Mentor is a word I’ve seen thrown around willy nilly in the freelancing community lately, but none of the people I’ve seen using it appear to actually know what a mentor is. So this is my public service announcement to try and correct that.
As my blog, business, and social media presence have grown, I have started receiving messages, primarily on LinkedIn, from people asking me for advice on freelance writing. Now, that’s great. I am happy to answer a question or two from someone who has stumbled across my blog or business. However, these messages have a very different flavor. I can tell these people have only read maybe one post or just read my portfolio because they are asking me general questions that have already been thoroughly discussed in recent posts. Even then, no big deal. I don’t mind directing them to the correct blog post at all. But these people aren’t just after an answer or two, or a helpful link. No, they want me to guide them through creating their own business. They say things like, “I am seeking a mentor to get me started in the freelancing business, and I’m wondering if you’re interested.” I am also a part of a few freelance writer Facebook groups. The whole purpose of these groups is to ask a question and get it answered by a number of talented freelancers. But in just the past week, I’ve seen two posts that fail to ask any specific question and instead just explain a little about what they want out of freelancing and then say, “Anyone interested in being my mentor?”
My answer to these messages and posts is always something like, “I would love to act as a consultant and guide you through the start-up process. I can help you find a niche, get some samples, and help you start pitching effectively. If you’re interested in entering the field of editing and ghostwriting books, I can give you targeted advice that you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. My consulting fee is $50 an hour. If you want to know a bit more about my business and what I do, you can check out my website at www.purpleinkpen.com.”
When I send this message via LinkedIn, I never get a response back. When I post it on a Facebook board, my comment gets ignored (Except by the group administrator, who “liked” it, haha. She knows where I’m coming from.). These people are looking for free labor and calling it mentorship. And that’s just screwed up.
No, a real mentor does not charge you anything, but a real mentor is not a total stranger that you approached out of the blue.
Mentor vs. Consultant
A mentorship is an organic relationship that builds over time between you and someone you admire. There are all different types of mentors. It’s great to have a mentor in all areas of your life, whether it be your personal life, your education, your hobbies, or your career. I’m going to focus on career mentors in this post because this blog is about freelancing.
A career mentor is someone in your field whom you admire and who in turn sees something special in you and wishes to nurture it. The payment that changes hands is not monetary, but you are each getting something great out of it. As the mentee, you get personalized guidance that keeps you encouraged and moving forward in your career. The mentor gets to pass on his or her knowledge to help ensure a new generation has the skills to continue the field he/she has deemed important and valuable. Hopefully, once you reach a certain level of achievement in that field, you can in turn give back to your mentor.
I met my mentor in college. He was my professor in a class called literary editing and publishing. The focus of the class was to produce the university’s literary journal, The Sequoya Review. I loved the class because it was very close to what I had recently decided I wanted to do with my life: create and edit books. I suppose he admired my goody-two-shoes, always turn in homework on time, always have my hand in the air like Hermione personality because it made his job easier and more enjoyable. He made me the head of the proofreading team as a result.
When I had to have an internship as a credit requirement second semester of senior year, I went to him to see if he knew anybody who ran a publishing house or something similar in Chattanooga who might be interested in an intern. He gave me one name, but he also said, “I could use an intern.” It turned out he owned a small printing company that produced literary journals, mostly, and occasionally a novel. Perfect. And he was a professor, so I wouldn’t have any trouble getting him to fill out all the silly paperwork and sign offs the “class” required.
I worked as his intern for a whole semester, and he taught me how to format books for print and digital release in Adobe InDesign. Once I’d learned the basics, he’d assign me things to cut back on his workload. When he learned I wanted to be an editor, he also allowed me to proofread a personal project that he was doing as a favor for his father. That was one of the first jobs in my portfolio. Later on, he paid me to proofread a novel written by his colleague and friend. It was one of my first paid gigs. When he learned that I wrote fiction, he asked if I’d like to exchange manuscripts for critique. Wow. That was the first time someone who had actually been published took interest in my work. Really, the only time my work had been critiqued before that was in university workshops with fellow students who were required to critique it. It was also the first time anyone had asked for my opinions on their work. His critiques and encouragement helped me to get the courage to submit a novel for publication for the first time ever. His critique also helped me get a short story published. Needless to say, we kept meeting in coffee shops long past the completion of the internship requirement and a mentorship was born.
Just in the past week, I finished reworking that novel I’d submitted (which had been rejected), and I asked if I could pay him to proofread and analyze it before I submitted again or self-published (I’m still not sure which I’ll do). He said, “How about we just exchange novels and forget money?” I’m now proofreading his novel in addition to just giving my thoughts, and I actually feel like I’m doing him a service in return because, thanks to him, I got my first bit of experience that helped me build my career and skills. Four years after I met him and about three years after this mentorship really started, I’m now a professional, offering him a professional service in exchange for his professional service.
That is what mentorship is. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen because you sent an email to a stranger. When I read a message from someone whose face I’ve never seen and whose name I’ve never heard asking, “Want to be my mentor?” My immediate answer is, “Uh, no, dude. I don’t even know you.” (Yes, all of them have been men thus far.)
A mentorship is also about give and take. It may take a while for the mentee to truly give back, but the mentor guides that person in the knowledge that someday that relationship will become more equal. People sending unsolicited, “Be my mentor” greeting cards just want to take, take, take, and yet they run when money in exchange for that service is mentioned? How does that make sense?
A consultant is someone who is in the same field as you and who is successful. You want to be like that person. You want to do what they do, and you want to know how they did it. They are super busy, don’t know you, but you want to get answers from them quickly so you can get started. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with reaching out to ask for their help. However, you’d better be prepared to pay them! Their time is valuable. They don’t know you. Yet, you want something from them. If you think their advice will be valuable to you, why shouldn’t you expect to pay for it?
Potentially, a consultant can eventually turn into a mentor (though I’d say that’s pretty rare, as you’re a client to them), but you have to let that happen naturally, and pay them in the meantime.
In last week’s post on investing in your business, I talked about investing in relevant courses. If you find someone who is doing exactly what you want to do and who is making lots of money from it, you may want to hire them as a consultant/coach instead of buying a course. That’s a totally viable option. If that person has time to offer you that service, you’ll get targeted, 100% individualized advice and step-by-step help. However, be aware that you’re going to pay extra for that personalized touch. Consultants charge by the hour, and the super successful, six-figure freelancers who offer consulting are going to charge more than I do because they have more experience. I’m talking $100-$200 an hour easy. If you’re down with that, go for it. I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it.
How Do I Find a Mentor?
While there is no one answer because a mentor-mentee relationship is organic, there are a few ways you can set yourself up for mentorship, if you will. I can tell you that you don’t just put up a want ad “Seeking Mentor.” You definitely don’t send out a message that essentially says, “Hey, I know you don’t know me, but do you want to spend a whole lot of your time giving me advice for free so I can be successful?”
Instead, surround yourself with people in your field. Take a class, join a group—anything that gets you around other freelancers, writers, editors, whatever. While I think a mentor you can interact with in person is probably a bit better, you can find a mentor through online correspondence. Just not instantly. Ask questions in those forums and Facebook groups, but ask one specific question at a time. You’ll get answers back from a lot of people, and then you can take note of whose answer helped you the most. Connect with that person on another platform, read their work, tell them what you thought, thank them for helping you. This rule applies whether you met the person online or not.
Is there a certain blogger you admire and would love to connect with? Comment on their posts. Get them familiar with your name and face. If they accept guest posts, reach out with a pitch that you think would be interesting for their readers. That’s helping them out. That’s a give and take. That will get you noticed, and then maybe that person will check out your stuff, see potential, and want to nurture it.
The key in a mentorship is building a relationship of mutual respect. Instant gratification is not part of the process. Network, meet people, and try to always provide the people you meet with something of value. Listen to and learn from the people who you believe provide you with something of value. Out of that and that alone, a mentorship can grow.