The subtle art of finding a good mentor

We all know mentors are important. But how many of us have one—or even know where to look? Find out in this article.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
16th Jul 2018 • 7m read

U.S. Senator, John Glenn, did some pretty amazing things in his time!

The first American to orbit the earth, Glenn’s pathway into politics was a tad unusual. Born in the 1920s, he trained as an engineer and astronaut. But with a firm interest in environmental protection, he decided to plunge into the choppy waters of government. He was considered one of the Senate's leading experts on technical and scientific matters and used his position to clean up the nation's nuclear materials production plants.

Like many accomplished people, Glenn credited much of his success to good mentoring. Although it’s easy to find high-profile mentoring relationships splashed across the business world—Bill Gates and Warren Buffett; Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg (to name a couple)—the first mentors to many of these high-profile individuals were often just the people around them. Glenn’s first mentor was his high school civics teacher. Clint Eastwood’s first mentor was his grandmother.

Many people shy away from the mentor question because they misunderstand the mentoring relationship. They often assume that a good mentor must be someone who has already become noteworthy in a particular field, otherwise it’s not worth the hassle. This kind of thinking begets a vicious cycle—if you think you need an A-grade mentor to go ahead with building a relationship, but you don’t feel worthy of the mentor's time, you'll never reach out to anyone at all and find yourself stuck in a rut of your own making.

Thinking like this is a huge mistake. Most people immediately go for mentors who are crazy-successful already. Although this can sometimes work, it’s not ideal. When you’re at Level 1, finding a mentor at Level 100 isn’t necessarily the smartest thing to do. You need the right mentor for each stage of your journey in order to get the kind of help you need to progress to the next level. If you’re at Level 1, you need someone at Level 10 to help you move to the next step—not someone whose level is ten times higher! It never hurts to ask, of course, but such people are far more likely to want to mentor you if you’ve already done the work to get to, perhaps, Level 50 or 60, and they can see that their mentorship will help you make that extra leap.

This also rings true in the medical profession. Your first mentors (whether you call them mentors or not) will often be the doctors charged with supervising you when you commence your residency training. These physicians often aren’t the rockstars of the medical world, yet without them your growth as a doctor would fizzle out before it could even start. You learn what you can from them and move on to the next stage of your growth, which will be calling for a different kind of mentor. This cycle continues throughout your medical career—you find the right mentor for each career stage that you’re at.

Mentors don’t just help your career. In an interview with the Medmastery Show, Dr Pamela Douglas (the Ursula Geller Professor for Research in Cardiovascular Diseases at Duke University) talks about a concept called mosaic mentoring where you ...take different things from different people. It’s an acknowledgement that there may be one person who's important in one aspect of your life, and another person in another aspect, rather than being all encompassing.—Pamela Douglas

Since mentors can help in all stages of your growth, how do you go about finding the right mentor for you?

Identify weak points

We’ve already spoken about how to approach a mentor and Osler’s approach to mentorship, but the more important question is How do you choose the right mentor to begin with?

The first step is to know why you need a mentor in the first place. Pinpoint what you want to achieve in your life and work backwards from there. Doctors aren’t just the sum total of our profession. We’re human too! We have personal aspirations, goals, and areas of our personal lives that we want to improve.

If you’re not sure where to start, start by dividing areas of your life into distinct categories. Some areas you’d like to work on might be:

  • Social: how you interact with others, make friends, keep friends, build your influence...
  • Creative: how you express your creative side, hobbies, passions...
  • Emotional / Spiritual: how you cope with difficulty, build resilience, deal with failure...
  • Professional: how you build your career, capabilities, skills; how you learn...
  • Financial: how you build wealth and assets, how you manage your money...
  • Productivity: how you manage your time and energy...

Identify where you currently see yourself in these areas and where you would like to be in the future. For each of these categories (and any others you identify), set a very specific goal that you can work toward. For example, you might want to build your medical career by investing in your personal brand, online. You know that you’d like to build a social following and increase your influence within the profession, but you have no clue how to move forward.

That’s where a good mentor comes in.

Identifying the right mentor

If you completed the exercise above, you've probably identified plenty of goals you want to achieve and the areas you think you'll need help with. But start slow. You don’t need to fix everything at once and you shouldn’t even try. It won’t be sustainable. Which area of your life do you feel needs the most work and would give you the most impact? The skill of prioritization is just as important for filtering out your daily to-dos as it is for setting life goals, so work out which area you’d like to focus on first.

Once you’ve done that, the next step is to find the right mentor to help you.

Aside from some basic personal qualities, such as enthusiasm for what they do and good interpersonal skills, the most important thing to look for in a potential mentor is whether or not they’ve achieved what you want to achieve (or are closer to reaching it than you are). As in the case of wanting to build a public profile, above, your ideal mentor would be someone who has already met that goal.

It’s important to also be realistic here. If you’re just starting out and have only a handful of followers, you’re going to get more benefit from someone with 1 million followers than someone with 10 million. Though it would be perfectly fine to reach out to someone with millions of followers and ask them for advice (and I’d certainly recommend it, just to break your fear of “the ask”), the person with 1 million followers is close enough to your stage that their advice is likely to be more actionable and relevant to where you’re currently at.

Building the relationship

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a good mentoring relationship. But these basic principles are fairly universal and good to have at the back of your mind as you embark on a mentoring journey.

Study your mentor: Understanding how mentors tick is the point, after all. Before you make your approach, study their lives, achievements, likes, dislikes, and anything else that could help you to clue in on whether they will be a right fit for you. As you make the ask, know exactly why you’re asking that potential mentor and not someone else. How do their achievements align with your goals? Reference what you know about them when asking for advice. This will help you to stand out from the generic emails that everyone else is sending to them.

Help your mentor too: No mentor ever gets into a mentoring relationship for the sheer sake of it. They’re busy people and want something out of it too. In most cases, all they really want is to know that the time they invest in you will result in outcomes they can be proud of. People like to feel that they’ve contributed to something bigger than themselves and this is their chance. To help them here, you need to be willing to work. Be prepared to take action on the advice and mentorship they give you, or don’t bother approaching them at all.

Glenn noted that mentors are doing something constructive, so they feel good about that. And when they see the results of this, with the young people they’re working with, it’s very, very rewarding.—John Glenn

Show them that the investment they’ve made in you was worth their time. And don’t be afraid to use your strengths and capabilities to help them in other ways. If, through your research, you’ve uncovered something that could help them in their own careers or personal lives, mention it during your first contact so that they know that it could be a mutually beneficial relationship.

Don’t label it: Mentoring is a relationship, like any other. We often place unrealistic expectations on mentoring and want to label the relationship immediately. This can be a mistake. Let the relationship evolve, organically, and see where it takes you. Many of the world’s greatest mentor-mentee relationships were never officially labelled as such. Asking, too soon, if someone can be your mentor is the quickest way to force them into the awkward position of declining—and possibly killing—whatever relationship you have already established. Eventually, when you feel comfortable enough (and certainly not straight away) and think that the relationship does need a label, ask if they would be happy to become your mentor.

Accept the challenge: Once the mentoring relationship gets to a certain level of comfort, your mentor will likely begin to challenge you and call you out on things you may be doing wrong. Rather than feeling threatened and letting your ego trick you into avoiding them (for fear of judgement), lean into the criticism and accept the challenge. Do the work and show them that you take their advice seriously.

Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback: That’s the whole point. As your relationship matures, regular feedback from your mentor will fuel your growth even further.

Take your time: Mentoring doesn’t happen in a month. This is a long-term relationship that you must commit to, in order for it to work. Though the relationship will seem to be skewed towards you, you need to be there for your mentor too—as you would with any friendship (and make no mistake, a good mentorship must also be a good friendship).

Finding a mentor is, by-and-large, one of the most powerful things you can do to fuel your personal and professional growth. Not sure how to approach a potential mentor?

Check out our cold email template for reaching out to people you’d like to chat with.