The Importance of Seeking Mentors
Many successful people I have met, especially those who are both successful in their endeavors and happy with their lives, have been fortunate to have one or more great mentors along the way.
Really smart people seek mentors out based on qualities they admire and respect, and overcome the fear of asking dumb questions in order to maximize their learning opportunities, whether on professional topics or more philosophical ones.
I had a very special opportunity a few months ago to interview management guru Jim Collins, whose “Good to Great” is the best-selling hard cover business book in history, in his home town of Boulder, Colorado. (The interview will be carried in full in an upcoming issue of FORTUNE China and on this website in video format.) During our conversation, Collins told a fascinating story about the importance of mentors in his own life-long education.
At the age of 25 he was driving in his car and listening to an audio book on the tape deck. The tape contained a quote from the late American President Harry Truman stating that if someone did not know the difference between right and wrong by the time they reached the age of 30, they never would. This thought struck Collins so profoundly that he pulled his car off the road to contemplate the fact that he had five years in which to figure this question out.
Obviously, the difference between right and wrong is much more complex than the difference between right and left. While sitting at the side of the road, Collins reflected on the importance of embracing the right values in one’s life, and decided to widen his circle of learning sources. He decided on the spot to create a personal board of directors — positive role models he selected based on the values they embody in the way they live and work — not with the kind of authority one would usually associate with a corporate board of directors, but as a source of mentoring and learning.
Some of the people he eventually selected for his personal board were people he knew personally, and others were not. Some knew he had selected them as mentors, and some did not, remaining passive objects of his study and admiration.
Several things struck me about this. First, it shows a great deal of maturity and clarity of mind as a 25 year old to think the quest for the right values in life is so crucial that you pull your car off the road to think so carefully about it. Second, it’s the kind of behavior. that demonstrates the difference between a lifetime learner and someone who thinks their education is more or less complete when they finish their schooling, which is a profound difference.
Some people develop mentor-mentee relationships through programs organized by educational institutions, such as graduate schools, or other non-profit organizations. Others, like Jim Collins at the age of 25, go out and seek mentors, and at a later stage in their lives they make themselves available for mentoring younger folks. He didn’t wait for mentors to come knocking on his door. He took the initiative to seek them out.
The world needs more of this, not only focused on professional and career advice, but in a broader sense, to help young people develop and fine tune their own values.
An individual without a clear sense of personal values is a bit like a company without core values and strategy. Luck may provide some early success in their career, but it probably won’t be sustainable through turbulence and the inevitable tough times. The lack of a clear sense of personal values most likely also won’t bring happiness, which is much more important in the long run than acquiring material wealth.
As a (now happily retired) banker friend of mine used to ask friends who he felt were workaholics who’d lost their work-life balance: “What are you doing with your life? Do you want to be the richest guy in the graveyard?”
There is currently a big disconnect in China between the number of college graduates coming into the work force each year and suitable available jobs available for them in the marketplace. There is also a lot of debate and discussion about the search for values against the backdrop of major, rapid changes in so many facets of Chinese society. Mentoring won’t “solve” either of these problems but it is a good and needed thing nonetheless, and a complement to formal education, corporate training programs, etc.
On the corporate level in China, corporate social responsibility has been embraced with gusto in recent years. Mentoring is really a kind of corollary of that on an individual level.
There are various lessons embedded in Jim Collins’ story. Most important is for young people to adopt the attitude of being a lifetime learner and seeking positive role models based on good values rather than outward appearances of success. If they take this responsibility to heart, they will be able to find mentors, whether in Boulder or Beijing.
Collins’ story also reminds us that an individual’s education has really just begun at the time they complete their formal schooling. The difference between someone who realizes this, and someone who doesn’t, is a bit like the difference between the feeding habits of a Peking duck and a wild duck. The former is passively force fed and fattened quickly for market; the latter flies far and wide in search of their favorite food, living a longer, healthier and happier life.
Another important lesson we can learn from Collins’ tale is that the only dumb questions are the ones we’re afraid to ask. Many young people miss out on opportunities for learning from potential mentors around them, because they don’t take the initiative to seek advice.
Peking duck is delicious, but I’d rather be a wild duck any day.
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