Mentorship is a two way street
2020 was a pretty challenging year for everyone–physically, financially, and emotionally. If you’re looking for a meaningful way to give back to the community in 2021 that doesn’t involve money or political conversations (or honestly, even putting on real pants), consider becoming a mentor. I know this may sound counterintuitive, especially if you’re feeling burned out or sluggish right now, but as I share below, mentorship isn’t just a service you’re providing to someone else–it’s a gift you can give yourself, too.
The Importance of Mentorship
I’ll never forget the day, about three years into my young and ambitious advertising career, when I was working as a copywriter on an in-house team at Tribune Publishing—and my Creative Director lovingly (and in hindsight, maybe strategically) tossed the 2006 AdAge Creativity issue onto my desk. It was their 20th anniversary edition, and featured both a prominent cover, and multi-page spread, of the “50 most creative people” of the last two decades.
As I studied the 10 faces who adorned the larger-than-life cover, and excitedly turned to the feature inside to discover who else had made their list, my heart unexpectedly sank, and my stomach physically tensed. I flipped back to cover again. Then back to the spread. Then started pointing, one by one, at each of the faces that were pictured. Of the 50 individuals celebrated in this highly-regarded industry magazine—in one of its most prominent issues of the time—can you guess how many of its honorees were women? (Or any other non-white-male denomination, for that matter.)
Actually, I’m sure you can.
Even back then, before The 3% Conference shed light on the extreme lack of female creative leadership in advertising, and before we all theoretically became more “woke,” I subconsciously recognized there was something wrong with the balance of opportunity, power, and representation in advertising. Those 50 men featured in AdAge were incredible creatives, to be sure, but where were all the women? Who was I—a young, ambitious, 5-foot-1-inch overachiever—supposed to look up to? (Insert height joke here: ”I look up to everyone!”) I could read all the books, study all the work, and take on every assignment that would come my way, but where would I learn the intangibles? Was I supposed to just accept that a bunch of 50-year-old white dudes were the best role models I could find?
This may sound incredibly egotistical, but that’s when I decided that I was going to “be someone.” Not just a great creative, but a leader. A person whom, years later, other young creatives could look up to. I had no idea how the hell I was going to get there, especially considering that my fledgling career, up till that point, was hardly the stuff of legends.
But my 24-year-old-self had BIG DREAMS. Even if I never made it to the cover of AdAge, I would “be the person I needed when I was younger.”
Becoming a Mentor
That’s why earlier this year, when I saw how many students and young professionals were struggling—having their internships get canceled, watching their post-graduation hiring plans dissolve, not being able to keep a steady stream of freelance work going—I decided to dive into three different programs and become a mentor, however that role would take shape.
I truly enjoy sharing all of the things I’ve learned over the last two decades with all the students I meet—insights about the industry, the creative mind, interpersonal relationships, human psychology, strategy, persuasion, my perceptions of others, even my expectations of myself. Had someone opened my eyes to all of these complex concepts when I was younger, I probably would have done a lot of things differently.
Maybe I would have had more confidence in myself (which may seem shocking, given this post, but while I had big dreams early in my career, I was also really good friends with Imposter Syndrome). I definitely would have spoken up more when my ideas were dismissed, but done so with logic and evidence, not just reactivity and emotion. I would have learned how to play “the corporate game” earlier, so that I could change it from the inside. I would have purposefully studied strategy before it was something I was forced to learn (but now love) in order to do my job well. I would have networked more. I would have physically worked less—at least, less from my couch at 11pm. I would have searched for greater meaning from my work, the kind of meaning I found at Media Cause, to help balance the seemingly unavoidable burnout that our industry still considers the cost of achieving success.
These are the kinds of challenges and realities I often talk to my mentees about. (Does anyone else find the word “mentee” awkward? Or remind you of Mentos, the Freshmaker?) Yes, we discuss creative and craft, practice and process, networking and skill-building, too. But to some degree, I believe those are the tactical parts and pieces of the puzzle that, if you’re serious about getting somewhere in this industry, you’ll naturally pick up along the way. It’s those other concepts and lessons—the ones that blur the lines between personal discovery and professional wisdom—that are so much harder to identify and explore on your own.
Programs for Mentorship
I am so grateful for all the programs and organizations like We Are Next, VCU CampADventure, The One Club’s Portfolio Review, Plywood People, AAF, and the AEF, which have made it possible for students from all over the country (with the exception of Plywood, which pairs subject matter experts with social entrepreneurs) to participate in hands-on learning, and connect with more mentors and industry leaders, than was ever really possible before. In some ways, many of the students I’ve met remind me of my younger self, hungry for knowledge and experience. But in other ways, they’re strikingly different. I was pretty naive when I first started out, and in true Mary Tyler Moore fashion, believed I was going to simply “make it after all!” because I was willing to work hard and claw my way through. These students already know that the world is much more complicated than that. They’ve seen more than their fair share of social, environmental, political and economic challenges, and their perspective on the world has been intimately shaped by it.
Learnings as a Mentor
If I’m being honest, while I entered the mentorship game to give back, I’m probably getting just as much, if not more, out of the experience than the students I’m meeting with. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been asked a question that I didn’t have an immediate answer to (I am not easily stumped), and have been challenged to rethink some preconceived notion I’ve subconsciously brought to the conversation. I’m constantly struck by the self-awareness these students already have at such a young age—way more than I did when I was in their shoes. Yet despite all the things that should make them feel frustrated or discouraged, they’re still incredibly optimistic about the future. In seeing the industry through their unjaded eyes, I’ve found myself discovering untapped pockets of potential for my own personal and professional growth, too.
I plan on continuing to keep my virtual door open for as long as my mentees will have me, and hope to find more programs to join in the coming year. Besides all the warm, fuzzy, introspective stuff, working with students is really just a whole lot of fun. And while I may never be named one of AdAge’s “50 most creative people” (there’s still time, right?), just knowing that I’m making some small difference in the industry, and to these amazing individuals, is a pretty damn great honor of its own.
Not sure where to get started? Check out the RiseUP Marketing Fellowship from Media Cause and Social Good Labs. We’re looking for agency partners, and individual mentors, to share their knowledge and experience with our next cohort of fellows.