Your Best New Years Resolution: Find a Mentor

Get the insight and support you need to move ahead.

National Mentoring Month just happens to coincide with our annual ritual of making New Years resolutions.  As we reflect on the frustrations or lost opportunities, and all that we dream about, it is the ideal time to take stock in what we really want to happen — this year!

All too often, we do nothing more than make a good list and attempt a few weeks of effort.  Then, little changes.

Life is about moving; it’s about change.  And when things stop doing that, they’re dead.  — Twyla Tharp


This year, try something new: Find a Mentor! Research shows that going it alone isn’t the quickest or best path to success. So regardless of what you do in 2011, a mentor can help you get there. They can help you be more effective, encourage you during setbacks, ask thoughtful questions, help avoid problems, offer real world solutions or realistic alternatives you might never have even considered.

Finding a good mentor is like finding a good job.  If you know what you want, and set clear goals, you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for — and make changes that are important to you.

3 STEPS TO HELP YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT

1. Set Goals — What’s On Your List of New Year’s Resolutions?

Mentors can benefit you in so many ways that it’s important to think through what you want.  Make sure you look for a mentor that has the skills, experience, or insights that are right for you.

What do you want your future to look like? What do you dream about? What do you want to achieve? Do you dare to radically raise the bar? What would you like to change or improve? Are you unhappy at work? Career passion shouldn’t be an oxymoron. If you’re not sure what you want, a mentor can help you figure it out too.  Crystallize your goals to narrow your search:

  • I’m frustrated in my current job. I need help figuring out if I should stay or if I should make a change.
  • I want my own business. I have an idea but I’m not sure how to get started.
  • I’m really unhappy at work, burned out. I could use help figuring out how to juggle my job, my family, and having a life.
  • I run a nonprofit, but I’m having trouble managing my board.
  • I think I’m ready for a promotion, but my boss doesn’t think so.  What can I do?
  • I’ve been looking for a job for nearly 2 years.  I need someone to help regain my confidence.
  • I’ve always thought about working for a nonprofit. I’d like to talk to someone who switched from corporate life.
  • I’m doing okay as an artist, but I need someone to help me get to the next level.
  • I’m great at marketing, but I need more management experience.
  • I like my job right now, but I want to explore my options.

2. Select Criteria — What type of mentor do you want?

What makes a good match?  Think about a teacher or boss who made it easy for you to learn, and helped and encouraged you to achieve more than you thought you could. What type of person was it that helped you open doors, see strengths you didn’t know you had, or kept you focused and on track? What were the key things they did that led to your success?  Identify your top 3-5 must-haves. Narrow down your criteria so you don’t waste time interviewing mentors who aren’t a good fit.

Consider what’s really important: chemistry, communication, conflict of interest, experience, pet peeves, similarities, time commitment, trust, and values.

Example: Business Start Up I’m seeking a business owner who successfully operates an organic restaurant.  I would like one, like me, who is enthusiastic and positive, though a bit more down-to-earth.  I will probably need to meet every two weeks for a few months until I get my business plan figured out, and then monthly for the first year.

Example: Accelerating the Career Ladder I want a mentor with 10+ years of marketing experience in the health and wellness area who has been very successful in her career.  I prefer a woman — someone like me who is working long hours in a demanding job and yet still manages to have a great family life and take time for herself. I need to make sure it isn’t someone who works for one of our competitors, and I would like it to be someone who isn’t in the healthcare industry.

Example: Burned Out, Exploring Options I am hoping to find a practical person who has opted out of the fast track and simplified their life. Ideally, it would be someone who has retired early and switched careers to something they really enjoy. I certainly don’t need someone lecturing me — a know-it-all. I’d like to meet every week at first, until I’m on my way. Then monthly. Probably 6 months would do it.

3. Evaluate your options

You’ll be investing a lot of yourself.  Your mentor will be, too  — volunteering their time, insights, and experience. So  it’s essential that you carefully evaluate your options.  And be open.  Don’t be surprised if you end up refining your goals or selection criteria as you gain more insight into what you really want. Remember: the best relationships are give-and-take. Choose 2-3 candidates to initially talk with, and then select the one who will support you — make real progress toward your goals.

Find a mentor and you just might achieve those New Year resolutions!

Inspired By a Human Hurricane

Cornel West, photo thanks to Axel Boldt, wikipedia

In Venezuela that’s precisely how Cornel West was introduced — as a human hurricane. West admits that he “likes moving in 5 different directions at the same time.”

At 14 he was already operating at full speed:  West ran the 2-mile in 10:12, one of the fastest ever for his age.  “(I was) burning up the track and burning the midnight oil, reading books like they were going out of style….holding down that first chair violin for the orchestra…(and) reading philosophy like other kids read comic books — not to impress anyone, but to feed my soul.”

Who is Dr. West? When he was a professor at Yale, there was a time when he commuted between Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, and across the Atlantic to the University of Paris.  He was also a Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School teaching African-American studies, Divinity, Religion, and Philosophy. Today he’s a professor at Princeton University, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University with a Ph.D. from Princeton — and author of many books.

Some might consider him to be a man of reckless conviction — others praise his courage, leadership, and strong beliefs. According to Maya Angelou, “Cornel West thinks like a sage, acts like a warrior and writes like a poetical prophet.”  The New York Times praised his “ferocious moral vision.”  He sees himself as “a bluesman in the life of the mind.

When he was a student at Harvard, West said,  “I was willing to die to emerge a more courageous, living, and decent human being.”  By death, West meant having the courage to question — and be continually transformed.  He believes that examination and rejuvenation go hand in hand — “critique and praise are inseparable.”  Outspoken may be an understatement when it comes to West:

  • He criticized the Black Panthers for criticizing Christianity.
  • He risked his life when he stood up against a minister from the Nation of Islam’s for disrespecting Malcolm X.
  • He was the first Yale professor to be arrested on Yale property — participating in the university’s clerical workers strike.
  • He co-authored, Jews & Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, only to later challenge his co-author for not walking his talk.
  • He voiced his outrage directly to President Clinton about the welfare reform bill (yet spoke at Clinton’s 2nd term inauguration).
  • He stood up to Harvard President Larry Summers who had accused West of being unprofessional.

A man of tremendous achievement, West continues to raise the bar — in his own life and for the world. Featured in the film, The Examined Life, Dr. West exudes brains, intensity, and a passion for life — a self proclaimed “prisoner of hope, a fanatic of fairness, and an extremist of love.” Yet he’s acutely aware of life’s dualities, “We all got the blues.  We all wanna lose our blues.  We all gotta look for ways to do that.”

I’ve been reading his memoir, Living and Loving Out loud, a roller coaster life.  It’s full of passionate debate, relentless inquiry, overcoming injustice, strong family bonds and the broken ones too. 

Insights From the Life of Hurricane West:

1. Embrace Conflict — With Empathy and Hope

During an emotionally charged event at Harvard, West risked his life by standing up for respectful dialogue when a preacher from by the Nation of Islam referred to Malcolm X as a dog.  The minister said to West, “you’ll be lucky to get out of this building alive.”  After going into hiding for a few days, he reached out to someone in the Nation’s community — eventually finding shared values and empathizing with one another. “Empathy overwhelmed anger,” West explains,  “Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”

What if we took action like that? It’s easy to discount West’s actions as youthful machismo.  Risking my life like that isn’t something I would do, but sometimes we really need people who will!  West inspires me to have more courage. I need to speak up and speak out earlier.  I know there have been too many times in my past when I didn’t; thinking that avoiding conflict was the better route. He also reminds me to make sure I am actually listening and learning — rather than focusing on changing other people’s minds. West saw how intelligent protest can cause real change, but it requires “the courage to exercise constant humility in the pursuit of a noble cause greater than oneself.”

2. Depth of Support Is Essential

Ever since he was a young kid, West was a challenger and defender; he “bullied the bullies,” which was constantly getting him in trouble.  Through it all he had “the voice of calmness and unquestioning integrity” from his parents — and unflappable support of his older brother and two sisters. When West was falsely accused of rape (he and his 2 roommates were all arrested for the same crime while attending Harvard), his brother Cliff said, “I’ll get on a plane right now; I’ll be there in the morning.”  (Fortunately the next day, all charges were dropped.)

He also has a strong Christian faith, having had a spiritual mentor at an early age.  At Harvard, he had a mentor too — the first black professor to gain tenure there (Martin Kilson).  West continued to build relationships with exceptional colleagues and collaborators throughout his life.

That deep level of support is difficult to replicate, but we all can actively seek out mentors, colleagues, friends, and professional groups. Sure brains matter. Hard work matters. But when you need to muster the courage to survive the really tough times, nothing comes close to value of authentic emotional support.

3. Connect Your Voice to Your Vocation

How many of us knew precisely what we wanted from life? West knew himself; I had “to forge a unique style and voice that expresses my own quest for truth and love.” West encourages us to first find our voice and put forth a vision for it — and connect that to our vocation.  Of course that’s easier said than done.

Early on, West was fortunate to find his calling: “connecting the life of the mind to the struggle for freedom.”  It doesn’t guarantee life will be any easier, just more meaningful.  West says, “It is clear that there are profound joys and unbearable sorrows that accompany being true to one’s calling.  The comfort is in the knowing that by giving one’s heart and soul to uplift others through one’s art, one’s vocation, voice and vision are fulfilled.”   I’d say there are sorrows and joys in every life, but it all seems more worthwhile if you’re doing something that matters to you.

4. Forget Perfection — Enjoy Life

With all his achievements, it would be easy to discount the challenges.  I’m not talking about the external ones, but the internal ones.  West openly admits to his humanness, which I find refreshing since we’re bombarded daily by superlatives and life’s realities lie hidden.

He says, “I must unapologetically reveal my broken life as a thing of beauty.” Despite all his success, West continually found himself coping with a bad case of the “IRS blues,” creating a “monetary mess” for himself.  He didn’t bother with doctors, until someone suggested he have his prostate checked; he had aggressive, last-stage prostate cancer — and beat it.  After his marriage to an Ethiopian Orthodox woman, they had to sleep with guns under their pillows and had militia guarding their house.  When they divorced, he said he had nothing “except his ’88 Cadillac.”

Quite the life. Yet he seems to be a man that remains passionate — clearly hungry for more. He loves music (from Marvin Gaye to Beethoven), romantic poetry, his 1988 Cadillac Sedan Deville — and women (you’ll have to read the book).

He writes to his children “the most essential lesson I can offer from my twentieth-century life for your twenty-first-century lives is to find and sustain joy every day that you breathe by touching the lives of others and inspiring people through your example to reach higher and serve better.”

Just like the rest of us, West isn’t superhuman — perhaps more authentic than most.  Whether you value his views or not, you know where he stands.  While many know him more for his civil rights and social justice efforts, I value his willingness to fully embrace life.

So enjoy what life has to offer.  Don’t get bogged down by cynicism; keep going.  Forget the imperfections in your life, and focus on loving the people that stick by you. Chase what excites you and stand up for it — with empathy and hope.

Why You Should Radically Raise the Bar

If you’re truly motivated to improve your life, incremental change won’t get you there — not fast enough. What we need is inspiration — something that sparks action, risk taking, and commitment. Often we have some vague notion of what we want in life, but we don’t allow ourselves to dream — let alone dream big.

What's your seemingly impossible dream? What will inspire you to radically raise the bar?

If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success. — James Cameron

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that our aim is too low and we reach it.” — Michelangelo

And then we don’t raise the bar again.

Naturally if you’re living your passion, perhaps your biggest challenge is making it happen.  If you’re reading this, it is more likely that you’re not quite there. Maybe you haven’t given up, but you aren’t fully committed either. Raising the bar isn’t about pushing you to burnout. It’s about encouraging you to become more authentic — to fully apply your strengths to what matters to you.

Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die today. — James Dean

What’s stopping you? Thought leader Edward de Bono warns us about complacency:

1. Cozy complacency: You convince yourself that life is adequate as it is. This isn’t about endless second-guessing your life choices or wondering if your life is keeping up with the Joneses. Get out of your comfort zone but avoid rushing to a decision.  Overcome this urge with thoughtful analysis so you avoid looking back at this point in time — wishing you made better choices.

2. Lack-of-vision complacencyYou box yourself into your current situation. You can’t envision living any differently.  You see limitations: family role, financial situation, social class, career or age group.  It’s hard to imagine anything different.  You lack support or the courage to rock the boat. You shut yourself down well before the idea even leaves your head.  Allow time to fantasize; look for stories of lives or lifestyles that appeal to you.  Engage others in brainstorming too, so you’ll explore options you’d normally never consider.

3. Arrogant complacencyYou stubbornly cling to your opinions. This is a difficult one, which requires the toughest examination. Often we rationalize how we’re getting by with too little or we convince ourselves that we’re living the good life.  Only we don’t pay attention to the cracks.  We’re too busy selling our lives to ourselves. Pay close attention to your intuition and early warning signs: a nagging health issue, a quiet whisper that you’d rather get out of what you’re doing, or the years are ticking by.

These examples are overly simplified, yet perilously real. The mind is exceptional at rationalizing our behavior. In the words of Sigmund Freud: to be completely honest with oneself is the very best effort a human being can make.  Remember it’s your life you’re talking about.  Dare to think about what is really important. Live a life worth living — your own view of what that is, that is what matters most.

How do you overcome complacency? What you need is an idea so compelling, so inspiring that it will ignite you out of your comfort zone and into a better future.

Raise the bar by setting your own “big, hairy, audacious goal,” a term coined by business guru Jim Collins, in his book Built to Last.  According to Tom Peters, that isn’t quite enough.  You need a goal that is both clear and compelling.  Some business concepts don’t translate easily into our personal lives, but this idea of setting a big, hairy, audacious goal for yourself — one that you can actually visualize — is certainly worthy of consideration.

A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions. — Anonymous

President Kennedy inspired Americans to care and believe about space travel — in 1961!   He did it with a clear, concise, seemingly unrealistic challenge — to be the first country to land on the moon.  He said, I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

On a personal level, setting the bar that extreme might seem too grandiose or ridiculous. We muse about an idea, but we don’t make the commitment and set an urgent goal or marshal our resources to insure their fulfillment. 

These all started as a dream, but someone decided to make a commitment:

Mark Twain said it well: A man with a new idea is a crank — until he succeeds.

Anything that really inspires you is likely to be complicated.  So get comfortable making mistakes. Raising the bar not only requires rapid learning but getting comfortable making mistakes. We live in a world that seems to demand flawless perfection every time — a harsh critic of failure.  Coming in second is equivalent to “losing.”

We need to take Samuel Beckett’s advice:  Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.

And of course, try again.

Naturally that’s easier said than done. As humans we have a built-in negativity bias! We are hard wired to pay much more attention to problems — dramatically more attention. Thanks to evolution, I guess it makes sense.  To stay alive we simply had to learn to adapt quickly to threats — it meant life or death.  According to author Jonathan Haidt, psychologists consistently find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. Positives just don’t carry the same weight. I didn’t want to believe this, but here is just one example, called marriage math by Psychology Today.  After just one negative experience with your spouse it takes at least five positive experiences to patch things up.

So manage your negativity bias and keep a close watch out for motivation killers. Dean Rieck’s blog, 8 Bad Habits that Crush Your Creativity and Stifle Your Success, has practical ideas to overcome your inner critic.  (Although written for the marketing world, Rieck’s ideas are universal.)

Still not convinced to radically raise the bar for yourself?  Take a look at Divine Caroline’s blog:  Ten Lies You’ll Hear Before Pursuing Your Dream. As she says, working hard on your dream will be very hard work, but at least you’ll be devoting your time, creativity, and energy on something that truly matters to you.  That’s positive in itself!  Here’s hoping you find inspiration to dream and do something that you wouldn’t dream of doing…without!

Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare. — Japanese Proverb


Multiply Yourself: 6 ways to improve your life

Imagine doubling your productivity.  Hard to do, especially if you’re like a lot of people — on any given day you feel overworked and yet underutilized. It may seem impossible to believe we can do any more than we’re already doing.

But I’m guessing we can. According to Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers, businesses can achieve a 2-fold improvement by leveraging their people. Her insights are based on analyzing data from more than 150 leaders.  So, I asked myself: “Why can’t we do that for ourselves?”  If the best leaders make people smarter at work, how can we use these techniques to enrich our own lives? Don’t wait for someone else to do it.  Be your own leader and apply these concepts yourself.

Focus on your strengths and multiply your productivity

1. Be a talent finder — in yourself. How well do you know your talents?  Take the time to research your natural strengths. Find your “native genius,” as Wiseman calls it.   While “genius” may seem a bit grandiose, we all have an area or two where we truly excel.  It’s a skill we find as easy as breathing.  Something we’d do even if we weren’t getting paid, where we easily forget about time because we’re so engrossed.  Often it is something we’re passionate about. Plus, the more we devote time and energy to our talent, the more likely we are to get “extraordinary results from very ordinary people.” It makes sense because the activity is a better match to our natural skills, interests, and abilities.  Identifying talent isn’t a new idea, but how many of us have really taken the time to know ourselves — until there is a crisis.  That’s not always the best time to be open minded about ourselves.  So spend less time trying to shore up minor talents (unless they truly hamper your relationships), and focus on what you’re good at.

2. Find ways to fully utilize your natural strengths. Think about ways you can accelerate your learning cycle.  To spark the learning in you, Wiseman advises the development of an overactive imagination and a serious case of curiosity.  Find ways to create the right environment or mindset.  That way, you’re less likely to hold back because you’re more confident.  As you offer your very best thinking, creativity, and ideas, your intelligence and skill level grows.

3. Remove roadblocks. What’s really getting in the way of your being successful — your happiness?  It is easy to suggest “other people,” when often we’re our own worst enemy.  Which roadblocks apply to you: Time wasters. Overly committed.  Perfectionism.  Constantly shifting priorities.  Second-guessing decisions.  Addicted to the adrenalin rush of crisis.  All too often, reacting seems easier than planning; but the price is lost productivity.  Weisman suggests we tone down our egos.  Forget being a know-it-all and our need to be right. Stop “making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.”  Instead, leverage your actions on what’s most important.

4. Develop success traits. Motivate yourself by investing in your success. Find safe opportunities to test your skills, your ideas, and your learning — and learn quickly.  You’re sure to make mistakes — so having a sense of humor is essential.  A little laughter can go a long way.  Find smart people to learn from and debate your ideas.  As Wiseman says, “listen and ask questions 80% of the time.” Don’t feel you need to have all the answers. Spend time with people who help you become smarter, more capable. When people believe in us and support us, we’re naturally more productive.

5. Commit to working hard. Major achievements never come easy.  But you’ll be doing what you’re best at, so you’ll generally be less stressed and better able to work harder.  You’ll be highly motivated because you’ll be doing something you’re good at, which makes  improving much more likely.   Set your goals high, but give the stress a rest.

6. Believe it is possible. What will it take to ignite a fire within you? What will make you “feel exhilarated, challenged, and gratified?”  What are the first action steps you can take to test it out? Learn enough so that you can believe it just might be possible.  Break down your goal in such a way that you can actually imagine it happening.  Reframe problems as opportunities.  You can’t expect to be as motivated solving an impossible problem as you are creating a compelling opportunity. Wiseman writes about Steven Spielberg’s mindset: “All good ideas start from bad ideas.”  But Spielberg produces so many successful movies because his crew is twice as productive as others, people doing their best work, working together, giving their best.  Of course, you’ll need to anticipate problems, respond and adapt.  Above all, make sure your goal is worthy of all your hard work. Keep track of your progress — and make it visible to yourself and the people you rely on for support.

The cynic in us is quick to discount this theory. Exhausted from long hours at work and managing our complex lives, negativity and pessimism can loom large — killing our own passion. Wiseman calls this a “Diminisher.” It’s bad enough when people around us are motivation killers, but it is far worse when we do it to ourselves.  Under the guise of logic or experience, we think we have the answers.  It’s easy to lose track of how unreasonable we’re being, feeling trapped when there are options for practically all of us.  Both Diminishers and Multipliers have high expectations, but Diminishers get caught up in what they think of as honesty.  Sure, there are real obstacles, but there are real opportunities too. Often the Diminisher acts as a guard for the status quo, feeding complacency or inaction.

Of course, Pollyanna thinking won’t help either.

Smart people examine the facts, know themselves, and confront reality. To give your idea fair consideration, it requires you to think like a Multiplier.  Remove the urge to come to the first conclusion — and actively debate the pros and cons.  Even when the stakes are high, explore ideas with as little stress as you can.  Stay calm — and committed — enough to feel you’ve given it a fair shake.

A recent Twitter quote summarized the dilemma well:

RT @tnvora: There’s a difference between having a vision and suffering from a hallucination. ~Peter Scholtes

I’d say there is a fine line between the two, which requires a combination of facts and intuition. It requires an honest evaluation of your strengths and engaged debate about the possibilities.  Many great things have been accomplished while others thought the people involved were “suffering from a hallucination.”

I’m not suggesting that everything you do will automatically translate into more wealth, fame, and power — but I’d say that if you focus on your strengths and think like a Multiplier, you’re more likely to happier — and therefore more successful too. Given the right circumstances, you can even exceed the 2x multiplier by a long shot — because opportunities create more opportunities.  Or as the old adage says, nothing breeds success like success.

So start thinking about applying your strengths to your dreams:  writing that novel, starting your own business, retiring early, volunteering in Africa…or?

RT @SangyeH: “Like all explorers, we r drawn 2 discover what’s out there w/o knowing yet if we have the courage two face it.” ~Pema Chodron

Going It Alone? Think Twice.

Guest Blog by John Schuerman

Want happiness or expert-level success or both?  The research shows that going it alone is not likely to get you there.

The American psyche is profoundly informed by mythologies of individual heroism — which unfortunately do not map to reality.

There is a great conflict between the mythical hero of Hollywood that rises against all odds and the real road to success. Our individual heroes simply don’t get to be heroic or expert without the guidance and support of caring teachers. The Harvard Business Review featured an article, The Making of an Expert, which reported that in almost every case the practicing of the expert was supervised by a personal teacher/mentor. Expert level success required personal guidance from a caring and qualified teacher.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is a research-based and systematic dismantling of the notion that heroes rise simply on their own ingenuity. “People don’t rise from nothing… The people that stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allowed them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

And this conflict of myth and reality has a darker side still.

Above all, we are taught to be our own person. Our consumer culture, fueled by marketing, creates choices and hunger for evermore choice and personal control. The myth of the free market is that the individual is the center of the universe. According to Martin Seligman, renowned research psychologist at the Positive Psychology Center in Pennsylvania, “The society we live in exalts the self.” He links this “waxing of the self and the waning of the commons (higher purpose)” with the dramatic rise in depression over the last 60 years.

If we are suffering from our own self-absorbedness what is the antidote? Meaningful attachments to other individuals and to purposes larger than self seem like plausible answers. The research on happiness and life expectancy find that, above all, friends and family relationships matter (and “cholesterol doesn’t,” from the famous Harvard Study of Adult Development longitudinal study, begun in 1937).

Partners, by John Shuerman

Work, and in particular progress in work, also positively affect our experience of “a good life.” When it comes to progress in work, both the HBR study and the Malcolm Gladwell book state absolutely that there is no substitute for hard work. Without long hours — you simply won’t get there, but for true expertise, long hours won’t be enough. A caring teacher is essential to have in the equation.

My colleague Beth Parkhill, Founder of Mentor Planet, says that a mentor is a smart friend. It now strikes me how sharp that definition is, answering both the relationship and learning aspects of “a good life.”

If you are like me and have “gone it alone” more than was best, perhaps there is still time to think twice.

John Schuerman, artist and consultant

Is it crazy to consider a career shift in this economy?

Is now the right time? When would it be a good time? Certainly there are valid reasons not to change. The economy is tough and if you’re earning a decent living it is easy to rationalize staying where you are.  All too often we put this decision off.  We wait for the perfect time or for the perfect opportunity to come to us.

Interestingly enough, many of us are living in limbo. We aren’t fully committed to our current career or to figuring out what might be a better option.  Isn’t life too short to linger in a career that isn’t a good fit anymore?  Why wait — until you’re too locked into your current situation to change, you can’t stand your work situation any longer, or you’ve actually lost your job — before you actively consider a career shift? Exploring options while you’re in your back-up mode — worrying about finances or feeling like you’re living in limbo — isn’t an ideal environment to be open to new possibilities or actively take a risk.  (It can work, but the stress can be stifling.)

Time is life’s real currency. Are you living your life’s currency wisely?

Why not invest in yourself now? Doesn’t it make more sense to do it while you have the energy to thoughtfully evaluate your possibilities?

Time is life’s real currency.  The heart of the question is: Are you living your life’s currency wisely? Many of us start our careers optimistically, without much analysis of our choice.  Out in the real world, we gradually figure out that it was nothing like we had imagined.  Few of us did more than rudimentary skills testing.  Perhaps only a fraction of us found a mentor to help us provide real-world insights to see if we were making a good choice.  Maybe you loved your job for years; only now it has lost the excitement or the meaning it once held.  Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to be quite successful, too well, in fact, so that you don’t even consider what might make you happier — your “best self.”  Let’s hope we don’t sell out for golden handcuffs, especially if the salary isn’t all that great to begin with (or even if it is), because it’s our lives we’re talking about here!

Why not raise the bar? Consider a career change to find one that is more interesting, rewarding, and meaningful — perhaps one that is “more livable” too.  Naturally all careers have trade-offs, but the trouble is that we don’t often take the time to find a better match for ourselves.  We stay where we started just because it seems easier.  On reflection, and once we’ve made the shift, we wonder why we waited so long!  (Some of you may find that this process helps you determine that you’re in the right career; all you needed was a little rejuvenation!)

Take the time to imagine what your life would be like if only you could make a shift. According to Civic Ventures, more than 8 million Americans between 44 and 77 are embarking on new careers. We’ve all heard stories, but somehow we can’t see ourselves — our options.  So stimulate your thinking with a few real life examples:

  • An intellectual property consultant switched to his love of the ocean and now sells sailboats.
  • A banker opted out of corporate life; he prefers to work on his own, remodeling houses.
  • A computer programmer went back to school for a degree in nonprofit management; and now works in energy conservation.
  • A beautician went back to school to become a massage therapist.
  • A stockbroker now teaches fitness and relaxation.
  • A photographer’s representative switched to planning travel for touring musicians.
  • A public relations consultant who loves language, is now a teacher (teaching English to French students).
  • A copywriter went back to school to become an acupuncturist.
  • A dancer/actress became a marketing consultant (also farms part-time).
  • A marketing strategist became a stay-at-home dad, web entrepreneur, and real estate investor.

Don’t start exploring career options with the job market.  Start by asking the more important question: “What do I really want?” Career experts often recommend evaluating the future growth in a particular field, researching potential employers, estimating income and advancement options, etc.  That’s vitally important, but that’s actually the easy part — and it shouldn’t be where you start.

External analysis should come AFTER your internal analysis, which is often more challenging. You know yourself better than you did right after college or your first job. All too often, we know what we don’t want rather than what we want.  Knowing what we don’t want helps us cross options off the list, which is good. Getting us out of our routine and into the more exciting, dynamic world of our passions, possibilities, and motivations is what’s key.  Of course, money matters.  But it’s not solely about the money.  As Henry David Thoreau said, “Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”

According to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, you’re more likely to be successful when you find a strong convergence between these two factors:

  • a career that taps into your values (meaning), interests, and abilities and
  • a vibrant field with plenty of job options and upward mobility — and one valued by society.

Start exploring career options by expanding your network. One of the biggest barriers is your existing network. Colleagues know you only in your current role — which is a very narrow view of your potential. Schedule informational interviews with people outside of your current circle — people who are open to seeing you in new roles.

The good news is that it is fairly easy to network these days. Even though everyone is busy, most people want to expand their network too.  Make a commitment to yourself to meet at least one new person each week — with the precise intent of helping to identify what you value, your deepest passion, and your strongest interests. Meet in person, over coffee or lunch, so you can truly to get to know one another in a meaningful way. Be sure to help them expand their network too.

Remember to document what you learn from each interview. Keeping track of your efforts will help you feel like you’re making progress.  It’s likely to take time to piece together all the components of a successful career move. Unless you’ve been training as a concert pianist since the 2nd grade, and built up 10,000 hours of practice, chances are you’ll be in the research phase for a while.  If you’re typically used to making quick decisions, try to enjoy the process and allow yourself time to dig past the first good idea.  For people that love thinking about options, find someone that will help keep you on track so you don’t get lost in the options — a colleague, a coach, or mentor.

It’s important to remember that your career isn’t limited by your direct experience. Sure, many employers are looking for someone with a perfect fit.  But more and more, smart business people know that skills can be taught.  What matters more is a person’s ability to learning and adapt.  As the senior editor at Inc Magazine, Norm Brodsky says, companies should “hire for attitude not skills.”

Authentic Mentoring

Why mentor someone? Everyone is busy.  No one boasts about having too much time on their hands.  Yet people offer their time, energy, insights and knowledge to others — often complete strangers. These strangers reach out to connect and offer up their best selves to help someone else.

It seems odd perhaps, in a world that emphasizes networking (even speed-networking), to consider the exact opposite — taking the time to truly get to know someone well enough to provide meaningful support. Wanting to give someone advice is easy; you see a problem and you think, “I know how to fix it.”  Offering advice is easy too, especially if you aren’t really responsible for the outcome.  Authentic mentoring, on the other hand, takes time — quality time  — and your commitment to stay connected.

Allow people to see your authentic self

Mentoring is unique; it’s different from life coaching, executive coaching, therapy, and consulting. Each of these options can provide tremendous benefits.  But money changes everything — our expectations and the dynamics of any relationship. As a mentor, you are offering yourself — one person to one person.  Yes, there is always opportunity for mutual benefit; and this is usually the case with good mentor matches.  But an authentic mentor places the emphasis on the person they are mentoring, not the next billable hour, next client referral, or even the drive to reach a specific achievement.

A mentor is there first and foremost to provide support — a deeper leverage point.  It takes a real relationship to feel any significant level of support, to encourage real change. That entails getting together often, maybe weekly, for six months or a year.  You’re there as the conversation deepens and the topics become more complex.  You’re helping someone overcome obstacles and make real progress.

At it’s best, I believe a mentor serves as a role model for being open minded, building trust, and being authentic. This mirrors the teachings from a two-day Mindful Leadership retreat I attended early this month. Bill George, Harvard Business professor and former CEO of Medtronic, and Yongey Mingur Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk, lead discussions about emotional intelligence, happiness, compassion, active listening, self-actualization, building trust — all essential components of authentic mentoring.

Bill George was quite frank, remarkably open during his interactions with us.  In front of 400 people, he was striving to walk his talk.  He was vulnerable and acknowledged his greatest fear: “becoming obsolete.”  At first glance, it might be easy to discount his “vulnerability,” since he has been so successful and still has a great deal of influence.  But that is precisely why he was so intriguing to me.  My experience with successful business people has been that it is too risky for them to remove the mask in public, even slightly, and admit their weaknesses, mistakes, or fears.

George admitted to being impatient and a host of other shortcomings, all leading up to his currently held belief in self-knowledge and self-control, which he said are important if we are to truly lead others. He went further, stating that we need to move beyond the use of our minds (which he said may be overvalued in our society) and use our hearts as well.  This was clearly not your typical left-brain, command and control leadership approach, of which George declared, “It is dead,” or dying, and enlisted us to “help him kill it!”

So how do we become better leaders, better mentors in a world where authenticity is not the norm? I think one of the best ways to accomplish this is for all of us to become authentic mentors. Lead by example. Start changing. Increase EQ (vs. IQ): increase emotional intelligence through self-awareness.  Be open and vulnerable. Share your life story — your successes and failures. Allow others to learn from our entire range of experiences not just our success.  We’re all human.  None of us live perfect lives or can give “perfect advice.” But we can show up with that rare ingredient — authenticity — so we are better equipped to offer thoughtful counsel.

It is tough taking a chance on someone, to seek a mentor to ask for guidance, particularly if they are perceived to have no weakness, no heart.  Keep in mind that the person you are mentoring is constantly asking:  “Can I trust this person?” As we allow others to see our authentic self, they are more likely to trust us, to open up and tell us the truth — about their real issues, deeper problems.  This way we can offer more than a quick-fix or bad advice.  Instead we’re more likely to probe further, listen more, and help someone think through their situations for more meaningful action.

I know that the more I mentor others, the more critically I evaluate myself and learn more about what’s important to me. I take mentoring quite seriously even though I fall short at times. Was I actively listening or running other projects through my head as we were talking?  Was I trying too hard to solve the problem quickly rather than asking better questions? Was I giving feedback in a way they would hear it or was I merely being efficient?  Did they see me consider their feedback to me in a way that showed I took it to heart?  Nothing is more important to me than connecting with someone on what matters most to them. It is an honor that another person opens up to me, sharing their dreams and fears.

I hope you’ll be inspired to mentor someone. You don’t need to be a superstar or a former CEO, just someone who is willing to share their hard-earned experience and real-world insights.  If you’re interested in becoming a mentor, please contact me.  MentorPlanet.com is getting ready to launch.  I hope you’ll be a part of it.  So send me an email and I’ll send you the details. I already have profiles on lots of people that are looking for mentors. Mentors Wanted!