The importance of mentors

“Are you mentoring anybody?” my old mentor asked me a few weeks ago.

“No, I’m not.” And I stopped to think about that for a minute. I don’t have a mentor right now.

Lisa Bauer is my old mentor. I worked for her in college, but it felt like she was also my partner. She guided me through the politics of UC Berkeley, helping me understand the incentive structures that make the university tick. Our interests were aligned: I was a capable and hungry 18-year-old interested in environmental policy, and she was an ambitious and underfunded 40-year-old running the campus recycling and refuse program. She needed help. I needed a project.

I didn’t know this then, but I also needed a mentor, and she was the perfect fit.

Through Lisa and the other students she cultivated, I joined a cadre of great organizers. They knew how to execute an idea and keep it running. They were smart in the right ways, and I discovered I also had a natural talent for navigating the campus bureaucracy. The truth is, I liked it, and the people I met on campus seemed to like me. It was easy, and it didn’t feel like work. When I ran into problems, Lisa helped. I remember feeling back then that I made her proud.

We stayed in touch off and on after I graduated, reconnecting over a meal at her house in Berkeley every few years. It was easy to stay friends despite the long gaps in communication. When she sent a group email recently about wanting to find a renter for her house in Berkeley, I replied and suggested we meet again. After some back and forth, I offered to visit her ranch way out in the Anderson Valley.

It had been years, but we hit off like old times. We chatted while Lisa and her husband, Doug, cooked dinner. It occurred to me that I’m at the age now that Lisa must have been when we worked together 20 years ago. I told her that even in retrospect, with the decades washing away the loose memories, I still consider the projects we worked on the most important part of my Berkeley experience. That type of work, the organizing, politicking, networking, planning, strategizing… that’s what I love to do. Doing this under her tutelage was a masterclass. It definitely helped me get into the Harvard Kennedy School, and MIT Sloan, and there’s a straight line between all of that and meeting my wife, becoming an entrepreneur, and building the life I’m living today.

The mentor relationship is unique. It’s personal and professional. These days that’s a sensitive topic, but I liked that Lisa often treated me and her other student employees like peers. She said what was on her mind. She gave us relationship advice. The work was serious and important, but when we worked, it was casual and often funny. Most importantly, we knew that she cared both about the mission of making our little piece of the planet more sustainable and about nurturing and helping us.

I don’t have that now. I have friends, connections, formal and informal advisors, but I don’t have an older, wiser coach in my corner checking in and making sure I’m doing my best work. I don’t have someone opening doors for me, feeding me ideas and opportunities. I no longer have an advocate and I want to get that back.

Having a mentor seems to be effective. I keep running into these relationships in the biographies of successful people. Here are a few that I remember:

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger had Joe Weider to help him navigate the American bodybuilding circuit and get his first acting role
  • David Beckham had Sir Alex Ferguson as his coach and surrogate father for many years while he played for Manchester United
  • Albert Einstein had Max Talmud, who introduced him to math, science, and philosophy.

Is it ever too late to get a mentor? I hope not. When I think across all of my professional relationships, I have the individual pieces that make up a mentor. I have a lot of people supporting me through my current projects. I have to work to solicit the output and cull the ideas. I don’t have it all in one person the way I did with Lisa so many years ago.

I miss that.

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