Everyone wants a mentor, the wise little green creature who will teach us how to swing a lightsaber and use the Force.
I was no exception when I started out in photography. I thought someone was going to take my outstretched hand and guide me along the path to greatness. They’d tell me what to learn, how to learn it, and what to do once I’d done so.
As I’ve progressed along my creative path and become a person whom other aspiring photographers ask to serve as their own mentor, I’ve come to realize that mentorship as we think of it is a pernicious fairy tale.
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Seeking A Mentor vs Making Your Own Mentor
Finding a mentor is neither the beginning nor the end of your challenges as a creative. No doubt, the idea of handing over the key to your success to someone else is relieving, but this is rarely the real deal.
No mentor will guide you to success. So why wait for the perfect human mentor to come into your life? Make your own mentor. Learn from the pros who host podcasts and make videos about their advice. Learn the ins and outs of your business by yourself to the extent possible, and you’ll realize you don’t have to corner someone to learn from them, that books and other resources are a reasonably easy way to be mentored by many of the greatest minds in history.
Once you’ve aggregated sources of mentorship on your own, the ideal mentor will come knocking. You cannot expect seasoned professionals to spend time helping you without getting anything in return. Preparation is key. Make your own mentor rather than rely on the perfect mentor to come along.
Being Mentor-Ready: Are You The Fan You Wish You Had?
As part of my ongoing effort to build my community, I’d said yes to an invitation to a gathering for creators and entrepreneurs in London. I didn’t know much about the event ahead of time, so I was a bit shocked to find myself seated between Peter Gabriel and Richard Branson.
When I was sitting next to Richard Branson, every instinct told me to start up a chat right away. Branson had already been a huge inspiration to me as an entrepreneur. A rebel from the start, he’d launched Virgin Records as a complete industry outsider and then built it by signing controversial but promising bands I loved, ones the established record companies wouldn’t touch, such as the Sex Pistols.
I didn’t immediately engage in conversation. Peter and Richard already knew each other, so I mostly listened. Later on at the event, I chatted with Peter about photography, and Richard, always curious, started asking questions. Before I knew it, I’d been connected to the guy who oversees his investments. When the time was right and I had a compelling but competitive investment opportunity for CreativeLive’s Series B round of venture funding, I was able to offer it to Richard.
At that moment I was adding value and being of service to the Virgin team, letting it into an exclusive opportunity, analogous to what I’d done for years with my own community around photography. Richard became an investor in CreativeLive and a trusted adviser. To this day, I know I can call on him and his team for ideas and support.
I’ve learned to connect with people I respect by offering value first, whether that’s through creating connections, providing creative ideas, or simply being interested in and helpful about whatever someone is creating. I met my earliest advisers by writing thoughtfully about their ideas on my blog. All that attention caught their attention in return. This is still a phenomenal way to build community.
I can rattle off ten people I’ve never met who participate almost every day. They’re out there supporting me and adding value. I notice. (If one of you is reading this right now, and sharing on your social channels yet again, thanks for the support.) Even if you’re sitting in your sweats in your house in Ohio, go online and retweet the creator whose business you admire. Leave a thoughtful comment and share her message every day for two years. Not in a creepy way, in a thoughtful one. By that point, I don’t care who she is, she’ll know who you are. And if you happen to meet in real life one day? You’ll have something authentic to speak about.
The key to being mentor-ready is to be the fan you wish you had. Support and add value to your community. Get involved. What are you doing to be of value to someone before seeking value in return?
Find Your Community
I don’t have a Yoda; I have a web of advisers in my community. I draw advice from all kinds of people, each with a distinct and valuable perspective. I’ve built and nurtured those relationships over years, just as I’ve built the rest of my community. Even when I don’t have a relationship with someone, I can just follow that person on social media or read her books. It’s a beautiful thing that so many top performers share their advice, ideas, and inspiration so freely. I can’t believe how often I meet people who fail to take advantage of a book or a blog post but wonder bitterly why so-and-so isn’t replying to their emails. So-and-so is busy writing the next book or blog post, that’s why.
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A devoted, real-life human mentor falling into your lap would be an amazing thing if it happened. But don’t hold your breath. This is exactly the kind of grasping, take-before-you-give mentality that poisons a new community. Today, the greatest performers on Earth make their knowledge and advice public, often for free. And you can get more if you are willing to go further. For example, when a student volunteers to be in the audience of a CreativeLive course, he gets to spend two or three days in close proximity with the instructor and only a handful of other students. Bonds form, believe me. Though being in our audience is always free, there are many similar opportunities that are pay-to-play, such as courses, seminars, and masterminds. You won’t find a better opportunity for building lasting relationships with the people you most admire.
How To Seek Mentorship
- Make your own mentor. Read, listen, and learn – the resources are limitless.
- Be of service. Add value, and forge connections with people you admire.
- Don’t focus on just one person. Create a web of advisors that will bolster you for years to come.
- Build an audience, and cultivate it – no matter its size. 99% of creators who feel they aren’t succeeding are often missing this key ingredient.
Need more tips? Check out this video I did with pal Ram Castillo.
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This podcast is brought to you by CreativeLive. CreativeLive is the world’s largest hub for online creative education in photo/video, art/design, music/audio, craft/maker, money/life and the ability to make a living in any of those disciplines. They are high quality, highly curated classes taught by the world’s top experts — Pulitzer, Oscar, Grammy Award winners, New York Times best selling authors and the best entrepreneurs of our times.