Where Are the Mentors?

The woman nervously stood to ask a question: How do you get a book published? The literary conference I attended some years ago had invited the author Alice McDermott for an informal question and answer session. This member of the audience, one of over 100 aspiring writers in attendance, was asking what was on most people’s minds that day.

“Write the best book you can,” McDermott replied, “and find an agent.”

That is all she has to offer? I thought.

In the shocked silence that followed, it struck me that McDermott had glossed over the most important part, exactly what we needed to know–how to write the best book you can. The questioner, appearing chastened and somewhat embarrassed from the knuckle-wrap McDermott had just delivered, sat down.
Onderwijzeres voor de klas op een school in Roozendaal, jaren '50.
Writing of course is a mysterious and elusive occupation, and the path to success may be difficult to describe. But this was not an unusual occurrence. Successful people’s indifference toward those looking to break in to the field is common in many areas of life and work, I have found.

This unwillingness to help is befuddling. When I was growing up, my father told me that the people you went to school with, or who are in the same line of business, or those you know from church or social circles, would be happy to provide career advice and work contacts. Unfortunately, my experience has taught me otherwise.

A few years ago, my position was eliminated and I needed to find a new job or adjust my career path. One of the things that helped me think through my accomplishments and seek out people with experience was joining LinkedIn. I completed my profile, joined groups, posted discussions, and participated in chatter. But I’ve yet to see the kind of synergy that I expected to find.

In addition to LinkedIn, I sent e-mails and letters to a variety of fellow alumni, acquaintances, and recommended contacts. The response was underwhelming. Many didn’t respond at all. The few who did basically said “I’d love to help, but…..”
Mustang Mentoring 2011

This situation, this lack of mentoring, can only be explained one of two ways. Those who are successful in their field either a) really have no idea how they got to be where they are today, and thus cannot help others, or b) they understand their success just fine but just don’t want you to know.

Let’s begin by examining the first scenario.

A LinkedIn group I belong to once included a discussion about how members got to be where they are today. Expecting to find helpful advice about the path to success, I instead found most comments to be like this one from a health and safety director at a major corporation:

The Lab Director gave me the Fire code, EPA rules, and the OSHA regulations and told me to “make our lab safe.”

Really? That’s how to plan a career?

Also on LinkedIn, Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, recalled how she had no political aspirations until one day, out of the blue, “the phone rings and it’s a former congressman who had just been appointed to head up a commission [who told her] … if I would come up with a few good ideas…he would figure out the politics and turn them into law.”

Wow, what an amazing offer! How do you plan that? The point is, you don’t: stuff happens, and people rise to the tops of their respective fields. It makes it nearly impossible to explain.

And yet, when reaching out either on LinkedIn or by more traditional means, aspiring young professionals and others wanting a new career are seeking advice. Many ask outright, “What do I need to do?” The answers, I have found, are almost always completely unhelpful.

Some professionals will state the obvious, such as go to college, get a degree, find a job. This works fine for certain well-defined professions such as medicine or the law, but for those with less conventional career goals, this is a whole lotta nothin’.

Even worse, some will give you platitudes (work hard! network!). Others will concede that times have changed and the labor market today is much different than when they first entered the field. In another discussion in a LinkedIn group, this commenter was realistic:

Currently, the public sector Environmental job market is very tough to land a position. As you know, the EPA is a HUGE agency. As of this morning, only ONE job is posted. It is a high level position that is probably filled.

Most will hold out very little hope, perhaps because they just don’t know what to say.

The second scenario is more sinister.

Painting by Stanley L. Wood

Painting by Stanley L. Wood

Professionals can be clannish, on LinkedIn and in real life. They network with people in their industry, only respond to people in their industry, and often dismiss anyone who is not in their industry. This circling of the wagons–whether intentional or not–creates a barrier to entry for anyone on the outside. Aspirants can’t get a toe-hold. They don’t eat lunch with the established professionals, so they can forget about gaining any substantial career benefit from them.

I wonder whether those who supposedly have earned their rank and experience are somehow afraid of competition. If they care about their chosen profession, why do they continue to starve the young, the future of their own industry? Where are the mentors?

I’m reminded of the scene in the classic movie Breaking Away (1979), where the young Dave Stoller is racing against his bicycling heroes, the Italian team. When these professional racers begin to view Stoller as a threat to their ability to win, they stick a tire pump in his spokes, sending him crashing to the side of the road.

I’d prefer not to think this is happening, but the evidence is compelling.

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140 comments

  1. littlebirderika

    Thank you for this. It’s a topic I have thought about a lot and I actually hope I’m in a position someday to be a mentor and guide the younger generation as much as I can. Thank you.

  2. Teresa

    Here is the reality: there was always some plan; did it go exactly as planned, maybe not, but there is definitely a mindset and some very key factors in how you became/did what you are doing today. Each one, teach one; a very simple motto worth supporting. How will the future ever thrive if we do not have the veterans teaching us what must stay and what can and need to be changed/upgraded. I am so sick of the “clannish” and selfish mentalities that I have devised a plan of my own to take over whether you help me or not. I will be sure to pass this tidbit of information to any “future” potential I encounter. Sometimes you have to take it by force.

  3. Washington, DC

    Very provocative and HONEST piece. This will definitely resonate with many professionals in this economy as folks are rejoining the government, sitting on the sidelines, or plotting their next move!

  4. ioerikao

    Great post! I was actually going to talk about this same matter after I finished the book I’m currently reading ” Forget a Mentor Find A Sponsor: The New Way to Fast Track Your Career” by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. As I read, I get so excited about everything she is saying in the book but then like you said, most of us are struggling to find just a mentor I don’t know how realistic it is to find such a sponsor to invest in your career, when you can get someone to respond to an email.

    • Matthew Taylor

      Thanks!
      I haven’t heard of Hewlett’s book, so I should take a look. In fact, when I wrote this post, I was just pulling from my gut, without a lot of upfront research. My followup post, Touching a Nerve, does fill in a few gaps.
      Anyway, thanks for commenting.

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