The right mentor can help you focus on the right steps to achieve your goals, help you make better decisions, and give you the tools to perform at your highest level. But finding the right mentor is hard. You need someone whose advice you trust, who understands you, and whose own life and work is a role model you want to follow. How do you find such a person? And what do you do if you can’t?
Think of a successful person. Someone you admire. No matter who they are, they had a mentor. Someone who shared their own experiences, what worked, what didn’t, and how to do it better.
You’ve of course heard of Michael Jordan. You may not be as familiar with Howard H. White, Dean Smith or Tim Grover, the behind-the-scenes mentors whom Jordan relied on to help him become the world’s greatest basketball player.
You also may not be so familiar with Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays or Bayard Rustin. Their influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. was critical as he developed his philosophy of non-violent resistance and his community organizing abilities.
The mentoring process has existed from ancient times to today. Socrates mentored Plato. Plato mentored Aristotle. Father Michael van der Peet mentored Mother Teresa. Christian Dior mentored Yves Saint-Laurent. Audrey Hepburn mentored Elizabeth Taylor. Maya Angelou mentored Oprah Winfrey. Warren Buffet mentored Bill Gates. And on and on.
Less famous people have mentors too. Anyone you can think of who excels at what they do has had at least one great mentor. And if you want to excel, you need a great mentor too. A great mentor helps you focus on what is important, helps you avoid what isn’t, and can inspire you to do exactly what you need to do to release your inner greatness.
But great mentors are hard to find. For every person who has found the perfect mentor, many others have relied on the wrong person, received bad advice that set them back, and lacked the role models they needed to maximize their potential.
Finding Your Perfect Mentor
So how do you find the right mentor? You start by identifying those specific skills, qualities and approaches to your chosen field, or to life in general, that you admire and want to emulate. Ultimately, your ideal mentor has those skills and qualities, and even more critically, can convey them in a way that resonates with you.
Once you identify exactly what skills and qualities you want to emulate, as well as your learning style and what kinds of messages inspire you to action, you can then search for a mentor who matches your blueprint.
While some get lucky and stumble upon the perfect mentor, it’s far more likely that you’ll need to proactively search for one - and that will take some time. You may cycle through several mentors before you find the one who is truly right for you, and you may need different kinds of mentors at different stages of your life.
What to do in the meantime?
Having the Perfect Mentor Without Having a Mentor
There is a focusing technique you can use that will give you access to the kind of advice you would receive from a real mentor even when you don’t have one yet. In a previous article, I described in detail how you can access good advice by stepping back and viewing your decisions and challenges as if you were objectively giving advice to someone else.
This method can be extremely effective in helping you get beyond your own subjective biases and take action based on a clear-headed assessment of your situation – in other words, exactly what a good mentor will help you do. (If you aren’t familiar with this method and want to try it, you can learn about it here.)
To complement this method, there is another focusing technique widely used by successful people, even long after they have a trusted mentor. The technique is simple: think of the person who could be your ideal mentor. That person can be current or historical. This is someone who you think of as a great role model.
Next, learn everything you can about this person. Know them inside and out. And whenever you are confronted with a challenge, or are unsure of the next step, ask yourself: “How would _____ approach this? If they were here right now, what would they advise me? What steps would they avoid? What character traits do they possess that would be helpful for me to develop to address this challenge?”
Try to get into this person’s head as much as you possibly can. You may feel like this is just pretending, but the better you are able to pretend, the better you will vividly imagine how your role model would handle a situation and what steps they would take. And then you can do likewise.
If, for example, Ben Franklin is your role model, and you are trying to better manage your time, imagine in detail how Ben Franklin would manage his time. If he were sitting here with you, what would he tell you about time management? What would he say about your internet and social media usage? Your approach to goal-setting? Your ability to handle interruptions or deal with procrastination?
If Ben Franklin were in your shoes, dealing with your exact life situation and challenges, what plan would he map out for himself to maximize his time? What abilities or character traits would he employ?
For every possible solution Ben offers you to which you respond, “But I can’t do that because . . .,” ask yourself what would Ben do if faced with your objection? How would he overcome those objections or what alternatives would he propose? How would Ben Franklin ensure that he stuck to his plan?
“That’s it?” you might be thinking. “You’re telling me to just imagine what my role model would do?”
Yes, that’s it. As I said, this technique is simple. Don’t let its simplicity distract you from how incredibly powerful it is – that is, as long as you put yourself into this wholeheartedly, diligently querying your virtual mentor.
Several well-known people have excelled in their fields by accessing their virtual mentors. Napoleon Hill (of “Think and Grow Rich” fame) took this a step further, He assembled 9 people in his mind to serve as his “invisible counselors” – among them, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
He read voluminously about each counselor, which enabled him to imagine their advice, personalities and character traits in detail. Each night, just before sleep, Hill would close his eyes and convene his “invisible counselors.” He asked each counselor to give him the information he thought that counselor could uniquely provide to help Hill build his own character.
Now you try it. Keep looking for your ideal mentor in real life. And in the meantime, consult your ideal virtual mentor. You can choose just one, or opt for several as Napoleon Hill did. Regardless of the number, learn everything you can about what makes them tick and consult them regularly. If you dive into this exercise with both feet, you’ll be amazed at the level of guidance you can access.