Let's Not Lose Mentorship: What the Entrepreneurial Spirit Might Be Missing

Is there enough mentorship in business?

I worry that there isn't. In the course of my career, I've had very few professional relationships that I would put in the mentorship category. Very early in my publishing career, my boss was a woman who taught me all her principles of organization, which largely ground the theories and principles I wrote about in my book Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life, but in many ways, that teaching was unexpected. I'm pretty sure she saw it as procedural training, more along the lines of "this is how we do things" than "I'm giving you skills that you will grow and which will become the focal point of your future work."

The entrepreneurial spirit I see particularly in the technology sector values sandbox play. People believe they will be praised for experimentation and iteration. There's a shared cultural sense that trying something new by creating original apps, gadgets, services, and "solutions" (I hate that word used in that context) has inherent value.

But I also see entrepreneurs making tremendous mistakes by not paying attention to what came before, and I wonder if more mentorship would help.

Here's an example: An app developer designs and builds a wonderful productivity tool, but the interface doesn't conform to standards that have already been set by other very similar apps. That's a case where originality isn't the best route. The developer would have saved himself or herself so much time and effort by mirroring the best practices in interaction design rather than trying to create them from scratch, or riffing off them rather than just following suit. A good mentor would have advised, "Just steal the best of what already exists for this part. Don't waste your time trying to reinvent it. The problem has already been solved elegantly, and deviating from that elegance looks sloppy and rash--not inspirational." Perhaps giving advice at that deep level of detail sounds more like the work of a consultant or beta test group than a mentor, but maybe not.

I know of some acquaintances who have very formal mentorships. They meet with their mentors a few times a year, usually over lunch, to discuss the course of their career in broad strokes. Some companies have formal mentorship programs, although I've only ever heard about them. I've never worked for an organization that actually does it.

How do we foster more mentorship in a society that almost irrationally lauds anyone who has succeeded without help and by trying something radical and new? Those cases are extremely exceptional, and I don't think we should look to them as anything but that.

Do you have a mentor? How does the relationship work? Is it a formal or informal mentorship, and what have you learned, or how have you been guided?

Writers Get to Be Whatever They Want

When people ask me why I love my job so much, I always say, "because I learn. I learn every day. It never stops."

I think of myself as a writer first, and a writer covering technology second. The technology part is important, though. There are other fields of writing where I think I would learn less, or at least at a much slower rate, than I do now.

There are other reasons I gush about my job, of course, but I think learning is inherent to writing. Anyone who is averse to new ideas, or who doesn't like being challenged, or who prefers to stick within their comfort zones will be a rather poor writer.

Even though I write about technology primarily, I don't feel like my life course as a writer is at all set on that subject. I love the notion that writers aren't expected to be experts in their subject matter, at least not at first anyway. It may come later, though.

Take Steven J. Dubner, best known for writing Freakonomics and hosting the Freakonomics podcast. His co-author, Steven Levitt, is an economics professor. Plenty of the people Dubner interviews are experts in economics and psychology. But he doesn't have a degree in economics at all. He holds an M.F.A. in writing (if I recall, it's in creative writing, although I couldn't find a source confirming it) from Columbia University.

Another example is Joshua Foer, a writer who, in researching and drafting the book Moonwalking With Einstein, studied the art of memorization to the point that he tried it himself and won the U.S.A. Memory Championship. Would he now be considered a memory expert? To some extent, absolutely. Is that the be-all, end-all for him? Not by a long shot.

Alain de Botton, another writer I deeply respect, has become a semi-expert in more areas than I know. He often writes about the philosophy of something, although that "something" changes all the time. To research one of his books about travel, for example, he lived inside Heathrow airport for a week. But he's absolutely not "just a travel writer," as is evident by his other books, such as Art as Therapy and Status Anxiety.

I think about this concept any time someone says, "If I could do college/university all over again, I'd study..." I never suffer from undergraduate-major regret. I could write about architecture, or engineering, or sociology at any time, as long as I pitched it right. For writers, it's never too late to learn something new. We get to learn and be whatever we want.