By studying the lives of those who know more than we do, we expand our horizons. As a child, I realized that many of the opportunities other kids had that would expose them to new things and new people, like summer camp or extra tutoring, were unavailable to me. I quickly learned that success in my life would require determination, exploration, self-reliance, and a strong will. I also learned to rely on other people who were available: my father and some of the more professional people he knew in our neighborhood.
Dr. David McClelland of Harvard University researched the qualities and characteristics of high achievers in our society. What he found was that your choice of a “reference group,” the people you hang out with, was an important factor in determining your future success or failure. In other words, if you hang with connected people, you’re connected. If you hang with successful people, you’re more likely to become successful yourself.
I remembered that my father and mother had told me to speak less in such situations; the less you say, the more you’ll likely hear. They were warning me, given my predisposition for dominating a conversation from an early age. That’s the way you learn from others, Dad said, and glean the small nuances that will help you engender a deeper relationship later on. There’s also no better way to signal your interest in becoming a mentee. People tacitly notice your respect and are flattered by the attention. That said, quiet for me isn’t exactly quiet. I asked tons of questions, suggested things that I saw from the summer, and conspired with these leaders of the firm on what was important to them—making the firm a success.
Mentoring is a very deliberate activity that requires people to check their ego at the door, hold back from resenting other people’s success, and consciously strive to build beneficial relationships whenever the opportunity arises.
There were two crucial components that makes any mentorship, for that matter—successful. He offered his guidance because, for one, I promised something in return. I worked nonstop in an effort to use the knowledge he was imparting to make him, and his firm, more successful. And two, we created a situation that went beyond utility. Pat liked me and became emotionally invested in my advancement. He cared about me. That’s the key to a successful mentorship. A successful mentoring relationship needs equal parts utility and emotion. You can’t simply ask somebody to be personally invested in you. There has to be some reciprocity involved—whether its hard work or loyalty that you give in return—that gets someone to invest in you in the first place.
The best way to approach utility is to give help first, and not ask for it. If there is someone whose knowledge you need, find a way to be of use to that person. Consider their needs and how you can assist them. If you can’t help them specifically, perhaps you can contribute to their charity, company, or community. You have to be prepared to give back to your mentors and have them know that from the outset. Before Pat would consider having dinner with me three times a year, he had to know that I would be committed to his firm. That’s how I found myself so early on in a trusted position that later turned into a friendship.
But as my father taught me, mentors are all around you. It’s not necessarily your boss or even someone in your business. Mentoring is a nonhierarchical activity that transcends careers and can cross all organizational levels.
How many people can walk into our homes and just open up the fridge and help themselves? Not many. People need “refrigerator rights relationships,” the kind that are comfortable, informal, and intimate enough to let us walk into one another’s kitchens and rummage through the refrigerator without asking. It is close relationships like these that keep us well-adjusted, happy, and successful.
Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time