At 36 years old, I have never had a formal mentor. Yet over the past 12 years, I completed two Masters’ degrees, lived and worked in five cities (both in the US and abroad), successfully navigated two major career transitions and started a successful business of my own.
For many years, I would have told you that the lack of formal mentorship was a major downside in my career. If only I’d had the right person there, looking over my shoulder, who could have introduced me to the next rung on the ladder well then… then I’d truly have made it big.
Yet this kind of mindset may be exactly what holds many women (and men!) back from leaning in and pursuing their dreams.
What’s more, it can put undue pressure on corporate managers to “do the right thing” when it comes to growing their people. When we are waiting for the right person to come along, we are missing the golden opportunity to get to know ourselves on a deeper level – an investment that pays large dividends in the long run.
Recently, in reflecting upon this dilemma, I came across the term “Self-Mentoring,” originally coined by Dr. Marsha Carr. It refers to the process by which an individual achiever initiates and accepts responsibility for his or her own development. To me, this approach makes a ton of sense – and it captures my experience well.
Today, instead of seeing my lack of formal mentorship as a liability, I am coming to recognize it as a boon in disguise.
Every step of the way, I have had to be creative, agile and curious in order to succeed. I didn’t just make my way up the ladder. I made my own ladder. Rather than listen to the advice of someone who had already paved their way to success, I made use of my time learning to deeply listen to the voice of my own inner wisdom.
I took a few unexpected turns that raised more than a few eyebrows, and picked up pieces of myself along the way. I got to know the seductive wiles of my ego, and pulled the thread of my calling.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we should not have mentors. Nor am I claiming that I never received support. Over the years a number of kind and supportive bosses, friends and teachers helped me to see my next level. With their support I was able to surpass myself, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
I am suggesting, however, that having (or lacking) a mentor is no excuse for bypassing the critical pursuit of self-awareness.
A mentor can tell you how they got there, but they can’t tell you how you should get there.
Nor can they possibly know where ‘there’ is for you.
So far, I have yet to meet a human being whose purpose was not 100% unique – crafted to suit his or her eclectic set of skills, strengths, experiences, passions and desires. I also have yet to meet a human being who didn’t have to go through some type of crucible in order to find it. Chasing the right person who will point you to the secret elevator door will only prevent you from seeing your own trail markers along the way. (Trust me… I know this strategy well).
Waiting for the right kind of help, or praying for a magic pill to come along, will only delay the lessons you must inevitably learn in order to serve your highest calling.
The good news in all of this?
You don’t have to wait for anything or anyone in order to start. You just have to take moment and listen. Then… take a step.
For those who are unclear about how to start, here are a few ideas:
1. Take an assessment that will give you some indication about your strengths, natural talents, ego drivers and/or growth trajectory.
Pour over the information you receive and spend some time journaling about the goodness of fit of your current work, and any future promotions you desire. Most of us go through our days at least somewhat on auto-pilot. These tools are designed to show us any needed course corrections. Opting to do this on a volunteer basis helps it feel less like a chore and more like a useful personal research project.
2. Do something you LOVE that you’ve been avoiding. Revisit your favorite hobbies and pass-times as a child.
At least once a month, make the time to fit in a class, activity, practice or event that used to bring you great joy. Although it may feel like a waste of time while you’re trying to decide between consulting at McKinsey or taking a position at a tech startup, our favorite hobbies help us remember who we are. Many Nobel Prize winning scientists also pursued artistic endeavors in their free time, as a way of stimulating their creativity.
3. Hire a great life coach, professional coach or executive coach.
Alternatively, hire a good therapist. If you’re already working with someone and don’t feel like you’re making progress, consider making a change. Having an extra set of eyes and ears on your inner life can serve as a mirror that helps you see doorways you may currently be missing. Investing your own dollars in hiring that support person helps you take the work seriously, and approach it like any other important business appointment.
4. Pay closer attention to any physical pain, health challenges or emotional breakdowns that are pulling at the edges of your sanity.
Find the right doctor, specialist or holistic health practitioner to help you find a first step toward treatment that feels right to you. The body doesn’t lie. It provides valuable information (often in the form of pain) about the places we are unintentionally keeping our life force energy on lockdown. Your answer could be as simple as “it’s time to change your diet,” or as dramatic as “it’s time to move to a warmer climate.” The process of making the change – however large or small – often reveals other steps we’ve been avoiding in other domains of our life or work.
5. Challenge your comfort zone when it comes to your personal relationships.
Take some time to take stock of the people who are closest to you. Are there moves that you’ve been avoiding? A break up? A proposal? An agreement to help take care of an aging parent? If you see that a change is needed, lean in and start taking action there. Our relationships often hold keys to our next level of growth.
I realize that some of these suggestions may come as a surprise. Proposing marriage is a far cry from landing the next promotion… right?
But the truth is, the path to one’s highest calling is rarely obvious, and it isn’t always about the work.
Sometimes other elements need to shift in order for the next career move to become clear. Taking proactive action on any nagging pulls or desires, while keeping an open mind, is the best way to indicate your readiness to the powers that be.
Self-mentoring is a lifelong journey.
Enjoy the ride!