Mentoring is an ideal and necessary part of the learning process.

Mentors are people who give time and energy to share knowledge, skills, and abilities with others. Finding good mentors and becoming a good mentor are both key elements in self-directed learning.

It's never too early (or too late) to find or become a mentor. Just the other day, I saw my five-year-old son enthusiastically showing a friend how to play the piano. My son isn't an accomplished painist. In fact, just that same day or the day before he had gained the knowledge he was sharing with such gusto. He had no teaching certifications, no professional licenses to teach. It was enough that he knew more than his friend and that he was excited for the opportunity to share.

mentoring on the pianoThis enthusiasm for learning and for sharing what we know comes naturally. Too often, we lose it as we get older and have negative experiences with learning. We lose confidence in our ability to share, and we lose confidence that we have something important to share.

But the truth is that you have much to learn from good mentors and you also have the ability to be a good mentor. Really, all you need to find a good mentor is to find someone who knows more than you do on a subject and who is willing to share. The mentor might be older than you are, or the mentor might be younger. And to be a good mentor, all you really need is the willingness to share what you know.

Here are some more detailed steps on choosing a mentor:

  1. Usually it’s best to start by determining what you want to learn. Even though you start with a goal in mind, be open to learning that will come unexpectedly.
  2. Keep your eyes open. Look around you. Watch for people who are good at what they do. See what people are good at and what they enjoy doing. (Often, it is easiest to find a mentor among the people you already know.)
  3. Look for someone with integrity. People who have integrity are anchored in the principles they believe in. They follow through on what they say they are going to do. They have a strong moral core. These are all key qualities of an effective mentor.
  4. Look for people who have experience in what you are interested in.
  5. Find someone who has strengths that you lack.
  6. Determine what you would like to learn from the mentoring relationship. As a self-directed learner, you define and propose the scope of the mentoring relationship. You also need to be teachable and be willing to be taught. Be willing to listen carefully and follow the advice that applies to your situation.
  7. Be clear about your goals and what you would like to learn from the mentoring relationship. Describe how you would like to go about learning the knowledge, skill, or ability that you seek.

Once you've chosen a mentor, how do you set up opportunities to learn from that person? Usually, it's not very effective to walk up to a person and say, "Will you be my mentor?" That kind of question is not specific enough to be helpful. Instead, try these steps:

  1. Get to know the person; be a friend.
  2. Learn what is already available. If the potential mentor is an author, read his book. If other information on the topic is available, become familiar with it. Don’t expect the mentor to do the work you can and should be doing on your own.
  3. Ask for advice. Often, it’s better to couch a question in specific terms: “Can I work for free in your shop for two weeks? I want to learn about graphic design (or robotics or metal fabrication or whatever).” Or ask a direct question, “I’d like to learn about grant writing. Do you have any recommendations about books or resources I could use?” Or, “You seem to be really interested in math and good at it too. Can you recommend the best resources for learning about the history of mathematics?” Or “How do I set up this business idea? What are the first steps?”
  4. Be considerate of your mentor’s time. Follow through on his or her recommendations. Do your part.
  5. Show gratitude.

The last item is especially important. Show gratitude by listening respectfully and following instructions. Show gratitude by doing your part. Show gratitude by thanking your mentor. And, finally, show gratitude by being willing to mentor others.