Mentoring is an oddly popular topic in our email and slack channel: What is a mentor? How do you find one or be one? Should a company provide a formal program?
It turns out that Elizabeth Brenner’s daughter had a lecture on mentoring in medical school. The definition she gave us is concise and useful.
"Someone older/more experienced, in the career path you want to/think you want to go down, who is not your superior or in charge of you in any way, with whom you get along and to whom you can go when you need general career/life planning/dealing with things advice."
I wasn’t initially impressed with the explanation. It has too many caveats and seemed like an impossible person to find. However, Elizabeth defended it so well that I’m on board. I don’t have anything to add to her words so I’ll paste in what she said:
I agree that a person who fits the bill according to that definition is hard to find, and I think that is useful to recognize and understand. For example, many people say, "I sometimes get good advice from my boss, but he kind of fails at mentoring." Right, that's at least in part because he's your boss and that by definition disqualifies him -- his priorities are not and should not be yours.
"I was assigned a mentor, and it really isn't working" Do you get along? Did the person doing the assigning make any effort to think about whether you would get along? If not, don't feel badly that it isn't working -- move on.
"This woman keeps giving me advice, and it sounds good, but it just doesn't turn out to be relevant." Is she "in the career path you want to/think you want to go down?" If not, of course her advice isn't always going to be relevant.
To me, understanding that it is a pretty complex set of requirements takes the pressure off of trying to find the one true mentor, as it were. If you find various people who give you useful input and advice in a variety of areas, consider yourself fortunate. Remember: free advice is worth what you paid for it, and you should use what is useful and toss what is not without any guilt or concern.