Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

How To Get And Keep A Mentor

First off, know that I want to help you. I do. I enjoy being a mentor. This is largely because I’m so inspired by, and thankful for, my past and present mentors. I credit most of my career (in publishing) to the five or six people who took the time and patience, and surely the occasional offense, to bother teaching me their business. Yet in our I want-I click world of ordering things up—no doubt made more frenetic by job crises across the board—the art of finding, courting and keeping a professional mentor has been lost.

I see this almost daily in the Mad Lib assistance-on-demand emails I receive. For the most part, they go something like this:
• It’s been far too long, much to catch up on!
• How are you/city/work/husband from when we were last in touch?
• A few words of I read/I saw/I liked flattery or interest in person/place/project/partner
• An invitation for coffee. Variations can be seasonal (iced!), sometimes more substantive (martinis, breakfast) or meet-cute (pie, vegan cupcake, bubble tea)

Then the inevitable phrase, verbatim, “I would LOVE to pick your brain.” Picker, please! Unless you're a zombie or a surgeon, this is an appeal you should never make. It holds nothing but the promise of extraction and exhaustion—organ donation—for the person on the receiving end. Indeed, the phrase has become kind of a telltale for me. Its appearance is one that can actually put me off helping a person who’d previously had my attention, like a résumé from someone who “utilizes.”

Now The Brain likes martinis and maybe you a lot. But The Brain is also a busy professional—the very reason you seek its services—who gets a lot of these requests. You’re asking someone whose business you respect to take time and thought out of their workday and volunteer for yours. So if you’re going to email me or anyone else, in any industry, seeking advice, you have to understand there’s an artful way in. Here are some strategies for The Picker from The Brain toward establishing a happy, helpful mentor relationship.


On average, I receive six to 12 requests for professional help a week. In high season, when the teenagers I work with need college letters or the college students I teach need jobs, it can be that many a day. And it’s not just the lots-to-learn kids, new to the work world, who are doing the asking. Sometimes it’s—let's say—an actor who’s voiced a character for 23 seasons of “The Simpsons.” A recent 48-hour sampling is pretty typical, inquiries common to exotic: have I heard of any very senior edit jobs, what do I do for health insurance, can I help spring an assistant out of assistanthood, and do I know a French-speaking writer based in Toronto. What they have in common is that they all followed the template above.

So you're competing for someone's attention here—you want your email to stand out. First step: delete "I would LOVE to pick your brain." Even if the phrase doesn't bug you and you think me cranky, it appears with such frequency in my inbox that I keep a Brainpickers 2012 file—at the very least it’s unoriginal.

And originality is key here; it’s the rare person who’s moved to mentor action by a form letter. As Groupon does not yet make this kind of vendor available to you, you have to craft a request to which a human being—imagine a human being like yourself—might respond.


If you're not in regular contact with The Brain—especially if it’s been longer than three months since last communication—come clean, and quickly admit that you’re reconnecting because you want something.

Important: What you want at this stage is not a read of your book proposal or an editor’s name at whatever publication or a research assistant or a food stylist. What you want is a brief conversation with The Brain, at the convenience of The Brain. I recently had someone tell me she’s “OK waiting” the two weeks until I was back from a trip to discuss what’s next for her in her career. Yes she is.

Here’s how to do it. You demonstrate that you know they’re doing you a big favor. You start by not making them leave their desk. Then, if it seems like The Brain is open and receptive, work your way up: “Is there a good time for you? I can send a few specific questions via email, or we can talk on the phone, whenever works for you. Or if you prefer, I can come to you, whatever’s easiest.”

The Picker should never make The Brain feel like a sucker. Better to admit your COBRA’s about to run out or layoffs approach and you’re panicking than to feign coincidence or that you were just thinking about The Brain’s pet project. Back to putting yourself in the recipient’s role, for all you know The Brain might have lost a job, a friend, even that husband since last contact.


The Picker should never solicit The Brain’s help on behalf of another picker. It happens all the time: Here’s my girlfriend’s résumé, she’s building up a lot of clips as a music critic; or my son is moving to the city and wants to talk to you about digital media; or my therapist who has no writing experience wrote a book and do you have suggestions for literary agents? (Note: This book might be about eating babies for all the information provided The Brain here.)

If these proxy pickers are adults, simply ask The Brain if it’s OK for you to share The Brain’s contact information with them, or make an email introduction.

The Picker should be proving to The Brain that he or she will match—and far exceed—any efforts on The Brain’s part to help. Asking on behalf of a third party only shows that someone out there is lazy or disengaged enough to put two people to work for them without lifting a finger.

Also, do not ever use The Brain’s name without express permission when contacting another professional (i.e., an editor you pitch). The test is, if you’re not comfortable enough to cc: The Brain when mentioning their name, then don’t.


Again, in exchange for The Brain letting the The Picker inside the head, the coffee is usually offered. Whether of not coffee happens, The Brain is not in it for the money. So please don’t insult this person who was moved to help you by calling said latte or shrimp-and-grits a “bribe,” or in any way a fair exchange for their services. (These are services clients pay your brains for, people!)

They can buy their own coffee or have breakfast with someone with whom they have sex.

If The Brain is actually taking the time to meet you—unless you plan on writing them a check to cover their hourly rate plus transportation—no question, no fuss. Treat them to whatever you’d invited them to join you in and consider it a tremendous deal for you that they showed up.


A particular Simpsons character is now dead to me. His voice was playing at being a playwright, and I wish I’d been a little more “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” about it instead of spending a solid afternoon reading and giving notes I never heard back on. The disappearing act is perhaps the most common and least forgivable way for The Picker to offend The Brain.

Inversely, human vanity—The Brain’s vanity—is such that you will never bother anyone by sending an email that thanks and shares credit with them for something good in your life. As soon as that editor The Brain connected you with accepts your piece, let The Brain know. Same if you get called in for an interview or sold a book seven years later based on your blog for which The Brain suggested names (whether or not you used them). If The Brain helped you to negotiate your salary, then The Brain should be the second or third person to know whether or not your boss went for it. Do not wait for The Brain to come across your story as a civilian reader on a Sunday morning.

Worse—and all too common—definitely do not wait until things go pear-shaped. They often do. The Brain is not going to be inclined to help you chase down your payment 30 days from that Sunday morning or when you’re ready to leave the job The Brain had no idea you’d landed.

Make sure you keep in touch, too, when you don’t need anything. Particularly when you don’t need anything.

Offer up something to The Brain, rather than asking for it. Tell them something they don’t know; recommend a movie, a restaurant; pass on positive gossip or a compliment if and only if it’s genuine: you did really enjoy their piece in this week’s whatever. Tweet it and “like” it. You recommend them for a project. Or, I met this person you work with and they think so highly of you, or you’d mentioned the Magnetic Fields, and tickets go on sale today.


That won’t-read-your-fucking-script piece, by the way, was sent to me by a Hollywood friend when I’d asked him to… read a script of mine. (Which he did, giving me brilliant notes.) For the same reasons I recommend that editors write sometimes and full-timers freelance, it’s good policy to try on both roles, The Brain and The Picker.

There’s the sunshine-y karma—someone helps you, you turn around and help someone else—but more important is the humility. It keeps you from acting like an entitled asshole.

Easiest exercise: Read your email before you send, and see what kind of action you’d be moved to take out of your workday if it landed in your inbox.


As soon as any level of picking has happened, send The Brain a proper handwritten thank-you note via the U.S. Postal Service. It’s the right thing to do, and if you need more mercenary motivation, it will set you apart from the email mob. The Brain will remember you.

This part is mandatory. The next part is largely circumstantial and completely optional.

If things work out splendidly for you, based on any initial introduction or advice from The Brain—meeting someone you’ve always wanted to meet, placing a $250 op-ed or selling a $250K book or $2.5 million screenplay—or even if they don’t and you can swing it, a small gift in the $25-$50 range is extra kind and will not go unnoticed.

Like picking up the iced coffee tab, it’s not about the money. It’s about appreciation, what really feeds The Brain. Without any thought at all I can tell you exactly who gave me a Gramercy Tavern gift card (martinis, but with a person of my choosing instead of with The Picker); Lady Jayne Ltd. tiger, leopard and cheetah notepads; an Alice Munro collection as soon as it came out; and a donation to the Lower Eastside Girls Club as thanks.

I gave that L.A. friend a gift certificate to Tavern for reading my fucking script.

Note that these gifts are tax write-offs—promotion or research or professional services, depending on your accountant. I have an excellent one, and I will give you his name if you ask me the right way.

Amy Goldwasser is an editorial consultant who specializes in launches and relaunches, digital and print. She is the editor of RED: Teenage Girls in America Write on What Fires Up Their Lives Today (, which she is currently adapting for theater. She teaches editing in the Columbia Publishing Course and writing with the Lower Eastside Girls Club. Drawing by Harold Cushing courtesy of Yale Medical Historical Library.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

Hamilton (#122)

Haha what?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Some of this is pretty good advice.

Another thing you might consider is whether you want someone who considers an email like: "Hi, Amy, how have things been since we last spoke at that conference? How is your husband's new job? Anyway, I was just writing to ask if you know of any good French-speaking writers in Toronto for this project I'm working on" to be a major affront to her professional dignity as your mentor.

Amphora (#231,928)

@stuffisthings Yeah, a lot of people in/recently out of college have no idea how to write formal correspondence. But your example seems totally reasonable for say, a former professor to receive. Emailing a stranger and addressing them immediately by first name? Not acceptable.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Amphora (Yes, for any recent grads reading that was a paraphrase of a letter a professional acquiescence might write, please don't use it as a template.)

myfanwy (#1,124)

@stuffisthings "Professional acquiescence" should be a tag on this piece, I think.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@stuffisthings I'd like to blame that on my phone but yeah, no, full sized keyboard.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

I haven't tried to pick anyone's brains lately, but I'm still feeling guilty and scolded after reading this. Maybe that's just my immediate kneejerk reaction to being told that I need to write a thank-you note, though, regardless of the circumstances.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Nabonwe Thank you for writing this comment. Also, your gift is in the mail.

melis (#1,854)

"You're dead to me. No, I mean it. That's not an…an idiomatic expression I'm trying to use here. This conversation? In my mind, I'm having it with a semi-animated corpse and it's absolutely fucking terrifying. I can't see you without decrepit, decaying bits of putrefying skin obscuring your features that were once so well known to me. I'm serious here. You're dead to me; whenever I try to send you an email it bounces back with an auto-reply saying 'Oh my God, this is Gmail, I'm so sorry to be the one to tell you this – this is so awful, I can't believe this – but you're friend, he's dead, he's totally and massively dead, please let me know if there's anything I can do,' but there isn't anything anyone can do. I even had a private funeral for you last night. Remember when I broke into your room last night and dragged you out to a funeral home and put you in a grave and covered you with dirt and you kept struggling which I thought was really unusual for a dead body to do? Anyhow, that's what I mean when I say you're dead to me, so."

@melis Well, looks like I just found my new out-of-office reply.

David (#192)

From a manual on "Mentoring Best Practices" I once read:

Mentoring is a supportive relationship that helps develop skills, behaviors, and insights that will enable the mentee to attain his/her goals, and where the mentor has no direct stake in the outcome. Mentoring is not favoritism, training, therapy, or management, nor is it a one-way process.

A good mentee will…
• Know what he/she wants to achieve from the relationship
• Clarify expectations for the mentor and understand the mentor's expectations
• Set realistic aims for what can be achieved — take responsibility for his/her own development
• Know how and when to end the mentor-mentee relationship

There is more, of course…

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

Breakfast martinis? Pick away, friend!

Mr. B (#10,093)

I smell burnt toast.

"Hi, I am responsible for producing fucking garbage. Let me tell you how to live your life!"

Was it Hank Azaria? I bet it was Hank Azaria.

I'm having trouble figuring out which one is worse: this article that says out loud what the entire world knows – that networking runs wholly on tiny gifts and blatant flattery, or the pretentious Gawker article insulting this lady for saying the truth in a really crass way.

I guess I'm stuck between attractive, pompous lying, or abrasive truthfulness. Either way I just lost all my coffee break reading time. I feel disgruntled. Who do I send my handwritten note to for that?

pissy elliott (#397)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston Hm, networking as flattery doesn't bug me, but the shrieking self-superiority of the author does.

@pissy elliott Yeah that's a definite issue. Ironically, it seems like she should have begged a friend to edit this piece.

(then rewarded him/her with a full-colour box set of the Dune series of books, with Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck commemorative holographic bookmark).

pissy elliott (#397)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston Thank you for your lovely comment. I have sent you a collection of Reader's Digest adaptations of the ALA's Best 100 books of the 20th Century. DHL tracking data to follow.

@pissy elliott I shall accept. In seven years, when I start to read them, I will send you an embossed linen card on a small silver plate that simply reads "thanks" in raised letters. The understated elegance of such a statement will suggest that you never forget me. Then at coffee parties, funk conferences and academic mandolin outings, I'll regale my companions with tales of the wild menteeing I received in my youth. "Oh the gifts we would give!" "Oh the nicknacks!" "a celebration of youth in all it's vigour!" I shall cry, then hurl myself off a small footpath into the undergrowth, stripping to my loincloth.

JuicyBanana (#233,018)

This article baffles me. Is it an ad of some sort? I'm not buying any, thanks.

Lizawithazee (#232,209)

I always thought of a mentor as someone who works with you over a long period of time. When someone asks me for help for one thing I think of that as, you know, HELPING someone.

@Lizawithazee: Yeah, this is not mentoring at all. It's asking for a favor. I've both mentored (like you say, working with someone over time in a way that helps them develop as a professional) and been asked for "favors" from those who are just starting out (career advice, letters of rec, etc), and she's definitely describing the latter. In either case, I never expect a handwritten note or even that they keep in touch, although it's nice when they do. The rest of her advice about advice about favor asking is pretty good, though.

@Lizawithazee Correct. This is not mentoring.

Lemonnier (#14,611)

Only contact The Brain on the third Tuesday of the month, and only when temperatures will be between 10-30 degrees Celsius. Do not make eye contact with The Brain; the appropriate stance is rearward pants-wise, accompanied by three crisp wa-barks. If The Brain then presents, you may approach and hand The Brain your request written in dove's blood on a linen napkin.

Antonius Block (#233,021)

Great. I'm going to mail each of my mentors a printed copy of this article, a limited-edition collector's platinum Monty Python gift set, and a handwritten note that says "Thank you so much for having a mutually respectful and caring relationship with me, rather than being a condescending jackass who views me as a leech and a waste of your time."

Kate Croy (#973)

This isn't mentoring, it's ritualized smarm for assholes: a primer.

Amphora (#231,928)

George: I still don't understand this. Abby has a mentor?
Jerry: Yes. And the mentor advises the protege.
George: Is there any money involved?
Jerry: No.
George: So what's in it for the mentor?
Jerry: Respect, admiration, prestige.
George: Pssh.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

This is just one silly lady's opinion but: much better than these false "mentorships" from people you don't really know is to just do damn good work for someone you like and respect, and make sure the basis for your liking and respecting them is that they are genuinely kind and caring people who believe that their influence is a thing that should be shared with other smart, capable people. Then all you've got to do is demonstrate that. And even if it doesn't work out, you walk away feeling like you learned something from the experience. And not like you just got scammed by an evil soulless asshole.

Logan5 (#233,031)

I found this piece informative! You spelled out things I'd always suspected. I might differ on the hand written thank-you note rule. You'd have to be sly about getting their snail mail address without bothering them (again).

skahammer (#587)

I would happily sell any mentor of mine to a kidney-thieving syndicate in exchange for a job.

I am so glad I was not the only one to feel this was pretentious and irritating. There's helping, and there's long-term mentoring. And there's some kind of hybrid weird cliche of a schmoozing thing, where the Brain is an arrogant jerk and the Picker is an ass-licking creep. Which this article described perfectly!

xxAnniexx (#233,073)

This one time, I said "eat your brains" instead of "pick your brains".

megan8hens (#233,095)

@xxAnniexx lol

this is a great story, thank you! interesting tips that i will implement right away

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Always capitalize Mentor so you don't make some fool think there is a word "mentee".

rouxpreiz (#240,824)

As part of an assignment for research I have to find an article with relevant information on this topic and give the teacher our opinion and the article. Your article helped me a lot.

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