The Social Politics of Mentoring

I’ve written about the challenges of finding a mentor previously, Why the cool kids won’t hang out with you.

Let’s be frank, if you are old and pumping gas, not too many people are interested in you as a mentor, but the last few years have been good here at The Julia Group, and the dozen years before that didn’t suck either. I’ve gotten millions in grants funded, started a couple of companies. Just this year, I have a new game out to teach kids mathpublished a book on martial arts and another chapter in a book on Real Talk from Real Women, was listed in Forbes as one of the 40 women to watch over 40 – and that’s nowhere near everything. It’s been wild.

The more successes I have, and the older I get, the more I am asked to serve either formally or informally as a mentor to younger people. This could be anything from hiring someone for their first job to looking over a grant proposal. Regardless, there are far more requests than I could possibly ever manage to meet.

I try to do as much as I can, in part because I did benefit from some wonderful mentors when I was younger. I also try to do as much as I can because I am well aware that I did not get nearly as much mentoring as people who came from more advantaged circumstances, and that I could have done more in my career, and sooner if I’d had the benefits of more mentoring. (I can already hear my sister saying, “Christ! You have a Ph.D., company president, founded a start-up and won a world championships, what more do you want? President of Harvard? Secretary of State?” Maybe. That’s not the point.)

Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that there are characteristics that probably make it hard to find a mentor.

1. If you are the opposite gender of the majority of the senior people in your field, it’s harder.

When a younger person of the opposite sex shows an interest in someone they may be uncomfortable for several reasons:

  1. They find this person attractive and that is uncomfortable in general. Most people in their fifties really don’t want to be involved with someone 20 years younger.
  2. They are afraid this person finds them attractive and have the sense to realize it is only due to their position, and they are not interested anyway.
  3. They are worried that their colleagues will misinterpret the relationship and they care about their reputation.
  4. They are worried that their spouse/ significant other will misinterpret the relationship and want to keep the peace at home.
  5. The younger person subconsciously or deliberately flirts and tries to use their youth/ attractiveness to appeal to a mentor.

Sex is a part of life and railing about how it is unfair isn’t going to get you anywhere. The unfortunate fact is that it’s usually impossible to tell whether your failure to connect with a potential mentor is due to one of those factors or that they are just plain too busy. The only one you can do anything personally about is the last one. I’ve seen people get some mentoring that way, usually attractive women, but sometimes men in female-dominated fields. Even if it works to get you some attention from a mentor or two, though, don’t fool yourself that it won’t be noticed by your peers that you are almost literally kissing up to older men. There will also be potential mentors who are very put off by that behavior.

I don’t know if for some young people that is just the only experience they have of interacting with the opposite sex other than their immediate family. Here is my suggestion, when you meet a potential mentor, treat that person like the mother or father of a good friend. If you went home for spring break with your college roommate, you didn’t call their mom or dad “Honey”,  you didn’t invite them out for  a drink, you didn’t touch them other than to shake their hand and you probably didn’t wear anything your Grandma would not have approved of.

The other thing you can do to address points 2-4 is to get an introduction. If you call someone up and say your Uncle Bob or your advisor from graduate school, Dr. Schmoe recommended you talk with someone, they are a lot more likely to accurately interpret your interest and they are more likely to make time for you out of respect for Uncle Bob/ Dr. Schmoe.

2. If you grew up poor or in a minority community, it’s harder

There are two reasons for this. One is that you don’t have the family and community connections that will get you an introduction. You don’t have an Uncle Bob or a Dr. Schmoe who lives next door. The second is that your potential mentors are busy, and they are more likely to make time for people they hit it off with. Yes, I believe you are awesome, interesting, smart and hard-working. However, another fact of life is that we all have people will feel more or less comfortable around.

I have a daughter who just made a couple of movies and she is around a lot of what I call “Hollywood people”. They all talk about stuff that I know nothing about and could care less, who they were on this movie with – I almost never watch movies and I never know who any of these people are. They have had “work done” so they don’t have the same wrinkles, grey hair and scarred knees that I have. They ask me things like, “Oh, is that dress a Donna Karan?” and I answer, “No, it’s black.”

My point is that if I could pick any of those people to hang out with or you, I pick you. And there are some smart, hard-working, interesting people in that crowd, I am sure. They are just not the type of people I want to hang out with.

I will give you three recommendations for what you can do. First, try to fit in somewhat. I actually do own some things made by Armani, Steve Madden, Calvin Klein, Ann Taylor and Ralph Lauren that I try  to remember to wear instead of my jeans from The Gap when I know I’m going somewhere to meet with people like that. There are more cutting edge, high-end designers but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. I’ve given up on the name-dropping thing. Upon being introduced, I just say, “Sorry, if you’re mega-famous and I’ve never heard of you. I’m a statistician.” That is usually all the explanation they need. Second, do get an introduction – from your faculty members, from friends of a friend. I have hired several people over the years because they knew one of my children.

Third – Ask! You are going to have to be more proactive. The people you want to mentor you are busy and they have lots of people asking for their help and advice. They are not going to seek you out. Ask for introductions. I work on two American Indian reservations. Over the years, I have hired or worked with people because a parent, aunt or uncle called me up and recommended them. Ask your family members, your teachers if they know anyone who is looking for an intern/ can give you advice on college/ career advice, etc. Ask for help. I get far more requests to co-author papers, review grants, hire entry-level employees and even meet for coffee than I could ever do – but I notice that the people who have the fewest mentors in their lives seem to ask for it the least, perhaps because they don’t realize that they should.


It’s past two a.m. so that’s it.

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