Never Eat Alone: Find Mentors, Find Mentees, Repeat

This is the fifteenth of sixteen parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s Never Eat Alone, where this book on building a lifelong community of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the twenty-ninth and thirtieth chapters – “Find Mentors, Find Mentees, Repeat” and “Balance is B.S.” – which appear on pages 273 through 290.

neaJust over a year ago, I wrote an article entitled “How to Find and Utilize a Mentor, No Matter What You’re Doing.” In it, I discussed strategies for identifying a mentor in one’s community and adopting that person as your mentor.

What I didn’t discuss in detail was the value of a mentor. Why would you want to have one?

The most valuable reason to have a mentor, I’ve found, is that a great mentor is a boundless source of advice that actually works. If you manage to get a successful elder statesman as your mentor, they likely have forgotten more about your area of interest than you’ll ever know. That wisdom can be incredibly helpful to you as you start out and grow into your area of interest.

Beyond that, a mentor can be a great source for connections and other resources to help you grow. They can put the word out for your fledgling career or entrepreneurial endeavor.

I believe a mentor is one of the most valuable things a person can find in their career or entrepreneurial journey.

The Historical Nature of Mentoring
On page 274, Ferrazzi puts mentors in a historical context:

No process in history has done more to facilitate the exchange of information, skills, wisdom, and contacts than mentoring. Young men and women learned their trade by studying as apprentices under their respective craftsmen. Young artists developed their individual style only after years working under elder masters. New priests apprenticed for a decade or more with older priests to become wise religious men themselves. When finally these men and women embarked on their own, they had the knowledge and the connections to succeed in their chosen field.

My belief is that the world would be better off if we returned to this sort of apprenticeship in most career fields. There are very few career fields today that do not require a pretty large skillset and isn’t benefitted by quite a lot of additional knowledge. Incorporating some form of apprenticeship into a field means that new entrants learn all of these things under the careful eye of a person who has learned them.

Yes, in many cases, apprenticeship already exists informally. I had several strong mentors during my early years that taught me many, many things. Yet, even then, it was limited. They were mentors to me out of the goodness of their heart, taking time out of their busy schedules to teach me things. On the other hand, as a proper apprentice, one would actually be very strongly tied to one’s master, doing much of their grunt work but also fine-tuning one’s skills and knowledge base over a long period of time.

Mentoring alone is incredibly helpful and it has spawned many a successful professional. Apprenticeship offers even more, yet we seem to have abandoned it culturally due to our impatience and our drive for profits. Is that a good thing? For quarterly returns, yes it is. For long term growth of skill-based fields, it’s not at all.

Everyone Has Something to Offer
In some ways, almost everyone you meet in life can be a mentor. On page 276, Ferrazzi spells this idea out:

The fact is, from my father’s perspective, everyone had something to offer. When he’d go out for his weekly sit-down at a local diner with his friends, he took me along. He wanted me to be comfortable with older, more experienced people and to never fear seeking their help or asking them questions. When my dad would show up with me in tow on a Friday night, his buddies would say, “Here’s Pete [my father’s nickname] and Re-Pete [my nickname to his buddies].”

This passage really struck me because it points to something really important about mentorship: you can learn valuable lessons from almost anyone.

Here’s an example. For several years, I lived in an apartment about three miles from my workplace. It was in a large town that had solid mass transit available, so I would go out of my apartment building each day, walk a little ways, and there would be a bus stop. I’d wait for the bus there and ride it to work.

Most mornings, the same small group of people would be there at the same time and, over time, I got to know them. Many of them were professionals in other departments at the same place of employment. From those people, I learned a lot. They taught me how to speak up. They taught me how to diminish my intimidation factor (I’m a very tall, broad shouldered guy and can inadvertently intimidate people on occasion) and how to seem more friendly. They taught me about the nuances of office politics and gave me lots of advice on how to deal with difficult situations I was facing.

And they were just people at the bus stop. Yet, still, they were useful mentors who taught me a lot.

When you keep your ears and eyes closed, you miss out on a lot of valuable lessons.

Getting a Mentor
How exactly do you build up a relationship with someone who might be a primary mentor of yours. On pages 281 and 282, Ferrazzi offers up some strong ideas:

The best way to approach utility is to give help first, and not ask for it. If there is someone whose knowledge you need, find a way to be of use to that person. Consider their needs and how you can assist them. If you can’t help them specifically, perhaps you can contribute to their charity, company, or community. You have to be prepared to give back to your mentors and have them know that from the outset. […]

If, however, there are no immediate opportunities for help, you must be prudent and conscious of the imposition you’re placing on that person. Almost every day, some ambitions young man or woman sends me an email that states all too directly, “I want a job.” Or, “I think you can help me. Take me on as your mentee.” I shudder at how deeply these young folks misunderstand the process. If they’re going to get my help, and they haven’t even offered their help in return, then at minimum they should attempt to endear themselves to me. Tell me why you’re special. Tell me what we have in common. Express gratitude, excitement, and passion.

I get emails all the time from bloggers who have just started a blog. They have maybe two or three posts up and they write to me essentially demanding that I take the time to visit their site and give them thorough feedback on what they’ve done.

In essence, these people are asking me to be their mentor. They’re asking me to give my experience and careful advice to them. Often, it’s in exchange for nothing, and just as often, they’ve given me nothing in return for it, not even the basic start of a conversation.

Now, if they happen to be presenting a blog that might be interesting to me, I’ll check it out, but most of the time, I just delete these emails. The people making such requests do not want to establish any sort of relationship. They just want to be handed a recipe to get themselves a few more page views.

On the other hand, several much wiser bloggers have started out by emailing me questions and observations about The Simple Dollar. They’ve written long posts, linking back to my site and debating what I have written. After an extensive conversation, then they might ask for some specific help, and at that point, I’m very happy to oblige.

The role of the mentee isn’t just to take. Every relationship is an exchange, and if you’re not offering to exchange anything, the other person likely won’t offer anything, either.

The Myth of a Work-Life Balance
On page 287, Ferrazzi attacks the idea of a balance between professional and personal life:

When it became clear to me that the key to my life was the relationships in it, I found there was no longer a need to compartmentalize work from, say, family or friends. I could spend my birthday at a business conference and be surrounded with warm and wonderful friends, as I recently did, or I could be at home […] with equally close friends to celebrate.

To put it simply, once you figure out what your true central values are in life, the boundary between “work” and “personal” becomes a non-issue. In every aspect of your life, you just seek those true central values and do whatever is most in line with them.

For me, my central values are my children and my personal and intellectual growth. Almost every activity I choose to do, whether it’s work related or personal, seeks to push me in one of those two directions. I try hard to grow intellectually due to my work, and I push through the drudgery to earn income so I can support my children. I’ll spend long afternoons playing with my children and taking them to intellectually-stretching events or playing mentally challenging games with them or engaging them in social situations. My favorite pastime with friends is to play a game with them that requires me to think. I’ll happily invite anyone over that’s interesting to me and makes me grow somehow as a person, whether I know them through my professional work or they’re a close personal friend.

In the end, what’s the boundary? My only boundary of any sort is that I’ll turn off my cell phone if I want to engage in a focused activity with my children. Aside from that, pretty much anything goes.

I know what’s important to me and everything balances on that. The details? I’ll figure them out as I go along if my central values are in the right place.

There Is No Equation
What if you have multiple central values and you try to balance them? Ferrazzi, on page 287, argues that there is no equation that can be balanced:

The kind of false idea of balance as some sort of an equation, that you could take this many hours from one side of your life and give it to this other side, flew out the window. And with it went all the stress of trying to achieve that perfect state of equilibrium we read and hear so much about.

In essence, what Ferrazzi discovered is that the best way to spend your time is the way that mixes your various core values and interests the best.

One of the key highlights in my life is inviting friends over. I love to socialize. I love preparing meals for guests. I also love conversation with intelligent people and engaging in thought-provoking activities with them. This balances several key values in my life all at once.

What I learned, though, is that I get even more value out of this if I simply disregard the professional-personal barrier in terms of who I invite. For instance, the thought of inviting J.D. and his wife to a dinner party with several of my own personal friends sounds like it’d be incredibly enjoyable for everyone. There is no line between personal and professional there at all – it’s just people I like that I find interesting. The only difference is in how I connected to them.

I spend my time looking for activities with synergy throughout the various core values and passions in my life. I love taking my children to the grocery store, for example. It provides countless teaching opportunities, a fair amount of playfulness, the ability to riff on my passion for cooking, plus countless opportunities to jot down ideas for posts for The Simple Dollar. Where’s the line between personal and professional there? To put it simply, there isn’t one.

There’s just me.

Who Are You Spending Time With?
Ferrazzi ties these points together in an interesting way on page 288:

If you buy into the myth of balance (the one that sees life as an equation), as I once did, the answers to such questions as “If I’m so ‘accomplished,’ why aren’t I having more fun?” or “If I’m so ‘organized,’ why do I feel so out of control?” is to “simplify,” “compartmentalize,” or “reduce” your life into its most essential components.

So we try to save time by eating our lunches at our desk. We have less serendipitous conversations with colleagues, strangers, and other “nonessentials” at the water cooler. We consolidate our schedules to include only the most important actions.

People tell us, “If you just get more organized, if you strike a balance between work and home, and limit yourself to the important people in your life, you’ll feel better.” That’s just totally misguided. What they should be saying is “I gotta get a life filled with people I love.” The problem, as I see it, isn’t what you’re working on, it’s whom you’re working with.

Think about it this way. How many of your coworkers would you choose to spend time with if you didn’t work with them? If that number is very low, then it’s likely you have a strong desire to separate work and personal life. If it’s high, it’s likely that you do fill your social calendar with these people and thus you have a naturally balanced life, balanced in the way you want.

Ferrazzi’s argument isn’t that you should devote your life to work – I know that’s what at least a few readers thought when they read this. Instead, he’s saying devote all of your time to what you enjoy doing and the people you enjoy doing it with. Boundaries aren’t all that important.

The more time you find yourself spending doing things you don’t like doing with people you don’t like spending time with, the lower your quality of life is. There’s no paycheck worth chasing that’s worth sacrificing so much of the happiness in your life.

On Saturday, we’ll tackle the final chapter – “Welcome to the Connected Age” – and I’ll share some final thoughts.

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