me for a long time. I thought I would be wasting their time by having them mentor me. I understood I needed to provide value to them, but I still felt it wouldn’t be enough to justify the knowledge I would receive from them.
However, the truth is: I was scared.
Scared of reaching out to a potential mentor and being ignored. Scared of reaching out and getting a negative response back. Or even worse: scared of reaching out and getting a positive response.
We often talk about people’s fear of failure, but what I had was a fear of success. Some people act like fear of success doesn’t exist, but I disagree.
It exists and often manifests itself subconsciously which can lead to self-sabotage and failure. If you subconsciously believe you’re unlucky, this will lead to action that will “prove” your misfortunes to you so your failures feel justified.
The Scientific Study of Luck
Matt Bodnar talks about this with Dr. Richard Wiseman in this podcast. Dr. Wiseman’s research lab performed a study where they had people flick through a newspaper and count the number of photographs inside of it. The closer they were to the real number, the more they got paid.
But like in many psychology studies, there was a catch. They hid two “opportunities” inside of this newspaper:
- The first one was a half page ad that said, “Stop counting, there are 42 photographs in this newspaper.”
- And the second one was another half page ad that said, “Tell your experimenter you’ve seen this, and get an extra $100.”
The people who self-identified as “lucky” spotted these opportunities, but the unlucky people blasted straight past them without even a second look. When doing more research, Dr. Wiseman discovered an important factor between the lucky and the unlucky:
The unlucky people tended to be very worried, anxious, concerned, or otherwise stressed about something. This might’ve been performing well on this lab exam, something that was going on in their lives, or previous unlucky occurrences. However, the lucky people were more relaxed and didn’t seem to be as worried about performing well.
And this difference affected something called the attentional spotlight. The attentional spotlight is basically which area of the world we are really paying attention to at this very moment, and it can grow and shrink depending on some conditions.
At this point you might see where this is going. The attentional spotlight gets smaller when you are anxious, stressed, or worried, and it gets bigger when you are more relaxed. This can lead to a self-perpetuating loop where one “lucky” event causes more lucky events, thus solidifying your luck, and one “unlucky” event causes more unlucky events.
There’s a video that’s always shown in intro psych classes that is very relevant to the attentional spotlight. Watch the video below and see if you can stop it from tricking you:
My Mentorship Experience
This summer I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to intern at a small startup and receive mentorship from not one, but two people. This made me realize that while the above advantages might have some truth to them, actually having a mentor you can talk to – whether that’s locally or by phone – is invaluable.
Here’s why having a real mentor is a must-have:
- Often, we don’t need to learn from “the best.” We just need to learn from someone who is better than us – If I’m trying to get better at basketball, having Lebron James as my coach might be worse than having a college basketball player. LBJ’s skill level is so much higher than mine, I would likely miss out on the nuances of everything he’s teaching, while lessons from someone closer to my skill level might be more useful because it would be easier to see the stepping stones from getting from where I am to where he currently is.
- Books don’t give feedback – You can learn from them, but you have to apply their teachings to your situation without the mentor’s feedback, which means it can take longer to succeed, if you even implement their advice successfully at all.
- Books don’t give tough love – A good mentor will push you out of your comfort zone over and over again. We often underestimate how far we can push ourselves and what we can achieve, and a mentor can prevent us from stopping short when we still have gas left in the tank. A book can’t tell you if you’re self-sabotaging and to get it together.
- Books aren’t personalized – Your mentor gets to see you in action and thus can adjust their advice based on your unique personality, situation, and numerous other factors. A book often offers one size fits all advice and leaves it up to you to figure out if the advice is right for you.
Also, there are some subtleties you pick up when interacting with your mentor in person are often very important, and you won’t notice them through books, podcasts, or even videos.
- How does someone react when an employee brings up a new idea to them?
- How do they change their body language based on what they’re trying to accomplish?
- How do they respond to demands on their time and figure out their priorities?
- Or even something as simple as: How do they make you feel?
Of course, ideally you would combine the two different ways of mentorship to constantly improve yourself, but don’t be like me and lean so far off to one side that you neglect the other.
Find a mentor, provide value to them, and learn as much as you can! You never know where it might lead.