This is one in a series of blog posts from the MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 selected each year who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Applications for the 2017 MJ Bear Fellowship are now open – you can learn more here.
Recently I was listening to a talented, smart and accomplished woman in journalism give advice. As usual, that advice included that we, the young ambitious women journalists in the audience, should seek out and cultivate mentors. Multiple mentors in fact, who can help advise us and support us and promote us.
I asked the question I always ask in this situation: how do you cultivate mentors?
The answer she gave was essentially, “Well, if people like you, it should be easy!”
This is not very helpful advice. First, it suggests that people without mentors are simply not likable. Second, convincing another human to take time out of their busy schedule to help you isn’t easy, no matter how likable you are.
Are mentorships the only solution?
I suspect that the concept of mentorship is over-fetishized in journalism. It’s a thing that successful men seem to have, and it’s an easy way to slip out of the accusation that you’re simply promoting and hiring people who look like you. “No, no,” you might say, “It is simply that I am this person’s mentor!” It’s not a boys’ club. It’s that the boys have mentors! Maybe if you were more likable, you’d have some too!
Obviously mentors are worthwhile and important. But nobody has ever really explained to me what makes someone a mentor. How many coffee dates or email chains do I need to have with someone before I get to say they’re a mentor? Do we have to put a label on this relationship? (Cue thinkpiece about how millennials are killing mentorships.)
If you find yourself in this position, looking around and wondering what exactly makes a mentor, whether you have any, and whether not having any means you should just give up already, I have advice that can help.
Advice for creating your personal board of advisors
Stop looking for mentors. Or, stop thinking about it that way. I was lamenting about my inability to cultivate mentors to someone recently and she introduced me to the concept of a Personal Board of Advisors. I realized in reading and thinking about this, that the woman who showed me this concept is, in fact, a mentor. Or, an advisor.
The concept goes like this: instead of having one or two mentors to guide you through your career, find a diverse (in as many ways as you can possibly think of) set of people who can offer advice in a variety of situations.
More and more, journalists are flitting between a variety of mediums. I bounce between podcasts, science, tech, sports, features, news, data visualizations, animation and weird fiction projects. I love that flexibility, but there is no single mentor in the world who can actually advise me on what this career I’ve assembled should look like and where it should go.
Instead, I have a personal board member who I trust to advise me on books. I have another who knows fiction inside and out. I have another who’s a narrative audio genius. And a fourth who’s the best manager I have ever encountered who can talk me through how to handle a team. Some of these people I count as dear, close friends. Some I’m still intimidated by. Some I talk to several times a week. Some I only talk to once a year. Some of them know that I consider them board members. Some of them don’t, but they are happy to answer my questions when I pop into their life. And that’s all fine.
Because I am a weirdo, I made a page in my notebook and gave each of my board members a very official and ridiculous title. Best Boss to Ever Boss The World. Slightly Terrifying But Incredibly Respected Book Man. Possibly On Another Planet Future Thinker. Audio Storyteller To The Gods. I even illustrated some of them. And now when I feel stuck, I go to this page in my notebook and scan for who the right person to ask is. Plus, having silly titles makes it feel less like a Big Important Mentor Thing and more like something I can actually handle.
You probably already have advisors. They can be peers and friends and that slightly off kilter woman you once worked for who is mostly on another planet but knows exactly what kind of thank you note to send. Consider them all, and use them all. Don’t freak out wondering if they are mentors or not. Also, you’re more likable than you think.
Go forth and build your board!