Landing a Great Mentor


By Alexsis Johnson

My first real job was offered to me at the tail end of college. After a small anxiety attack and about 100 applications, I landed a fellowship at a public school reform non-profit in the same town as my university. During my first day on the job, my new boss (one of three women running the entire city-wide initiative on their own) told me that I was uptight and nervous and the fact that she could tell exactly how I felt by looking at my face was unprofessional. It was harsh, and as I fought back tears, I took a long look at her pinstriped suit, corner office, and the way she commandeered any room, and knew that I never wanted to disappoint her again.

For the first month I worked my ass off. No Facebook in the office, extra hours studying school reform efforts in other big cities, at my desk at 7:55 a.m, and she never had to tell me about a mistake twice. Once I felt like I had established the precedent that I was serious, I requested a meeting with her to check in on my progress. I remember sweating profusely on that day (so much that I kept my arms pinned to my sides throughout the entire meeting) and I said it bluntly: I love this job, I’m so excited about the work we’re doing, and all flattery aside, I’d love to be where you are some day. 

It turns out that compliments and honesty, when it’s genuine and you’ve been working hard, can get you a long way. We had weekly meetings after that and by the end of my tenure at the organization, my boss advised me on topics ranging from crafting a five year plan to seeking out the kind of yoga that would help with my anxiety. Though I had to make myself more than a little vulnerable to begin with, the payoff was an incredibly positive relationship with a woman I respected and looked up to. 

Years later, I still think of my first mentor when I dress for an interview.  Since that first intimidating conversation in college I’ve picked up a number of other mentors along the way, though all of my attempts at linking myself to a role model haven’t been successful. For the times that a true connection has been made, the process has always been the same: 

1) regardless of whether or not you are good at the thing your potential mentor does, make sure you love it. When you love something and are willing to put in effort, the ability to do it will fall in line.

2) Make it clear that you mean business. This often means extra effort, whether it’s going in to discuss coursework during office hours if you're a student or picking up extra tasks around the office rather than heading straight home at 5 p.m. 

3) Be sure your mentor is someone who you’d actually want to discuss topics of varying nature with. Though you might be looking for insight in one area, wisdom often comes in many forms. 

4) And finally, though it can be tough, you have to make yourself vulnerable enough to be perfectly honest when you finally approach them for advice. Be ready to answer why you want their advice in particular, why you care about the work or subject, and what you hope your future plans in the field will be. 

Though some serious jitters will likely be involved in this conversation (remember my super sweaty armpits) choose someone you can be honest and open with. They say nothing in life comes easy, but some of the toughest things can be made a lot easier with a mentor who’s willing to help show you the way. You just have to be willing to give it your all first.

Alexsis Johnson is a writer living in the Midwest. She'll try anything once—skydiving, squid, false eyelashes, pet hamsters, but not kale chips. 


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