For literally thousands of years, craftsmen have taken apprentices under their wings to teach them a trade and show them the ropes, from the masons of ancient Egypt to the blacksmiths and shoe cobblers of medieval Europe to the carpenters of the Middle East. We still see the power of apprenticeship today in medical doctors’ residency programs, during which these well-educated men and women get real-world training under more experienced doctors. Most of us, though, will experience this kind of professional tutelage as simple mentoring, which has become, I believe, the best-kept success secret in the world. Mentorship
I cannot oversell the importance of mentorship in the modern world. No matter how available basic information is today, no matter how accessible formal education has become, nothing beats working alongside an expert for a period of time, always asking him or her questions about what they’ve learned, how they’ve navigated their career, what pitfalls they’ve fallen into, and what wisdom they’ve gained over many years. I’ve had many, many mentors throughout my life, going all the way back to my teens when I shadowed my mother to learn the ins and outs of real estate.
After hiring many people for my businesses over the past thirty years, I’ve learned that a basic college degree doesn’t go very far in the real world. If you give me someone right out of college who had a perfect GPA but had no internships, they’re usually no help to me at all. But a B or C student who had three or four internships with different companies and leaders throughout their college years? Those young men and women are gold. They’re infinitely more valuable on day one than the academic who did nothing but study.
So, if you’re in college, look for internships in your chosen field. If you’re out of school already, I still suggest going after internships and mentorship opportunities as if a grade depended on it. If there’s someone you really want to learn from, approach them and offer your time and service. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this type of relationship, and my life is richer for it. Sometimes, just getting twenty minutes with someone you respect can make a huge difference in your life and career.
Back in the days before Uber and Lyft, eager learners would offer to drive guest speakers to the airport just to have a half-hour of one-on-one time with them. I did that myself a time or two. This can be the precious time that pays huge dividends in your life. You will be surprised just how many people will give you twenty minutes if you just ask, come prepared, ask good questions, and take lots of notes. Always be on the lookout for opportunities and send a thank-you card when someone gives you some of their time. Almost everyone loves sharing with someone who is eager to learn.
If you do get someone’s ear, whether it’s for a one-time, thirty-minute chat or a long-term internship, be sure to follow my four-step plan for maximizing your time together:
1. Ask Questions
Plan ahead by preparing questions in advance. Write them on a scrap of paper or in your phone’s “Notes” app. Then, whenever you find yourself with some one-on-one time with your mentor—even if it’s just a few minutes—pull out your list and pepper them with questions.
2. Shut Up
Remember, you’re there to learn from this person. That happens only when you stop talking and focus on listening to what your mentor has to say. Back-and-forth conversations are great, but if you’re talking more than one-third of the time, you’re talking too much.
3. Take Notes
Don’t trust your memory; it will let you down. A short pencil is better than a long memory! Your mentor will share insights with you that will affect your business for decades to come. You’re not going to remember every word off the top of your head. I suggest you either take notes during your conversations or at least try to write down everything you remember as soon after your meetings as possible.
Even better, ask permission to record your conversations so you can go back to them, outline them fully, digest them, and use previous discussions to inform your future conversations with your mentor.
4. Keep It Brief
Your mentor’s time will always be more valuable than your own, so make the most of whatever time they give you. I recommend never asking for more than twenty minutes. Any longer than that, and you’ll probably never get a meeting. Also, make it easy for the person to say yes. Offer to meet at their office or wherever is convenient for them. If you ask for a twenty-minute meeting but make them drive to a coffee shop to meet you, you’re really asking for an hour or more of their day.
The successful men and women you see as potential mentors today were once young and in need of advice as well, and they relied on the time and generous help of others just like you do now. People are often hesitant to ask a more successful leader for their time, but I’ve found that potential mentors love telling their stories and find fulfillment in helping others. And if you take their advice and make positive change, they will most likely give you more time because they’ll see you’re serious about improving yourself and learning from them. If you only listen and never do what they say, they’ll see you for what you are: a waste of their time. They’ll move on and find someone who really wants their help.
Even today, I regularly seek mentorship from people further along than I am. There’s always room to improve, and there’s always someone who can teach you how to do something and how not to do something. This is the best, most proven, and most invaluable way I know to bridge an education gap. I have learned from people from all walks of life, including billionaire corporate leaders, political figures, and even an Uber driver who blew my mind. You can find gold anywhere if you keep your eyes and ears open.
About the author
Erik Weir is principal of WCM Global Wealth LLC in Charleston and Greenville, S.C., and is the author of the upcoming book, WHO’S EATING YOUR PIE? Essential Financial Advice That Will Transform Your Life, due out in May 2022.
Written by Erik Weir, the author of the upcoming book, WHO’S EATING YOUR PIE?