Most everyone I meet likes the idea of having a mentor, especially younger leaders. It’s encouraging how most millennials reject the idea that receiving advice is a sign of weakness. It seems to have become common knowledge that getting ahead in life requires the perspective of someone who is further down the road.

While most people seem to want a mentor, it’s rare to find someone who actually has one. Perhaps they have a good boss or a parent they get occasional, often spontaneous, advice from. But it seldom seems to go beyond this stage to a defined mentoring relationship.

Full disclosure: this is true for me too. I like the idea of a mentor, but I haven’t had the “Will you mentor me?” define the relationship talk with anyone recently. I have people in my life whom I respect a great deal and help me immensely. However, I’ve hesitated about making a formal arrangement.

Why It’s Hard to Find a Mentor

Why is this so difficult when a mentor relationship is something so many of us want? I think there are a couple of common assumptions we have about mentoring that aren’t helpful.

ASSUMPTION #1: We expect a mentor to be further ahead of us in everything.

When we think of a mentor, it’s easy to picture a wise looking sage who has advice about everything – a person who has an answer for any life situation, whether it be about career, dating, parenting, finances, or sports. Who can meet those requirements?

This is particularly challenging for high-capacity leaders, CEOs, distinguished academics, and field experts. The list of people who are ahead of them in every area of life is pretty small. The chances of one of those people being in the same city (let alone state or nation) and is available to meet are even slimmer.

ASSUMPTION #2: We think a mentor should be a life-long relationship.

Life changes quickly. We move cities for a new job, school, or dating relationship. Our life stage can quickly shift, where we go from no kids to lots of kids, full-time student to full time professional, or in another way.

And yet, we tend to assume that a mentoring relationship shouldn’t change. While it is great to have life-long friends, these are incredibly rare and hard to predict. Finding a mentor is challenging enough, let alone if we expect them to make an unending commitment to us right from the start.

ASSUMPTION #3: We want a mentor, but we don’t think we’re qualified to be one.

Mentoring is a scary word. If someone asked me to be his or her mentor, I feel like I would need to look like Robin Williams’ teacher from “Dead Poets Society.” That’s a high bar (good luck getting anyone to stand on a desk and call you “O captain, my captain”). As a result, most of us might hesitate to become a mentor. I’m no economist, but based on supply and demand, we have a serious mentoring deficit. Many of us want one, but few of us think we can do the job.

Mentoring Alternatives

These assumptions don’t help us too much. They make mentoring and finding a mentor frustrating, allusive, and defeating. And since these relationships don’t happen naturally, we often give up on the concept at all.

As I was discussing my frustrations in finding a mentor with a friend, we talked about these harmful assumptions that tend to limit mentoring. And he shared with me three alternative approaches to mentoring that make it much more likely to happen.

Mutual Mentoring

Two friends who are mutually committed to growing purposefully can mentor one another.

Mentoring doesn’t need to be a one-way street. Two friends who are mutually committed to growing purposefully can mentor one another. In his book about mentoring done within a spiritual growth framework called “Mutual Mentoring,” Rowland Forman describes how mentoring is more about listening and learning from one another rather than a “master” telling, instructing, or teaching a “pupil.” He shares how a mentoring relationship involves two people who are both master and pupil, depending on the area of life.

Rather than looking for a mentor who is ahead of you in every aspect of life, consider finding a person, maybe even a current friend, who will join you in intentionally growing together. The potential pool of mutual mentors is a lot bigger than finding that one wise sage.

Short-Term Mentoring

Mentoring doesn’t need to be an ongoing, never-ending arrangement. In fact, sometimes the most fruitful growth opportunities in our life come from a specific season committed to growth.

Often unending and undefined relationships can be awkward and lose steam. So, ask someone to be your mentor for a specific time frame. Start with six months. Come up with a plan, a purpose, and a rhythm for how often you will meet. After the six months, you may decide to continue, or maybe the goals will have been met, and the purpose runs its course. That’s okay! Celebrate what happened and move forward.

Topic-Specific Mentoring

The last thing my friend recommended to me was to look for a mentor in a specific area of life. He asked me where, given my current stage of life, would I most need guidance and the wisdom of someone further down the road than me. After thinking about it, I said it was in the area of parenting. I have young children and often find myself wondering if I’m doing it right. Mutual mentoring in this area only goes so far because a lot of my friends are in the same stage of life. Sometimes it feels like the blind leading the blind. I need the help of someone a little further along.

Finding a mentor around a specific topic is easier than finding a life guru. All we need to do is look for someone who has more expertise and experience around a topic or area we want to grow. It also makes coming up with a plan easier too. We can look for a book that focuses on that topic or find a program to work through.

Mentoring doesn’t need to be as scary or complicated as we make it. We need to demystify it a bit in order for it to happen. And it should happen – we all could stand to benefit from a person who is strong somewhere we want to grow.

Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash
While most like the idea of having a mentor, very few people actually have one. Why is it so hard to find a mentor? It doesn’t need to be a scary endeavor.