There’s immense value in working with a coach, teacher, mentor, or someone who has more experience than us in our domain. They guide us through the process, give us valuable feedback, and help us avoid unnecessary mistakes. When we work with a mentor we are cutting down the learning curve by taking advantage of the accumulated knowledge and experience they’ve gathered. We get to learn from their past mistakes and replicate what they discovered to work best.
This is how we get to improve faster and ultimately advance the craft itself. Arts, sports, and other skills move forward because new generations get to benefit from learning and training techniques that older generations spent their careers advancing. We get to stand on the shoulders of our mentors and everyone who’s influenced our craft before us.
Note: While there’s a difference between each type -mentor, teacher, etc- we’ll refer to them as “Mentors” from here on to make the article easier to read.
Mentors also give us an outside perspective into our abilities. They point out problems, suggest corrections, design practice, push our limits, and provide a wealth of insight into our craft. Even the most disciplined and hardworking people will go faster through the process with the help of a good mentor. I cannot overstate enough the value of mentors -regardless of our level or circumstances.
They have the experience to notice what we can’t, the knowledge to teach us what we need, and an outsider’s perspective we’ll never have. Thinking we can learn and master a craft without some guidance is delusional. Even the so-called prodigies from history like DaVinci or Mozart had rigorous training under accomplished and experienced instructors –Verrocchio and Leopold Mozart respectively.
In Dr. Ericsson’s renown work on expertise and expert performance, mentors came up as a constant in the development of high performers. But beyond the research, we can also see it for ourselves. All high-performance athletes work with mentors -coaches or trainers- to push their limits. This is not to say that finding a good mentor is the essential element in our development.
In the end, it’s up us to do the work and make the best out our mentor’s guidance. We should seek mentors, work with them, value them, but never forget that our learning and progress is -and always will be- our responsibility, not theirs. Mentors can only guide us through our path, not walk for us, or carry us through it. The question now becomes, how to choose a good mentor? This depends on many personal circumstances, but here are some guidelines to get started.
1. A good mentor should push us and give us honest feedback -even if it’s hard to hear. Our mentor should make us stretch beyond our comfort zone, point out our mistakes, and tell us when we are slacking. A good mentor is not a compassionate friend. The mentor’s goal is to make us better, and sometimes that means confronting us and demanding the best we have to offer.
2. A good mentor is someone who is dedicated to the craft. This could mean someone who practices regularly and has gotten very good at what we want to learn or someone who has been deeply involved in the craft and proved to be an effective mentor. Some great mentors are not necessarily great at the craft, but they are great at helping others get better at it.
3. A good mentor should be a good teacher. Teaching is a skill and not every great performer is a great teacher. In fact, many are terrible at it. They suffer from “the curse of knowledge”. This is when people are so used to doing what they do or knowing what they know that they have trouble teaching it to others. They can’t put themselves in the position of someone learning it for the first time so they fail at making things easy to understand.
Many times we’ll be better off learning from a good mentor who is not a great performer than from a great performer who’s a bad mentor. The former knows how to get the best of us and make us better, while the later only knows how to do it for him or herself.
4. A good mentor is obsessed with fundamentals. Fundamentals should be the main focus of our practice. They are, as the name suggests, the fundamentals of the skill. A good mentor is the one who drills these fundamentals relentlessly until we master them, not the one who teaches us something new every time we practice. We might find it boring to work on the same thing time and again. We want novelty and variety. Well, it’s just as boring for our mentors to see us practice the same things over and over. But they make us do because it’s what it takes to master a craft.
5. A good mentor knows when NOT to mentor. There are moments when a mentor should let us try things on your own, explore, and learn first hand from making mistakes. A mentor who resembles an overprotective parent and tries to hold our hand every step of the way is counterproductive.
This is especially the case during performance. When we perform or execute our skill we are no longer practicing, we are letting our training take over and we want our mind to be as uncluttered as possible for it to happen. During this time, a mentor is supposed to give us short, specific indications -if any at all depending on our craft-. It is not the time to teach us or make an effort to direct or correct our every move. The time for that will come afterward during a debrief and analysis after the performance.
6. A good mentor is the one who is good for us at the right time. As we evolve, we might need to find new mentors. It may come a time when we need to move on and find someone else that fits our circumstances better. The great mentor we have at the moment might not be the right person to help us get further months or years from now.
Let’s imagine we are learning to play guitar. In the first few months, we need someone that can guide us through the basics -how to hold the guitar, a few chords, and some songs. We don’t need the best teacher for that -though it would be great if we could work with the best from the beginning. But later on, we’ll need someone who can guide us through more specialized learning. If we get into heavy metal, for example, we’ll need someone who can teach us the genre, the picking and fingering techniques for it, and how to get the sound we want. We should always value our mentors and hold them in high regard, but we also need to know when to move on.
Good mentors understand this, and will even encourage us to do so. They have our best interest in mind, even if that means stepping aside and letting someone else take their place. And as long as we treat our mentors with respect, value what they’ve done for us, and repay them by taking our craft and our path seriously, we shouldn’t hesitate if the moment comes when we need to work with someone else.
7. A good mentor relies on us being good apprentices. So far we’ve talked about how to choose a good mentor, but for a mentor to be good he or she also needs us to be good apprentices. We must let our ego out of the way and listen to what our mentor has to say. That’s why we looked for a mentor in the first place –To get advice, direction, guidance- A mentor is there to make us the best we can be, we must not get in the way of that.
Understand: Moments of humbleness can lead to a lifetime of mastery; so leave your ego at the door and let your mentor mentor you. Finding a good mentor is not easy, but it is one of the most important things we can do for our progress. Don’t take the “self-taught” route, and much less glorify it. Yes, it is quite the feat if you can master something all on your own, but unless your circumstances prevented you from seeking out mentors to learn from -and help you develop your talents-, your avoidance to be taught is just a sign of stubbornness or Ego. You are being incapable of the humbleness required to learn from others better than you.
Aside from that, Self-teaching will only take you so far. With very few exceptions -if any- no great achievers have ever mastered their craft without either the guidance or support of mentors around them. So, seek mentors, work with them, listen to what they have to say. And above all, repay the right way, by being committed to the craft and to your development.