In 2009, I purchased a copy of Inc. magazine with a very specific goal. This particular issue outlined the Inc. 500, which is a list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the United States. Then, one by one, I reached out to the CEOs of the various businesses that were highlighted in the magazine and told them about the workshops, seminars, and climbing camps that I was conducting all over the country. My goal was simple: to forge relationships with people who have demonstrated a deftness for realizing their unique vision. Maybe they’d be willing to pass along their wisdom as to how such success could be emulated. In short, I was seeking mentors.
A mentor is someone who can provide us with guidance as we pursue an endeavor. The dynamic between mentor and mentee is unique. Mentors aren’t just valuable because they assist us in developing ourselves. While in peer relationships—be they romantic, professional, creative, or recreational in nature—each person can make similar contributions to a shared goal, a mentee usually isn’t capable of reciprocating in the same way that the mentor is. The mentee’s responsibility is to be a good student and then hopefully one day pass along the wisdom he or she has gained, taking on the role of mentor at a later point in time. Given this, good mentors are often hard to come by, since all that’s typically in it for them is the satisfaction of helping someone else.
If finding someone to take on this role for you is a strong ambition, commitment and dedication alone won’t make this happen; you’ll also need to be very clear about the type of guidance you’re seeking. To do so, I’d like you to write a letter to an imaginary mentor and explain exactly what you want.
In the first paragraph, describe the various ways you’ve set out to accomplish your goals in the past, such as waiting for opportunities to come to you or psyching yourself out of possible endeavors that seemed too hard to pursue.
In the second paragraph, describe your personal “high endeavor,” the goal or dream you have imagined for yourself that is worthy of your energy, love, and passion. Explain what makes this endeavor different from what you’ve sought out (or, as the case may be, decided not to seek out) in the past?
In the third paragraph, reveal exactly what you expect your mentor to do to help you accomplish this goal.
As you might assume, this letter isn’t necessarily the ideal way to reach out to someone; this is something that’s more for your benefit. Actually, I don’t even want you to send it to anyone. The point of the exercise is to help you articulate why you’d benefit from some guidance.
When I contacted all of those CEOs, I can assure you that I didn’t use two-thirds of the letter to talk about myself. Instead, I explained how their work was of interest to me. I made them the star by stating that I was interested in learning about what they did. In deciding how you’ll reach out to potential mentors, I’d like you to think about the letter you just wrote and establish why such a relationship would be valuable to you. Then draw on that sense of purpose when you initiate a dialogue.
You may do well to contact noteworthy businesspeople who have caught your attention; or attempt to meet potential mentors at trade conferences, workshops, or expos. Regardless of the situation you choose, be sure to communicate your desire to learn more about what they do, and ask as many interesting questions as possible. To borrow a phrase I’ve heard many people use before, “interested is interesting.”
Matthew Walker, who received a master’s in applied behavioral science from Bastyr University in Seattle, has worked as an outdoor educator and mountain guide for the past two decades. Through his company, Inner Passage, Matt’s mission is to teach and facilitate leadership development to individuals and organizations via outdoor adventure, and help people reconnect with their professional and personal potential.