THE THING ABOUT MENTORS
Is everyone should have at least one, at all times.
The other thing is: It’s up to you to pick them, not the other way around.
When I was in the corporate world I had dozens and dozens of mentors, all unassigned, except by me, for me.
My first was a woman named Carol who managed Young Men’s while I was across the aisle in Men’s Sportswear.
This was years and years ago. I was working for a retail company that was, at the time, the darling of the industry, its stock having split three times in two years. This was also a period in the ’80s when the unemployment rate reached past 10.5% in the state of Oregon. (Yikes, right?)
I was ambitious back then, but also very nervous. If a manager didn’t consistently post upper double-digit increases, that manager usually disappeared and was replaced.
I spent a lot of time bemoaning what I felt like was my eventual demise. I’d say things like, “Well, if I get fired, at least the Marines are looking for a few good men.”
One day after saying some such whiny thing, Carol asked, “Why do you talk like that?”
My answer: “Well, let’s see, all five managers before me—Dick, Tom, Harry, Sue and Bill—have all been fired.”
“Yeah, okay,” Carol said, “but even if you think that, you shouldn’t say it out loud.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because you sound pathetic.”
I got a little squeamish. She was right, of course she was, but still?
Then Carol said, “Do you want to know the secret to not getting fired?”
I started drooling like a rabid possum. Of course I wanted to know. I would have begged to know.
As she spoke, I took notes. I asked good questions. I did everything she said. And in the end, I never got fired. In fact, that one encounter with Carol is the likely reason I got promoted six months later, and then again another eight months afterward.
Prior to this, when I’d first started with the company, I knew nothing about fashion. I was poor and had two cheap suits I rotated more regularly than is probably considered sanitary.
My manager at the time took me aside and said, “Kuntz, who the hell taught you how to dress?”
Sheepish, I shrugged.
He continued, “Why do you always wear brown? And that knot on your tie is so big I could land a float plane on it. Use a four-in-hand. And can’t you at least spend 88 cents and have your shirts pressed, light starch on the collar and placket?”
I worked with an all-female crew at the time. They were like my adopted sisters. Witnessing this verbal dress-down, they hovered around and one said, “That guy’s such a dick. Don’t listen to him.”
But listen I did. He was a tad cruel, sure, but he’d taught me how to dress, and continued to do so.
He also taught me how not to be a manager. Time and time again, he taught me this. And in that way, he became one of my best teachers.
But my far and away very best mentor at the company was a jolly, lumbering guy who I idolized and who would ultimately become the solitary biggest influence in my life. He would also eventually become president and chairman of the company.
I spent as much time as possible with him, or even around him, blatantly and un-apologetically eavesdropping on whatever he’d say. To me, he wasn’t speaking words, he was spewing nuggets of gold. He was Confucius, the Dali Lama, and Jesus all rolled into one six foot six, husky frame of a human being.
One of the first concepts I learned from him was Follow the biggest guy into the weight room.
He (let’s call him JW) was an All-star right tackle for the University of Washington and afterward got drafted by Lou Holtz, who at the time was coaching the NY Jets, Lou’s only year in the pros.
Upon arrival, JW was totally intimidated by all the veteran players. He didn’t have a clue what to do at camp, so each day he simply followed the biggest guy into the weight room and did (or tried to do) everything that guy did. He self-selected a mentor. At night, he learned how to study a play book by spying on other experienced players. He was constantly following the biggest guy into the weight room, whether literally, or metaphorically.
Since then, for most of my life, I’ve adopted different versions of this notion. I’ve picked mentors without asking or telling them.
When I first started writing full-time nine years ago, I was a gangly colt fresh out of the womb, hardly able to stand upright on my hooves. I hadn’t even heard of the word flash. A 1,000 word story? 500 words? 200? What, what? I didn’t know there were online magazines, and really good ones at that. I was shocked and thrilled by this discovery. It was like suddenly learning things like unicorns, soulmates, and super powers really do exist.
The first two years I picked five writers—Kathy Fish, Roxane Gay, Kim Chinquee, Meg Pokrass, and xTx. I thought their writing was fresh, clever, and potent. I read everything they wrote and I submitted to every place they were published in, not knowing they were all lightyears more accomplished than me. But it worked. I got published in places I never would have otherwise. I learned how to parse and write pieces with quirk and punch. I learned how to take risks, to write dark and edgy. I learned to trust the reader to figure things out. Those women taught me more than any conference or workshop ever could have, especially at that point in my writer’s journey.
I still have a gaggle of writers I’ve chosen as mentors. I don’t just read their work. I study it, tear it apart, question it, compare and contrast it with things I’ve tried in my own writing. I’m always learning, and they’re always teaching me, unbeknownst to them.
The thing about mentors, and the thing about life is, if you wait for them (or it) to come to you, you’re going to be waiting an effing long time.
Follow the biggest guy into the weight room. Determine who that is for you. I’m pretty certain that she or he is out there right now, just waiting to teach you all kinds of wonderful things.