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The UnCollege Blog

Real World Skills 101: How to Build Your Network of Mentors

This post is part of an ongoing series created by UnCollege on the skills young adults need as they enter the professional or "real" world. You can find the other articles in the series here.

If love is friendship set on fire, mentorship is friendship sharpened to a point. In your twenties, few things are more important than finding, building, and growing your network of mentors. But the task of finding smart, kind, powerful adults to hang out with you can be a totally daunting one, and with good reason: in an era when everyone is too busy to “grab lunch,” how do you get important people to lend you a few minutes of their time? UnCollege has a few tips on how to build up your network of mentors:

Strong Relationships Begin With Gratitude

I recently encouraged my friend to reach out to a very prominent policy maker in his field. “Absolutely not!” he cried, “He’s a very important man, he’d be far too busy to meet with me.” My friend was, of course, missing the point. When we reach out to people we admire -- whether they are writers and artists who’ve inspired us, business leaders who work in our field, or politicians who are shaping our day-to-day lives -- we aren’t necessarily asking them to spend time on us. We’re complimenting their work, showing them the impact that work has had on us, and in some small way reminding them why they got into the business to begin with. Sure, we’re also putting our name on their radar (if only for a minute or so), but above all else when we reach out to potential mentors, our aim should be gratitude: thanking leaders in our fields for the work that they have done. What will surprise you is how often powerful people respond to gratitude. “He’s Far too busy to talk to me” often turns into “we’re speaking on the phone next week!”

Don’t Be Afraid To Reach Out Cold

Finding mentors can be intimidating, and the idea of attending a professor’s office hours for the first time or sending a cold-call email to someone we admire can leave us scared and silent. But remember: each and every potential mentor once had a mentor themselves, someone who stopped and gave them the time of day when they could have easily ignored the email or shut the door. Be humble when you reach out unannounced, but remember that no true mentorship relationships is a one-way street. For all you know, your potential mentor could be looking for a way to give back -- and meeting you for that coffee could be just that.

Get Offline

Starting the conversation via email is fine and common, but try to meet in person as soon as your schedules allow! Never underestimate the importance of face time. Someone once told me that if she had to choose between hiring the candidate she’d never met who was slightly more qualified, or the candidate that she’d once had lunch with, she’d choose the latter every time. Think about it: you wouldn’t build a romantic relationship entirely online, nor a friendship. A mentorship is the same. You can only truly know if you’re hitting it off once you’re sitting there in person, and one hour spent drinking coffee together can be more effective at building bonds than one year spent exchanging emails.

But Also, Get Online!

Take advantage of tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, and the self-described “Tinder for Mentors” Glassbreaker to connect the dots and reach out to the individuals who might be best suited to guide you. Do your research: it’s all at your fingertips! If you’re reaching out to a writer or professor, make sure you’ve read their major works. If you’d like a business person or lawyer to be your mentor, check in on news articles about their ventures and cases. Use LinkedIn to see friends you may have in common and Twitter to find out your shared interests. All of this research is to help your future mentor feel like you really care about their career; so when you reach out, make sure your emails don’t read generic. No one wants to feel like the recipient of a stock letter.

Check In, Even When You Don’t “Need” Something

Once you’ve built that initial relationship, it’s important to stay in touch on a regular basis. Every relationship is different, but one good rule of thumb is to touch base every season with a brief, personal update on how things are going for you. If you only ever reach out to your mentors when you need a job or a recommendation, you’re completely missing the point -- and it will show.

Serve as a Connector Yourself

Even if you’re only 20 or 21 years old, chances are you’ve met some incredible people in your life. Part of building a network of mentors is connecting others with mentors and friends: serving as a link for others. Have a friend who wants to be run her own start-up, and another who’s just finished launching her first round of seed funding? Put them in touch! Have a mentor who’s interested in writing his memoirs, and a friend who’s always loved working as an editor? Put them in touch! Connecting adults with young people, and young people with each other, will put you at the center of a wide web of mutually-beneficial relationships.

Because That’s The Key: Create Mutually-Beneficial Relationships

Ultimately, the most important thing to remember about building your network of mentors is that you’re not looking for handouts or favors: you’re looking for professional friendships, and friendship is a two-way street. Building a strong relationship with a mentor takes patience, consideration, and even sacrifice. Going out of your way to remember your mentor’s coffee order so it’s ready and waiting when they arrive, sending them a quick “thank you” email after they spend an hour with you at lunch, keeping them posted when you find a job, sending them postcards from places you travel: these are just a few of the ways you can show your mentor that they’re not just a means to an end for you. Remember, someday you’ll be someone’s mentor, too.

About the author: Jennifer is a writer and editor living in New York. She once broke her ankle while traveling alone in Latvia, and survived. Her great loves are literature, linguine, and shelter dogs.