Society tells us that young, impressionable and impressive undergraduates like ourselves should have mentors. Pick up any memoir from someone considered successful in his or her field, and it will mention the mentors that helped along the way: the college professors, the first bosses, the nice old neighbors with their sassy but unexpectedly spot-on advice.
As Ken Perlman described in a Forbes article titled “The Often Overlooked but Invaluable Benefits of Mentorship,” a mentor “can help cultivate leadership skills one-on-one in real-time, reduce the anxiety in taking big steps and focus leaders on achieving their goals.” Gwen Moran from Entrepreneurship.com addsthat we should “forget advisors” and focus on finding high-level “power mentors” with expansive networks. Add to this the Jack Donaghy-Liz Lemon and Dr. Cox-J.D. relationships from pop culture, and you have the Mentor. Approachable, available and a leader in his or her field, a mentor gives advice but also lets the mentees fail every once in a while to engrain the lesson more fully. More importantly, the mentor is always there whenever the mentee is having a professional or personal struggle.
The pressure is on. Find a mentor or risk never achieving your goals.
To cope with this demand for mentors, Princeton offers formal mentorship programs, from the Princeton’s Women Mentorship Program to the Latinos Unidos for Networking and Advising. Extracurriculars supplement these with their own programs and with lists of alumni to contact. While these are all valuable programs, they continue to perpetuate the idea that to succeed you need the perfect mentor to walk you through life’s challenges.
I have felt this pressure to find a mentor myself when asking for letters of recommendation, filling out surveys gauging how many professors I know well and reflecting on who I can talk to for post-grad advice. It can feel at times that if you’re not going to office hours, engaging with professors one-on-one and developing working relationships now, you will graduate having passed up an amazing opportunity to connect with knowledgeable and open faculty members, administrators and alumni. One difficulty in finding a mentor, however, is that it can feel disingenuous and forced. After all, you don’t want to waste your mentor’s time, especially if they are busy with their Important Power Lives.
In Sheryl Sandberg’s book on women’s leadership, "Lean In," she addresses this pressure to find a mentor in her chapter “Are You My Mentor?” Sandberg points out that “If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no. When someone finds the right mentor, it is obvious.” She claims that women, in particular, have a hard time developing these relationships naturally and resort to asking people point-blank to mentor them.
At first I was disconcerted, caught in a double bind. I have to be assertive and proactive about finding a mentor, yet if I reach out to potential mentors, maybe not as obviously as throwing around the M-word, it can seem forced. Thankfully, Sandberg did not stop there.
She goes on to talk about one young woman she had advised who once told her she had “never had a mentor,” even though Sandberg considered herself a mentor to the young woman. The woman was looking for someone she could talk to for an hour every week. Sandberg writes, “That’s not a mentor — that’s a therapist.”
It was then that I realized that the problem with mentorship is not so much about finding the perfect relationship as letting go of the idea of perfection to begin with. If I’m looking for a Jack Donaghy, I’m going to end up disappointed. It seems obvious after reading it, but a mentor is not a guardian angel looking out for your every move. Mentorship is not an exclusive partnership between that one perfect Mentor and her devoted mentee. Most of all, it is not a pre-cut relationship, but one that evolves over time. You may not realize you had a mentor until you are asked to reflect 10 years from now on how you got to where you are.
Looking around, I can see that I have several people I turn to for advice more often than others. I wouldn’t call these people mentors, but then I don’t need to. After all, there is no better way to end a budding mentorship than to ask, “Where is this relationship going?” No, the first step for me is not to search out the mythical Mentor. It is to admit to someone more knowledgeable than myself that I need advice — not always, not forever, but for this one moment. We’ll see where it goes from there.
Rebecca Kreutter is a Wilson School major from Singapore, Singapore. She can be reached at email@example.com.