The “self-made man” is a myth. Whether in the business world or the physical one, every one of us owes something of who we are to others. Those who recognize and embrace this fact not only learn more faster, but are more pleasant to be around.
Sir Isaac Newton masterfully deflected credit and admitted the debt he owed others when he said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Or as Charlie “Tremendous” Jones put it, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
It’s not hard to get your hands on good books, but the story of almost any successful entrepreneur also includes references to people the entrepreneur has met or mentors.
In his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz writes about Bill Campbell’s influence as an advisor and mentor. Ryan Holiday, author of the bestseller The Obstacle is the Way was mentored by Tim Ferriss. Mark Zuckerberg had Steve Jobs, Bill Gates learned from Warren Buffet and Richard Branson was influenced by advice from British airline entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker.
Think you couldn’t ever get high-flying mentors such as these? Think again. You can get anyone to be your mentor -- anyone. In my own career I’ve been privileged to count some of the following individuals as my mentors:
- David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue and Azul airlines
- Tim Ferriss, entrepreneur, investor and author of three huge best sellers
- Ryan Holiday, former director of marketing for American Apparel and bestselling author
- Wil Reynolds, founder and CEO of SEER Interactive, a $10 million digital marketing agency
- Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and other bestselling books
- Ben Horowitz, entrepreneur, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, blogger and author
- Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of the Scrum software development process
- Michael Hyatt, speaker and bestselling author of Platform: Get Noticed In A Noisy World
- Marc Andreesen, creator of Netscape, the first web browser, and venture capitalist
And as of a few minutes ago of writing this, I’ll add Chris Sacca, an outspoken Twitter and Uber investor.
How did I get these people to mentor me? The secret has been to redefine what the words “mentor” and “mentoring” mean to you. You see, half the people I listed above have no idea who I am. No, I’m not saying I can call someone a mentor just because I read their book -- it takes more than that.
But many people assume that getting a mentor needs to look a certain way, that unless you’re buddies and hang out, or have regularly scheduled monthly meetings, you don’t have a mentor. That’s how I used to look at mentoring, so the first time I went to find a mentor I put out the word I was looking for a mentor, got a volunteer, and then had regular check-ins.
Don’t get me wrong, this was great, but my definition of what a mentor is and what a mentoring relationship looks like robbed me of what could have been. It’s hard to get someone who is successful, and therefore probably very busy, to agree to take regular time out of their schedules to spend on you.
But if your goal is to get their input and help -- rather than make them your buddy, can you do this in a way that is easy for them, while still giving you what you need? Here are four ways I’ve redefined the mentoring relationship and used my own version of it to my advantage.
1. The direct request
You may be surprised what you can get by simply asking. I was able to get a half hour of David Neeleman’s time when he was busy in the middle of launching JetBlue with nothing more than a direct request. Granted, I had some common background (we’re both Mormon, both lived in Brazil, both entrepreneurs), and since I was a college student at the time, I played that card (entrepreneurs are suckers when it comes to giving advice to students -- I speak from experience on both sides).
I used the “contact us” link on the footer of the JetBlue website to reach him. It’s usually hard to get a response from anyone this way, but a week later, I had a half-hour phone call with Neeleman and got to ask him all the questions I wanted to.
I have a somewhat similar but ongoing relationship with Wil Reynolds at SEER Interactive. I first met Reynolds at a digital-marketing conference. I look up to Reynolds not only because he runs a larger version of the same type of company I have, but because he’s an awesome guy who seems like a great servant-leader.
He was kind enough to give me 10 minutes of his time to answer some of my questions, and then I asked him if I could email him more. He agreed, and over the past year I’ve pinged him when I’ve needed advice, and he’s been generous with his time and the advice has been very useful.
Never during this time has the word “mentor” come up. Nothing is scheduled. It’s very natural and organic. Reynolds would probably never think, “Oh yeah, I mentor this guy Josh Steimle.” It’s more likely he would think, “This guy Josh Steimle asks me questions every now and then.”
2. The blog post
“Hey Chris, do you think my experience using Twitter’s advertising system represents a problem for Twitter’s revenue growth in the future?”
That’s effectively the question I asked Twitter investor Chris Sacca. I asked it by writing the blog post, Twitter’s Revenue Problem Explained In One Graphic? and then I tweeted it to Sacca and interim Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Within minutes I had a response from Sacca, despite the fact I’m a nobody to him. His feedback was short, blunt and not at all flattering to me -- but it was very helpful and pointed me toward additional research I could do.
If you don’t have a blog, try posting on LinkedIn’s Pulse network or Medium. You’ll find your response rate goes up when you’ve published something about someone, as opposed to just emailing them the same question. I have over 804 emails in my inbox marked for follow-up right now, including many questions from people asking for advice. I will probably never have the time to get to them, but if someone were to ask me a question in a blog post, you can bet I’d make that a priority to respond to.
3. The tweet conversation
Want some advice but don’t want to write up an entire blog post to get it? Try tweeting. I’ve received advice from famed Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreesen and countless others by simply tweeting them questions or getting involved in the conversations they’re already having on Twitter.
I don’t hound these people -- I might ask each of them a simple question or respond to one of their tweets once every other month. If I don’t get a response I don’t follow up -- I just let it go. But they often respond, and sometimes I find myself in a full-fledged conversation with someone it would be difficult to get access to any other way.
4. The invisible counselor
This definition of “mentorship” may seem like a cop-out to you, but I believe it is the most powerful form of mentoring, because it involves truly internalizing advice from your mentors such that you have their input 24/7 and can adapt it to your immediate needs.
I was introduced to this idea when I read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill (I’m not a fan of the title but I love the book). Hill chose successful people he looked up to, and he writes that, “Every night ... I held an imaginary council meeting with this group whom I called my ‘Invisible Counselors.’ … In these imaginary council meetings I called on my cabinet members for the knowledge I wished each to contribute.”
I don’t hold this kind of imaginary meeting. Instead, when the opportunity arises I ask myself, “What would Ben Horowitz do in this situation?” or “What would Wil Reynolds tell me if I asked him about what’s going on here?”
I can only answer these questions to the extent I study what these people say and do. That’s why I frequently watch videos of Reynolds on YouTube and read his blog posts. I’ve read Horowitz’s and Sutherland’s books four times each within the past year. In the past two months I’ve read all of Holiday’s books, and two of them twice. And I’ve read what they’ve said elsewhere in the media and in blog posts as well and I follow them on Twitter.
The more I study them, the more I feel comfortable that I know what they would tell me to do if I could speak directly to them. This way, you can even be mentored by people who have long since died. If I don’t feel comfortable answering my question this way, I resort to one of the other methods of being mentored, at least in the cases where the mentor is alive.
Having a formal mentoring relationship with someone is invaluable. I would never steer anyone away from seeking it when possible. But don’t let your idea of what mentoring has to look like keep you from getting advice from your seemingly untouchable heroes.