As a fumbling art student during college, I used to create installations out of ephemeral and toxic materials, like resin, eggs, fiberglass insulation, and dead bees. It was during this time of messy (and smelly) experiments that I encountered a life-changing mentor — sculptor and art professor, Ed Love.
While mentors are referred to in multiple ways — coach, advocate, guide, facilitator, adviser, guide, guru, counselor, tutor, consultant — a common thread of approach is highlighted in this quote by the poet Robert Frost about mentoring, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
What Frost suggests is that an “awakener”—or mentor—can illuminate untapped areas for personal and professional growth . In other words, a mentor can show you possibilities that may not have been on your radar at first, invariably shaping your career (and maybe your life) in meaningful and unexpected ways.
For instance, when others could have easily dismissed my undergraduate artwork as angsty and gross (which, admittedly, it was), my mentor, Ed, helped me to see the promise of whatever I was working on, always approaching me and my endeavors with open-mindedness, mutual respect, and insightful feedback. He pushed me to gain something beyond the traditional markers of success when pursuing my education and was pivotal in fostering my deepening, life-long devotion to writing and literature.
What are the benefits of having a mentor?
An undeniably powerful example of mentoring is First Lady Michelle Obama, who mentored Barack Obama when he was a summer associate at her Chicago law firm. She later launched a mentoring program after moving into the White House, which she says was intended to “open a secret door for others that hadn’t been opened for me” and involved pairing disadvantaged girls with powerful women leaders, such as Chief of Staff and other senior officials.
For many mentors like Michelle Obama, mentoring is implicitly about serving as a role model and empowering promising mentees, regardless of socio-economic background, and ensuring their path to success is more feasible and equitable.
On a related note, if you’re a career changer—especially from underrepresented communities—you may feel pangs of the dreaded “imposter syndrome.” Working with a mentor who is already in your desired field can be invaluable since they will reinforce your value and affirm your presence and contributions, offering you the boost of confidence needed to persevere and navigate unforeseen challenges. That said, a great mentor also helps you notice your assumptions and pushes you beyond your comfort zones in constructive ways.
The co-founder and CEO of BodeTree, Chris Myers, refers to mentors as “accelerators” and believes that “mentoring is valuable for both professional and personal development.” For him, an early mentor became a pivotal figure in his life, exposing him to entrepreneurship, writing, and executive management. He emphasizes that this first major accelerator of his life impacted his trajectory in such a way that “cannot be overstated, and I continue to owe him a great debt of gratitude to this day.”
Another major plus about having a mentor is that, with their guidance, you can foreseeably streamline your learning curve in a new field or industry, shaving off months — maybe even years — of time for gaining proficiency and mastery! This means the measurable impacts of a mentor can be significant, saving you valuable time while learning and helping you avoid common pitfalls.
It’s for all these reasons that Designlab includes one-on-one mentoring in all of our courses, for every student, because we’ve found that mentors enhance student learning and potential in such profound ways, resulting in long-term success. We’ve seen how great mentors help students see past their blind spots and, through constructive feedback, offer guidance about best ways to improve one’s approach and performance. We’ve also seen, during the job search process and beyond, how mentors advocate, connecting mentees with opportunities and other people in the industry, along with generously sharing about what they’ve learned during their journey.
So if you’re going through a career change or learning something new, why go it alone?