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The Myth Of The Mentor, And Why Today’s Most Successful People Are Networking Differently

“It’s depressing for many ambitious people to ask someone for mentorship, just to get a bunch of advice they could have found on YouTube,” said Eric Koester, author of Super Mentors, a serial tech entrepreneur, and professor at Georgetown University.

“Frankly, I think people are tired of advice.”

Koester’s frustration with the advice economy led him on a self-described journey to figure out the origins of successful mentor relationships. “There are tons of mentor matching events, books on finding a mentor, and so many movies, from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Matrix, which are built on this outdated mentor myth. What we don’t understand is the origin of mentor relationships. If you’re looking for a job, a promotion, or a new opportunity, you want to figure out how to find your own mentor to help with that.”

Koester hoped to find out how anyone could find their own Super Mentor.

His research led him to study more than 142 of the world’s most successful people in business, film, entertainment, finance, politics, and science. He came to a surprising conclusion.

“Great mentors don’t give you advice; they give you opportunities.”

In his new book Super Mentors: The Ordinary Person’s Guide to Asking Extraordinary People for Help, Koester partnered with entrepreneur Adam Saven, the founder of People Grove, a modern mentoring software company that has worked with millions of people. “I realized very quickly that when you talk to people about mentors, most simply roll their eyes,” Koester shared. “It’s gotten this stigma of being something you probably need, but just need to get lucky.”

Koester found that it was far from luck for the most successful people. Mentees leveraged mentors to create opportunities for themselves. It was quite opposite of the traditional view where a mentee is plucked from obscurity and shepherded to success by a wise, older figure.

Koester writes about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and the author of Lean In. “Sandberg has spoken extensively about how her mentor, Harvard professor Larry Summers, guided her career and offered her the life-altering opportunities she had at the World Bank and Treasury Department. However, most people don’t know that it was Sheryl who cultivated that relationship. She invited him to particulate in a new student club, got him involved, had him as a speaker, and created the opportunities for herself. She was not plucked.”

Super Mentors builds a modern framework for mentees built on principles of today’s networked and interconnected era. The book described it as “aim higher, ask smaller, and do it again and again.” As Koester shared, Sandberg wasn’t waiting for Summers to pluck her out of obscurity or hoping to meet him at some networking event. “Sandberg knew what she needed, designed a project that allowed her to collaborate with exceptional people, and then engaged numerous people in the effort, one of whom happened to become her Super Mentor.”

Adam Saven agrees with the sentiment, finding clear evidence of a shift in mentoring that too many people miss. “Most mentors grew up in an era where being a mentor is this heavy lift — almost like being someone’s coach. What we find in our data is that people who are actively cultivating multiple relationships with casual mentors — usually five or more — feel much more confident in their abilities to succeed in their lives and careers.”

Saven, a member of the prestigious Forbes 30 under 30 list featuring today’s best entrepreneurs, innovators, entertainers, scientists, and influencers, saw firsthand how his peers on that list leveraged a network of casual mentors to succeed. 

“We just think differently about mentors,” Saven admits. “Why have one mentor when you can have lots of people around you to help out in small and sometimes big ways?”

Koester’s research affirmed that sense, finding that more than 80% of the members of the Forbes 30 under 30 list had a demonstrable project early in their careers that allowed them to build these networks of mentors. “Many never had formal mentors,” Koester concluded, “but it was clear that they leveraged modern mentorship to accelerate their lives in dramatic ways. We wanted to debunk the myth of mentors being a single person from your college network. Mentors are dynamic relationships that ebb and flow, ultimately creating amazing opportunities if done right.”

Super Mentors weaves these stories of well-known names from Warren Buffett and Richard Branson to Sally Ride and Oprah Winfrey into a practical, hands-on guide for any ambitious individual. While it certainly will appeal to individuals in the first phases of their careers seeking jobs, starting companies, or looking for rapid acceleration of their careers, there are powerful insights about peer mentorship and networking, skill building through mentors, and even how to become a better mentor yourself. I was reminded of books like Atomic Habits from James Clear, Think Again by Adam Grant, and The Third Door by Alex Banayan. Each of them left me dog-earing pages and quoting sections to send to others.

Eric Koester and Adam Saven have spent years honing the art and science of modern mentorship. This engaging, hands-on book is the guide you need to stop hunting for a mentor and create relationships that unlock your potential.

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