How to find a mentor and work with one

12th Jan, 2021


Since more than a year now, I’ve been having monthly calls with two of my mentors, and occasional ones with a few others; all of them who’ve been very generous with their time. I can’t emphasize how important this has been while I’ve building my company, ownpath.

In this post, I write about things I’ve been doing that helped make the most of their time and mine. Finding a mentor is the easy part. It’s doing the work, showing progress, and being receptive to feedback that’s the hard part.

This is the guide I wish I had when I was starting to look for and work with mentors.

Why do you need a mentor?

It’s useful to think about what your expectations are from your mentor(s). What is it specifically you’re looking for help with?

Personally, I’ve found mentors to be really helpful for:

  • Learning from their experience with problems I’m dealing with now, especially in terms of frameworks I can use and mistakes I can avoid
  • Giving me feedback about my work and pointing out areas for improvement
  • Staying accountable by making it a habit to show them progress
  • Opening doors for me that would otherwise be much harder

Mentoring is only useful if you’re making a serious attempt at learning or doing something meaningful to you and your mentor. You want your mentor to help you, not out of sympathy, but out of genuine interest. Ideally, they find that they’re learning some stuff too after talking to you!

Also, if your mentor is honest about their assessment of your progress, you may hear things that you may not want to hear! Please make sure to take all feedback as constructively as possible.

Empathize with your mentor

Your mentor is likely busy with a family, a high-pressure job, life circumstances, and what have you. Sometimes, life gets in the way even if they want to help.

Also, they probably get a lot of mentoring requests. What’s more, they often are asked the same questions! So, you have to respect their time. It’s also important for them to feel like they’re the right person to be mentoring you and that they’re actually helping you in some unique way.

Tip: See if they have a blog or an active social media presence where they talk about stuff you’re looking to learn about. If they do, that’s amazing.

Read up on that, because that will tell them you’ve done your homework and will let you have more nuanced conversations. It’s likely they’ll enjoy this too; if you ask them good questions, it allows them to explore a topic from a different perspective.

Finding a mentor

The most straight-forward way to find a mentor is to identify someone you:

  • Have been following (on Twitter or LinkedIn eg) for a while
  • Admire and respect for the work they’ve done
  • Know has done some (if not all) of the things you want to be doing

You could also ask around to see if there’s someone who specifically works on your topic of interest, in case they aren’t in your immediate social network. In either case, if you can find a warm introduction, ask for one. But if not, it’s usually okay to reach out directly.

That said, I strongly recommend reaching out after you’ve tried things out for yourself first. First impressions are important! Try things out for yourself first and then write to them with a genuine question you’re struggling with. Here’s an example you can use:

“Hi X. I’ve been working on Y, I read this and I tried that, but I’m finding myself stuck. I noticed you’ve done Y and I really admire your work! Can I tell you more about what I’ve been working on? I’d love to know if you have any advice for me”.

Be prepared to follow up a few times, because life happens. Sometimes they may be looking to see how serious you are.

In any case, unless you don’t hear back for more than a month or so or they tell you they don’t have the time, it’s okay to follow up a couple of times. Make sure to talk about the progress you’re making with each follow-up, that will get them excited!

Also, it’s completely fine if you don’t hear back at all! Please don’t take it personally, it could either be because they’re busy or it might not be a good fit.

Prepare for your calls

Writing out well-articulated responses usually takes time. This is why mentors will likely find it easier to get on a quick call and tell you what they think. That said, writing is very important for you.

So, if you liked how the initial conversation went, ask them if they’re open to doing a call. Tell them you’ll be prepared and actually prepare.

I recommend preparing by writing out a doc with stuff you want to discuss. This will help you think clearly and articulate your thoughts better, which allows for a more nuanced conversation. Plus, sending them a document about what you intend to discuss allows them to mull things over before the actual conversation.

Here’s an example agenda you can prepare with:

  • What are you trying to achieve in the short, medium, and long term?
  • What have you learnt so far?
  • What did you try and where are you stuck?
  • What’s your immediate plan going forward?
  • What can the mentor specifically help you with?

As far as possible, avoid questions you can easily find answers for online. Your mentor is very likely thinking: “So, how can I actually help this person?”.

Focus on stuff that your mentor has deep experience in and can do something concrete about to actually help you. This could be clarifying something nuanced that’s hard to learn online, giving you feedback on your work, or opening doors for you.

Keep them in the loop

Mentors usually want to know if you’re applying their advice and how it turned out! In either case, be honest with them about how you’re going about solving problems. Write to them about your progress and if there are things that are faster to discuss over a call, ask them if they can take out some time.

Be prepared to follow-up!

Decide for yourself

If like me you have multiple mentors, you’ll probably get different views around how you should be moving forward with whatever you’re doing.

Personally, I prefer to take in all the advice, and then think about the topic in question all over again and make a decision for myself. At the end of the day, I’m the one accountable for the decisions I take and I have to live with that decision.

I strongly recommend doing this. If something works out, then everyone’s happy. But if it doesn’t, you still want to be accountable for the decisions you make.

That’s pretty much it. I believe people generally want to help. Make it easy, fun, and interesting for them to help you!

Thank you Araxie Miller, Aruna Sank, and Steve Sule for reading drafts of this. Thank you Sidu Ponnappa, Rahul Gonsalves, Kristen McQuillin, Sameer Bhiwani, Araxie Miller, Tejas Bhatt, Steve Sule, and Abhinit Tiwari for being helpful in a myriad ways.

If you'd like to keep in touch, I post updates on Twitter and LinkedIn.