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Navigating Your Career with a Mentor

I have a job, I’ve got my degree, and I don’t need a mentor. That is the usual response when the topic of mentoring arises. This is an extremely narrow and obtuse view of the process. For both the novice and the seasoned practitioner, having a mentor can improve your job performance, help you work through the difficulties of the workplace, and provide an array of benefits, both professionally and personally.

The idea that mentors are invaluable is as old as civilization itself. Confucius said that, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know;” while Socrates posited that “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” To be an effective professional, you must constantly seek methods and means to improve yourself, to start to know what you don’t know. You can read books, you can go to continuing education classes or seminars; but, these are merely mentoring by proxy. Much more effective would be to identify someone within your chosen field who has walked the road that you have chosen, and achieved a modicum of success.

Rather than the cold, impersonal pages of a book, this method allows you to find someone whose life experiences mirror yours, who can appreciate and understand the complexities of your situation because they have been there. They can also help you work through the intricacies of your situation, and help you make appropriate decisions based upon the unique set of factors you face, rather than offering a set of universalized platitudes.

The idea of a mentor is not new. Informal mentoring is an accustomed and expected part of evolving within a business. However, your career trajectory may place you outside of your current company, and provide problems that you are not comfortable discussing with someone on the inside. These people, often foisted upon you, may be able to help considerably with how to navigate your present company, but they are much less likely to be able to help you with broader problems, or be willing to extend their advice to topics not related directly to the immediate workplace. It would be difficult to talk openly about wanting to change jobs, move up within the current company, or discuss problems that may impact or influence their job.

Choosing a mentor also gives you the power to decide. You can identify and approach someone that you think reflects your values and vision, rather than having someone’s advice forced on you. Whether this becomes a formal, ritualized meeting, or is an organic result of a developing relationship, make sure that you identify someone who is willing to give you time and advice. Build a relationship and structure that works for both of you, and be sure to express your thanks for any help you receive.

If Socrates and Confucius recognized that they needed outside advice and information, it might behoove you to think just as critically about your future. A mentor is that voice, the advisor who can help you navigate what it is that you don’t know. Perhaps, with a mentor, you can find the true wisdom that will help you have a successful career.

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