Why Mentorship Can Lead You to Fail

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Over the years I have had dozens of unofficial mentors from YouTube tutorials to business blogs and various creatives. When I decided to start my entrepreneurial journey in 2003, the first thing I did was look for a mentor.  Someone I could model, someone that “made it” and could give me tips to make everything smooth and easy… or so I thought.

With little more than exuberance and a google search I found Geoffrey Holder’s phone number. Yes, “the” Geoffrey Holder.

“All I can teach you is how to be me. And I’m already doing that. So go be you.” That’s what Geoffrey Holder told me.

I knew he made a successful living through his creativity. Like me, he was a Trinidadian living in North America, and had a multitude of creative talents. I had never met Geoffrey before, but he was among few Black men, Singers, Actors, Costume Designers, Dancers, Voice Actors, Theatre Directors, Choreographers, and Painter. You’ll probably remember him from his distinct laugh in the ‘UnCola’ commercials for 7UP. In 2003, I found Geoffrey Holder’s phone number. I mustered up all of my courage and called him to be my mentor. Mr. Holder flat out refused to mentor me.

Instead, we had a chat on the phone. It turned out to be the best 45 minute non-mentorship that I have ever received. And after yelling at me for 45 minutes he said this, “All I can teach you is how to be me. And I’m already doing that. So go be you.”

I wanted to learn from Geoffrey after I resigned from my corporate sales job to become a full time artist. Back then, I was hungry to disprove the theory that artists starve. I wanted to make my living through my creative talents. And I’m happy to say that I have found many ways to do so over the past 12 years. It came through sharpening my sales, marketing, branding and positioning skills. In the end, it turned out to have much less to do with my art or being mentored than I thought it would.

And here’s what else I believe about mentorship today:

‘I need mentorship to succeed’ becomes an excuse for navel gazing. This approach to mentorship often leads to extended therapy-like sessions with a mentor. In these conversations, we idolize a mentor’s opinions and instincts over our own. And when we do that, we avoid our own risk-taking and experimentation. In my view, that is the biggest failure of mentorship. Living, doing business and being creative requires experimentation. The secret is to experiment in the real world with what we learn from short bursts of mentorship. Otherwise, we miss the value in being mentored.

Avoid one-way mentorship, and opt for a mutual exchange. Alternatively you can look for an action-coach. Working with someone who can help me evaluate the next step/options available to me, based on where I am and where I want to get to next. I have an action-coach and advisor for my health, my financial planning and my writing. And above all else, it is critical that the person who’s coaching me has walked the road that I want to walk next. Or at the very least, they’ve walked the closest road to the one that I’m on. Everyone else’s advice or opinions must be vetted more cautiously. I’ve gotten into some trouble following advice that began with good intentions. It’s not enough to only have “book knowledge”; real lived experience and overcoming hurdles makes the difference.

We can rarely follow what someone else did and get the same results. This is another myth that I used to believe. My experience has taught me otherwise. It’s up to each of us to translate the mentorship we receive. We alone are responsible for considering whether what is being suggested feels like a fit for our life and current context. That’s because we each bring something unique to the table. And what might work for Steve Jobs in one context, won’t work for us in another. That’s why experimenting makes the difference. Until we experiment and internalize lessons for ourselves, they’re not that useful to us. Actions and experimenting bring valuable mentorship to life.

BONUS: *Seek out those whose approach challenges you from a different angle. There is gold within diverse opinions and experiences. They provide unique perspectives and expand our minds. At Wedge15, we call this act ‘breaking out of our echo chamber’. We all have an echo chamber. It’s the comfortable and familiar. It includes the usual places we go, the people we speak to regularly and the advice that we follow without questioning. Every so often, we can leapfrog to another level by exposing ourselves to unfamiliar perspectives and differences. Diamonds are made under that type of pressure. But again, the skill required by the ‘mentee’ is to translate these learnings for ourselves through experiments.
Geoffrey Holder died in 2014. And, although it was only a short 45 minute call, I still cherish the lessons that I received from his mentorship refusal.

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