Pick a mentor who can teach you the how, not just the what

I ran 3.1 miles today without stopping or walking. My high school gym teacher would be utterly shocked. Why? Because my senior year of high school, the gym teacher decided that we all needed to be able to run 1.5 miles in 15 minutes. She took us out to the track and told us to run 6 laps.

I couldn't do it. I ended up walking for some of the distance, as did several girls in the class. One week later, she sent us to the track again and said, "Run!" She, of course, sat on the bleacher steps, surrounded by the girls who had successfully completed the task the week before. They talked about movies. This continued -- the once a week run -- for about 2 months, with a group of us never accomplishing the task at hand.

Now, why is it that I can do twice as much running at 41 as I could at 17? Because I ditched the mentor who could only run the distance, but not explain how to get there, for one who knew how to train me. In my case, the mentor was actually an app: The Couch to Five K program (C25K). It instructed me to build up distances, alternate walking with running, and warm up and cool down properly. My gym teacher? "Go! Run!"

A lot of times in our careers, we look for the person who can do what we want to do and figure that person is the best mentor ever. After all, they have achieved our "dream." But, unless you're someone who can naturally do whatever your dream is, you don't need someone who is simply sitting on the bleachers, occasionally shouting, "Faster, girls!" Here's what you do need in a mentor.

Someone who can break it down for you. In every process there are steps that can be broken out. Sometimes these seem painfully obvious to some people and completely unclear to others. If it's unclear to you, your mentor needs to walk you through the steps.

Someone who is willing to give feedback, negative and positive. A mentor that just says, "good job!" isn't much of a mentor. Likewise, one that only says, "Boy, that was awful," isn't helpful either. What you need is someone to say, "Your presentation was successful and the client seemed happy, but it would have been even better if you had done X, Y, and Z." And then when you respond, "I'm not sure how to do Y," the mentor would break Y down into steps for you and give you individualized feedback.

Someone who is not always hovering over you. Yes, you want a mentor who can help you out, but sometimes you need to be on your own to see how you're developing and growing. Part of succeeding is failing and if someone is standing there, preventing all your mistakes, you won't ever get that intimate knowledge of how to do (and not to do).

Someone whose path to the top was not smooth. In theory, the golden child who never had a single career blip would be an awesome guide to the top. In reality, you'll have career blips and someone who has never had one will be at a loss. The best mentors faced challenges and overcame them and can help break down the steps for you.

Someone who will occasionally "run" with you. My gym teacher always sat on the bleachers. She used a bull horn to get our attention if needed. She was an awful mentor. Sometimes you need someone who will run along side you, giving you instant and relevant feedback. Someone who always just waits until the end of the project and announces whether it was good or bad doesn't help you to achieve your dream.

If you don't have a mentor (formally or informally), keep these ideas in mind as you search for one.

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