Why you don’t need a mentor – you can create your own!

In a recent Tim Ferriss Podcast the guest, Derek Sivers, mentioned – almost in passing – how one of his mentors doesn’t even know that he is his mentor. Through this person’s writings, Sivers feels like he knows him so well that he can imagine his advice. He feels no need to actually interact with his “mentor”.

Whenever he needs guidance, Sivers formulates a very precise email stating his issues. Then, he simply imagines what his “mentors” might say. This is a fascinating concept for a variety of reasons. It stuck with me so much that I want to expand on it here. First, let’s start with why.

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Why do people even want a Mentor?

Many people swear by the positive effects of getting a mentor, particularly early in the career. Mentors can help in a variety of ways. To me, it ultimately comes down to two main functions a mentor fulfills: giving advice and opening doors through use of their network.

Many are fortunate enough to have a mentor that does exactly that for them. Many do not. Also, while a mentor is helpful more often than not, not everyone is in need of one.

So, what do you do if you are struggling for advice but can’t seem to find a Mentor?

You can give your own advice 

This is where Sivers’ suggestion comes in. You can simply try to imagine what the mentor you would like to have would say.

In order to do this, you need to first formulate clearly what the problem is, what issues you are having and what you are trying to achieve. This may already be enough to get you through the situation. To me, It often seems that simply spelling out the problems in detail is enough to determine a course of action by myself.

Having clearly formulated the issues, try and think how your desired “mentor(s)” might answer. Sivers even takes the probable answer into account when formulating his issues. He incorporates counter arguments or additional thoughts based on the likely response of his mentors.

The obvious prerequisite for being able to do that is a fairly deep understanding of your mentor’s ways of thinking. You need to have put the effort in up front and read their books, blogs, newsletter, listened to their podcasts, or watched their talks. (Also worth noting in this context: cultivating the relationship with a “real” mentor is also not without effort.☝️)

The benefit of the approach is that you are completely free in deciding who your mentor should be. You can have “mentors” from a diverse set of backgrounds, even famous thought leaders in your field you would never be able to talk to in real life. As long as you feel like you have a more or less good understanding of their thinking patterns, it works.

Now, this obviously only covers one part of the benefits of having a mentor, giving advice. An imaginary mentor can’t introduce you to people and open doors. I would argue, though, that the advice is more important. The network and open doors will come naturally, once you produce results (possibly aided by the imagined mentor advice).

Formulating your issues is the main benefit

I think there are two main reasons why this approach works.

  • Looking at the issue from the outside
  • Clearly formulating the problems

Everyone is great at giving advice to others, but not so great at sticking to their own advice. A major reason for this, I believe, is that we don’t have to worry about the many small and subconscious internal factors that guide our own actions when we give suggestions to others.

For others, these feelings, thoughts, and superfluous details don’t inhibit our ability to make a rational decision. We have an outside view and thus can be more objective in our evaluation. For ourselves this is not easy to do. Placing ourselves in the shoes of our mentors, helps us disregard those hard to grasp and subconscious factors.

The second, likely bigger, contributing factor for this approach working is that we actually take the time to deeply think through our problem. We generally don’t do that enough and instead leave our issues as some fuzzy, hard to grasp feeling in the back of our mind. As long as it is described verbally or in text form, we can’t really grasp it.  

From personal experience, I can attest that it’s often not the actual advice I get when discussing my issues that helps me figure out what to do. Instead, it’s the clear explanation of my situation that I am forced to formulate when speaking to others that makes it clear to me what I need to do. In this context, writing down the thoughts seems to be significantly more powerful than verbally expressing them. 

Formulating the issues in and by itself is so helpful. That alone is already 80% of the benefits a mentor’s advice brings. 

A use case for large language models

In the end there’s really no such thing as correct advice. Asking for advice is often about gaining confidence to make a decision we feel good with. The summarization of your situation, thinking of it from another person’s point of view, is often enough to achieve just that.

With modern technology you can take this concept one step further. Wouldn’t it be a great use case for any of the AI assistants that are all the rage right now to have them function as your own personal mentor?

Simply formulate the issues you are facing – again, that’s already 80% of the benefits right there – and then ask it to give advice as if it were Cal Newport, Melissa Perri, Simon Sinek, Steve Jobs, or whomever else you can think of.

Coverphoto by Jon Tyson on Unsplash