There was an excellent discussion between Jason Lengstorf and Cassidy Williams hosted on the freeCodeCamp YouTube channel this week, and part of it (linked below) really resonated with me about mentorship.
As someone that hangs out in plenty of online forums / chats with beginner and early career developers, I get asked to formally be people’s mentors pretty often.
The most recent request was on Twitter, where someone that had never interacted with me before sent me a DM that just said “Would you be my mentor? I promise I won’t take up too much of your time!”
I don’t have a problem with helping people and taking on a mentor role - in fact I love it - but this type of approach never gets a positive response from me.
To understand why, it helps to take a step back and think about what mentorship is and why it’s so valuable.
Here is another freeCodeCamp offering, this time from the podcast episode with fellow Melbournian Kate Illsley:
Kate’s comments on mentorship start around the 40:30 mark for about 5 minutes.
In the podcast above, Kate describes four types of mentor relationship you should try to cultivate:
A person taking on the ‘traditional’ role of a mentor is what most people think of, that is: someone that can guide and advise you as you try to grow in a particular domain.
It’s also worthwhile working with people at your level that share similar goals. This can feel counter-intuitive from a mentorship perspective, but if you consider the Venn diagram of everything you know and everything they know, the areas outside of your overlapping knowledge and experiences provide excellent opportunities for shared growth.
There are things you know that other people do not know. You’ve had experiences others have not. While you consider the value of having a mentor, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s very likely you could be the very mentor someone else needs right now. Making yourself available to others in this capacity can be very rewarding, and will also benefit you in developing your own leadership and communication skills.
Finally, a role model might be someone more inaccessible, but who represents pinnacle of achievement for you. For me typically I don’t really engage with them directly, except maybe the occasional reply to a tweet, but I do read everything they’ve written, listen to all their podcast interviews, and try to find the lessons that are applicable to me in the path they have taken to get where I want to be.
Your responsibility towards a mentor
As Kate points out in the podcast above, it is important to add value back to the mentor in your relationship.
Action their advice so that their time has not wasted on you. And above all, say thank you.
This leads on to Cassidy Williams’ slightly longer discussion of the topic recently. Cassidy talks about this in the video below starting at the 37:26 mark (the video is cued to start there), and goes for about 9 minutes.
Cassidy hits upon the faux pas of just sending a DM: ‘Will you be my mentor?’.
She explains really well that a true mentor relationship is something that occurs naturally between two people over time. The key is to engage with people like normal people, and when you have a specific thing to ask, to ask it simply and concisely.
The thing I love most about Cassidy’s advice is to be active in communities and potential mentors will become apparent. Every person I’ve mentored in any capacity has always sort of fallen into it just by virtue of being in the same communities as me, be that in-person meet ups, the freeCodeCamp forum, Twitter, various Slack and Discord groups, or wherever.
Likewise, those that have mentored me in any capacity, have done so because we had a real and natural relationship as people before I needed anything from them that they could support me with.
I hope this post doesn’t scare people off from seeking mentorship - especially from me, as it’s something I’ve always found valuable. But I also hope it helps frame mentorship more clearly for people as something that grows rather than something that gets bestowed upon people.