A few months ago a Toastmasters friend of mine (let’s call her Julia) attended a presentation skills training in the company she worked for. The class had 12 people – and my friend was obviously (because she is a public speaking geek) the one most eager to learn.
The trainer (let’s call her Dolores), was just awesome. In her late forties, charming and knowledgeable – and with almost a magical gift to build connection with every single person in the room. On the second day, close to the end of the training, my friend was enchanted. She found an opportunity to approach the trainer – and, despite having celebrated her thirtieth birthday one month before, she asked in a voice of a shy teenage girl: “Dolores, I think you’re great. Would you be my mentor?”
The trainer’s smile froze – and disappeared. It was clear the question made her feel uncomfortable.
“I’m very sorry. I have many people asking me for mentoring. I would love to help you. But I don’t have the time. I must give priority to my paying clients.”
“Of course, I understand,” my friend answered. But in that moment, it was as if someone sucked all the cheer out from the room.
What went wrong?
“Would You Be My Mentor?”
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and a frequent speaker in various events, often gets asked the same question: “Would you be my mentor?”
How does it make her feel? In her own words (from her book Lean In):
“If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no.”
For most people today – definitely for my friend Julia and her trainer Dolores – mentoring is a favor given by the more experienced (the mentor) to the less experienced (the mentee – or protégé, if you want to sound sophisticated) person in the relationship. An act of selfless support. Master Yoda to Luke Skywalker. Morpheus to Neo. Dumbledore to Harry Potter.
This concept is very romantic.
This concept is very wrong.
Mentoring: How it really works
American author Robert Greene recognizes the importance of mentoring. But in his book Mastery, he offers a different perspective:
“To initially entice the right Master to serve as your mentor, you will want to mix in a strong element of self-interest. You have something tangible and practical to offer them, in addition to your youth and energy.”
What does he mean? He explains on the case of Michael Faraday.
Note: Quotes are from Mastery
Michael Faraday was one of the most famous scientists of the 19th century. He got his fame, among other achievements, because he discovered electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis.
He did not have the luck to get a proper school education. He was lucky however to have the right mentor. But was it really luck?
As a young boy, Faraday fell in love with books. He got a job in a book shop and read everything he put his hands on. He developed a particular interest in chemistry.
This was accelerated when he attended a lecture by Humphrey Davy.
“Davy was the preeminent chemist of his time; he had made numerous discoveries and was advancing the new field of electrochemistry. His experiments with various gases and chemicals were highly dangerous and had led to numerous accidents. This only added to his reputation as a fearless warrior for science.”
Faraday was charmed. He kept visiting his lectures week after week taking meticulous notes. From all the books he read, he knew how important it was to have a teacher. And he knew that Davy would be the ultimate mentor.
What do you think: Did he come to ask him: “Sir Davy, would you be my mentor?”
He did something different. He applied for a job as Davy’s assistant.
“The job mostly involved cleaning bottles and equipment, sweeping, and lighting fireplaces. The pay was low, lower than what Faraday was earning as a bookbinder at the time.”
But Faraday did not care about the pay. He cared about getting the best mentor.
He did not end with sending just a job application.
“He went back to the notes he had taken on Davy’s lectures. He worked them into a beautifully organized booklet, carefully hand-written, and full of sketches and diagrams. He sent this off to Davy as a gift.”
For three months – nothing. Then – Davy’s that time assistant was fired. Guess who was the first person to be considered for the vacant job?
What You Have to Offer
Faraday understood one thing that most people today don’t: If you want someone to teach you, they won’t do it for your beautiful blue eyes. Actually, if they say they would, you should be worried.
The best way not to be rejected when asking for a favor is – not to ask for a favor.
The next time Julia gets impressed by someone who could help her on her journey of becoming an outstanding speaker, she should better say: “I loved your training. Come to speak at our conference / in my company. We’ll pay the tickets.” Or: “I would love to work with you. I am pretty good at doing research, maybe I could help you with finding interesting stories and exercises for your training.”
If there’s a person who deeply impresses you and you want to stay in touch, think first: Why should they stay in touch with you?
Asking yourself this question is half of the success. If you do it right, who knows. Maybe you will become as famous as Faraday.