Author’s Note: After finishing this article, if you’re interested in going deeper into the concept of mentorship (and how to connect with one), I recommend following up with these two articles:
- How to Go From Cold Contact to Your Ideal Mentor In Seven Simple Steps
- IMDbPro For Networking: The 10 Features That Will Take Your Outreach to a New Level
Mentorship is an elusive concept. There are so many different ways to define what a mentor could be that it’s nearly impossible to describe in simple terms how to find one. Especially in the “Digital Age” of the 21st century, mentorship can take on many different forms that stretch far beyond the traditional definition of an “expert” working with you one-on-one.
Mentorship can be listening to podcasts or reading articles (including reading articles like this one about mentorship…very meta).
Mentorship can be online forums or communities in Slack or Discord.
Mentorship can be taking online courses or joining mastermind groups.
And mentorship can also be in the form of online coaching.
For the sake of this article I would like to approach the concept of mentorship from the more traditional sense of building a one-on-one relationship with an “expert” (more on the importance of properly defining the term “expert” later) who can provide you with specific knowledge, teach you skills that will shorten your learning curve, and guide you along the right path so you can achieve your goals faster.
Narrowing down mentorship to an in-person relationship still doesn’t completely simplify the process, however.
Is mentorship a single meeting (or Zoom chat) where you can “grab coffee and pick someone’s brain?”
Is mentorship multiple meetings with someone actively engaged with your life that you stay in contact with over months (or years) who’s readily available to answer any questions when you have them?
Or is mentorship a lifelong, meaningful friendship where your mentor gives you a 1947 Ford Super Deluxe for your 16th birthday and saves your life by teaching you the crane kick? (maybe that’s just my dream?)
In short, the answer is…all of the above.
Mr. Miyagi, one of the most iconic fictional mentors in cinema history
Which form of mentorship you intend to pursue and the person who is the right fit for your goals is completely dependent on:
- Where you are in your journey
- Your knowledge gaps, i.e. what you don’t know yet (or more importantly what you don’t know you don’t know)
- How much hands-on assistance you require (and how ambitious your goals are)
If you want to better understand how to build genuine relationships with the right people who can help you achieve your goals, keep reading because we’re about to go deep into the concept of mentorship.
The Three Different Types of Mentors
Let’s begin by identifying the three different types of mentors to make sure the person (or people) you intend to pursue will be the right fit for your goals.
William Miller having a lunch meeting with Lester Bangs from ‘Almost Famous’
The “Meet & Greet” Mentor
No matter the stage of your journey, if you have knowledge gaps and unanswered questions about your next steps, the simplest form of outreach to begin with is to set up a meeting or two with someone who most likely has the answers you seek. This is the simple “meet & greet” version of mentorship that can often be done over a Zoom call or by grabbing coffee or lunch. This form of mentorship could also be a shadowing opportunity.
An example could be the 30-minute calls I’ve done with members of the Blue Collar Post Collective community (BCPC is AMAZING at connecting mentors with mentees, btw) or the many lunches I’ve hosted in the past with graduate students in the USC Cinema Arts program. Once or twice per year the USC faculty matches me up with a student, and we set up a time to meet where we get to know each other over the course of a ninety minute lunch. In that short period I’m happy to donate my time & expertise and answer any pressing questions they have about the next stages in their journey. Then I might hear from them again a few days or weeks later, or more often I never hear from them again (a HUGE missed opportunity, btw).
While there’s nothing wrong with a quick “meet & greet” as it helps you shorten your learning curve and get answers to specific questions, I believe there’s an opportunity for a deeper relationship to form over time which could potentially lead to finding a “Sherpa” who periodically guides you along your path, similar to the path they successfully traversed at one point in their own life.
The “Sherpa” Mentor
If you’re at an early stage of your journey, and you’re in a position where you not only seek answers but could also use a helping hand and sage advice to help you traverse the path, you might want to build a relationship with someone who has already accomplished what you hope to conquer next. Obi-Wan Kenobi supporting the journey of a young farmer on his quest to become a Jedi is one example of a “Sherpa” mentor.
A sherpa has walked the same path as you at one point and understands the obstacles you’re currently battling and can feel your pain (I call this ‘The Empathy Factor’). This empathy allows them to both better guide you and also connect with you on a deeper level so they become invested in helping you traverse your path safely and effectively. Developing this kind of mentor/mentee relationship requires patience, multiple interactions, and the persistence to stay in touch over time.
An example of “Sherpa” mentorship in my own life would be the relationship I have with Oscar-nominated editor Dody Dorn.
I reached out to Dody at the very beginning of my career in Los Angeles after watching Memento. I knew that editing films like Memento was what I wanted to do with my editing career, therefore it just made sense to connect with someone who could help me define the path that leads to my personal definition of success. Our relationship began with a simple “meet & greet” session in her edit bay, but because I knew I’d need Dody’s assistance far beyond answering a few simple questions, I continued to stay in touch and periodically set up lunches and phone calls whenever I required more guidance.
Dody and I have been friends for just short of twenty years now, and I still occasionally seek out her guidance and mentorship (with the converse true as the mentor has now become the mentee). I’ll periodically call her to ask about how to manage agents, job opportunities, and industry politics. Dody will call me to chat about vegan diets, height-adjustable workstations, and anything to keep her focused and energized during the long hours she puts in behind a computer.
In short, Dody and I connect once or twice per year, and we know that when either needs the other person’s advice, we are a quick phone call away. She’s a tremendous resource and a friend, and she has helped me avoid more than a few obstacles along my own path, but I wouldn’t necessarily place her in the same category as I might “Mr. Miyagi.”
The “Miyagi” Mentor
Before jumping all over me for zeroing in on Mr. Miyagi (clearly my obsession with Cobra Kai makes me biased), allow me to provide you a few alts to more clearly paint the picture:
Yoda & Luke Skywalker
Mickey & Rocky Balboa
Haymitch & Katniss Everdeen
Bud Fox & Gordon Gekko
Morpheus & Neo
Got the picture now?
If you are in the earlier stages of your journey and you have both unanswered questions and a need for assistance and sage advice along the way, as discussed above, you could benefit from both “Meet & Greet” and “Sherpa” mentorship.
But what if you’re in a position where you not only require answers to your questions and a helping hand, but also you’ve set a huge and audacious goal such that only a select few have ever accomplished what you hope to? In this case you need more than a lunch meeting or two, or even a sherpa. If you’re going to succeed, what you need is your own version of Mr. Miyagi (or Yoda, or Mickey, or Morpheus, etc etc etc).
A “Miyagi” mentor is one who can answer the many unanswered questions that you have, provide sage advice and guidance when you need it the most, and also be readily available to help you overcome the many challenges along the way.
An example of “Miyagi” mentorship would be when I decided at 38 years old I wanted to go From ‘Dad Bod’ to American Ninja Warrior. When I tipped the scales at over 200 pounds for the first time in my life, had I decided my goal was to lose 20 pounds and get back into shape, a simple Google search for “personal trainers in Woodland Hills” most likely would have gotten me the results I was looking for. But to become a full-fledged American Ninja Warrior at my age and skill level was going to require taking many difficult steps far beyond tweaking my diet and doing a few extra pull-ups per week. I was seeking total life transformation. Therefore I chose to seek out the best to become my ‘Ninja Mentor.’ It didn’t happen overnight, but within six months of declaring my goal I connected with P90X creator Tony Horton who has been my ninja mentor ever since.
The day I recorded my first podcast with Tony and our relationship began
Our relationship began with a simple “Meet & Greet” podcast interview where Tony helped me fill knowledge gaps and shorten my learning curve. After connecting the first time, I stayed in touch with Tony and would periodically reach out with an additional question or two to demonstrate I was listening and implementing his advice…thus transitioning him to more of a “Sherpa” mentor. Then when the time came to take the mentorship to the next level I secured an invite to one of his “Bloody Sunday” ninja workouts and busted my ass to prove I was ready for so much more. That’s when the “Miyagi” mentorship began.
Tony and I during a typical “Bloody Sunday” ninja workout
Tony and I now stay in touch on a weekly basis and train together in person (almost) every Sunday. Over the last several years our relationship has extended far beyond that of either “Meet & Greet” or “Sherpa” mentorship. We have become genuine friends, and this happened in part because I made it a point to always find ways to go above and beyond and provide as much value to him in exchange for all he has done for me (which has included literally sweeping his floors, cleaning his deck, and taking out his trash. It doesn’t get much more “Miyagi” than that).
Is the world-renowned ‘King of Fitness’ and the creator of P90X available to me 24/7 whenever I have fitness questions and ninja challenges? No, of course not. Tony is a busy and important guy, and I remain respectful of his time and expertise. But he has become an integral part of my American Ninja Warrior journey (not to mention my journey to become a better human being). And he’s there to all-but hold my hand through every step of the process along the way.
How to Define Your Version of an “Expert”
No doubt you have unanswered questions about the next steps in your journey, and most likely you’re not even sure what steps you should take next or what the path looks like for you. Now it’s time for you to identify and connect with the experts who can help you fill all those gaps so you can keep moving forwards.
Wait a second…am I saying that the only way you are going to find the right mentor for you is by reaching out to “experts?”
Don’t panic. I know it’s terrifying to put yourself out there and reach out to an expert when you are as far from being one as possible, but I promise once you better understand how I define the word “expert” your anxiety will transform to excitement about the endless possibilities for mentorship.
In all three mentorship examples above, the mentee was seeking a mentor that could be considered an “expert” in their specific field. From the perspective of a graduate student at USC, they would likely consider me an expert television editor (although I despise the traditional definition of the word “expert” and consider myself far from one). There is no question that most industry professionals would consider Oscar-nominated Dody Dorn an expert at editing feature films. And Tony Horton is widely considered one of the world’s foremost experts in the fitness industry.
The traditional definition of an “Expert” is as follows:
A person who has comprehensive or authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.
Synonyms include: Specialist. Authority. Master. Virtuoso.
As the definition and synonyms imply, an “expert” is a master at their craft, someone recognized as being the absolute best or top name in their field of expertise. An absolute virtuoso. By this formal definition, we’re talking about people at the level of Beethoven, Bobby Fischer, Albert Einstein, Bruce Lee, or Steven Spielberg. Therefore at first glance, it would appear the best mentors for you are unattainable – a pipe dream simply not worth pursuing with the extremely limited time you have to network.
And frankly, what are the odds that Steven Spielberg has the time to mentor you anyways, amiright???
Contrary to the popular definition, however, as I discussed in my podcast interview with Narcos: Mexico editor Joaquin Elizondo, I don’t believe anyone EVER becomes an expert. There is always more to learn, and there is always room for improvement. I don’t believe anything can ever be truly mastered.
Here’s how I define the word “Expert”:
1. Anyone who has successfully accomplished a goal you have yet to accomplish.
2. Someone who possesses the necessary skills, experience, and wisdom you require to achieve your goals.
By this definition of an expert, virtually EVERYONE is an expert to someone else. Now the playing field for connecting with your ideal mentor is Wide. Open.
Your objective is to find the right expert who has either accomplished what you hope to accomplish or possesses the necessary skills, experience, and the network to help you accomplish your goals.
Here’s the perfect example of how my revised definition of an “expert” works to your advantage. I don’t think anyone would consider an entry-level assistant fresh out of college working their first job an “expert” according to the traditional definition of the word, right? However, to a soon-to-be college graduate who would do anything to land their first job in the entertainment industry, the person that has successfully done so already is their expert.
Example: Last year I released a podcast with Aaron Schmidt, the post-production assistant on Season 3 of Cobra Kai where we discussed how to become a production assistant (and keep getting hired).
Shortly after releasing that interview I received the following email from a listener:
I am a film student. I just finished listening to your latest podcast with Aaron Schmidt. It reassured me because I am in a similar situation, and hearing about what Aaron has accomplished gives me confidence that I can achieve the same goal. Thank you!
To this student who hopes to become a post-production assistant on a show like Cobra Kai, Aaron Schmidt is the world’s foremost expert to help them achieve their next major career goal. At the very least, this person should reach out to Aaron to set up a meet & greet. If navigated correctly, Aaron might even become a sherpa over time as he continues to navigate his own career path. But all due respect to Aaron, he’s in no position to become a “Miyagi” mentor. He simply doesn’t have enough experience or expertise to fill that void (yet). Conversely, this film student doesn’t require Aaron to become a “Miyagi” mentor. There is no reason in this circumstance to seek out the very best. The film student just needs someone who’s “been there and done that.”
If this film student, however, were in the position where they’ve set the audacious goal of being one of a very select few film editors to win an Oscar under the age of 30, for example, in order to do so they would most likely need their own version of Mr. Miyagi to succeed.
The same could be said for an overweight, non-athletic film & TV editor with a ‘Dad Bod’ who decided to become an American Ninja Warrior at the age of 38 (who is now 41).
Why It’s Worth The Time (and Effort) To Seek Out the Best
As one of the world-renowned experts in the field of positive psychology Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar discusses in our podcast together:
“When you study the average you’re describing. When you study the best you’re prescribing.”
In positive psychology they study the happiest people in the world to find out what works best rather than trying to understand and fix what doesn’t work.
I take a similar approach when choosing a mentor for my loftiest goals.
I’m a big believer in pushing people deep outside their comfort zones as that’s where the most personal and professional growth occurs, and doing so requires surrounding yourself with a person – ideally multiple people – that are much better than you at what you want to become really good at. To put it bluntly:
If you are the best in the room, then you need to find a different room.
When I chose to specifically seek Tony Horton as my Mr. Miyagi, it wasn’t an accident. Having spent years doing his home workouts I already knew that I enjoyed spending time with him on a daily basis (albeit digitally). I knew his core philosophy of “Doing your best and forgetting the rest” aligned with my own values. And I also got a pretty good sense the guy oozed authenticity. Furthermore, after spending an unhealthy amount of time scouring Tony’s social media posts, I discovered that he invited a select few regular folk like myself to work out with him on the weekends (at his house no less!!!). All those pieces put together made it clear that if I could find a way to provide value to him in return, this could become my new tribe.
By seeking out the best I found my peer group that pushed me to be my best.
Connecting with Tony Horton didn’t just yield a “Miyagi” Mentor, I’m now surrounded by an entire tribe of mentors (not to mention new friends). If my goal were simply to “get in shape,” my peer group would have been other dads in Crossfit classes hoping to lose a few pounds. But instead I’m surrounded by legit ninjas.
The last pre-Covid Sunday ninja workout with my ninja tribe
Every Sunday when I show up for a ninja workout, I’m more often than not the worst in the group. The competition is insanely fierce given that our tribe consists of a former Israeli Navy Seal, three personal trainers (one specifically for football players), the son of an All-American gymnast, a fitness model, and athletes who have competed on American Ninja Warrior. But putting myself in the position where I basically schedule failure on my calendar every Sunday from 9am-1:30pm and surround myself with people better at something than I am now has led to the biggest transformation I’ve ever experienced in my life – personal, professional, or otherwise.
This strategy of seeking out the best is not an anomaly with only Tony Horton.
Ramit Sethi and me backstage after he invited me to speak for an event he was hosting about online business (back in 2017)
When I decided back in 2015 I wanted to make the transition from being a technician to becoming an online entrepreneur and coach, I again decided to seek out one of the world’s best in building an online business: NYT Bestselling author Ramit Sethi, who teaches how to prioritize creating a “Rich Life” over merely making more money. If I simply wanted a “side hustle,” there are a ton of blogs, podcasts, and online courses that would have helped me earn a few extra bucks on the side. But again, I was looking to design the path towards a completely new career which was not an easy goal to pursue in my mid-30’s with only one marketable skill to my name (i.e. editing video).
Since joining Ramit Sethi’s universe he has become my business mentor. We don’t have a personal relationship deep enough that I show up at his house every Sunday, and I’m not taking out his trash or sweeping his deck. But whenever I have a pressing and very specific question or I’m seeking advice he’s happy to provide me with a detailed answer to help me take my next steps. In regards to traversing the path of building a successful business, I would absolutely consider Ramit my “Sherpa” mentor. (From a digital perspective, however, via his many online courses like Earnable, Ramit is absolutely the Mr. Miyagi behind my business).
Beyond my direct relationship with Ramit, similar to my experience with Tony Horton, I have established a multitude of relationships from within Ramit’s extended universe with friends and mentors that I can reach out to with very specific questions about how to solve problems or strategize my next steps via simple meet & greets. Because I sought out the best in Ramit, I inherited an entire peer group of likeminded business professionals with similar goals as mine.
When I decided I was tired of “working harder” so often that burnout was always the inevitable conclusion to every project and I instead wanted to become an expert at “working smarter,” I sought out the world’s best in the fields of productivity and creative flow. Had my intention been to save myself an hour or two per week or learn some new productivity apps, I could have done that with a few internet searches. But knowing my goal was to not only transform the way I worked but also eventually teach these productivity methods to an industry desperate for more work-life balance, I chose to seek out the very best.
My quest to work smarter and not harder included GTD creator David Allen, ‘Deep Work’ mastermind Cal Newport, master of ‘Ultralearning’ Scott Young, time & energy management guru Nir Eyal, and the Michael Jordan of habit formation James Clear.
I don’t have a relationship as deep with any of these experts as I do Tony Horton or even Ramit, but I have exchanged multiple emails with each of them, they have been willing to answer a few specific questions for me in a virtual “Meet & Greet” mentorship role, and all of them were gracious enough to share an hour’s worth of their expertise on my podcast.
In every scenario, whether seeking Miyagi mentorship, a sherpa, or simply looking to have a few questions answered in a meet & greet style, I chose the best because I want to be the best.
Success Has a Recipe (You Don’t Need to Reinvent the Wheel)
No matter how difficult or daunting the challenge, struggle, or obstacle you are facing now, someone has already overcome it. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel and go it alone.
I all but guarantee the following: Your definition of success already has a recipe.
You simply need to find the person with the recipe unique to your goals.
So…who is your “expert”?
Who has already achieved what you hope to accomplish next who can empathize with your circumstances and help you get unstuck?
Who might be willing to provide you ongoing guidance, sage advice, and support and help you navigate a much longer path?
Or, who possesses the skills, expertise, experience, and network of other professionals that is willing to become an integral part of your journey?
That’s your next mentor.
Success has a recipe you can follow, and someone has the recipe you seek. You just need to find them, reach out to them, provide value, and begin a genuine relationship.
- If all you have are a few specific questions about the next stages of your journey, your expert is someone who has the answers you seek and can provide them to you during a simple “Meet & Greet” session or two.
- If you are looking to traverse a much longer and more arduous path and you require ongoing assistance and support, your expert is someone who has “been there and done that” that empathizes with your circumstances and can become your “Sherpa” mentor.
- If the journey ahead is daunting, overwhelming, and you have no idea how to do it (or if you can do it at all), your expert is someone who’s mastered the challenge and who is willing to become your “Miyagi” mentor, walking you through every step of the process from point A to point Z. This is the person who will take you under their wing and push you outside your comfort zone to reach your fullest potential.
Ready to Take Action?
If after reading this article you have a much clearer idea about who would be the perfect mentor for you…but you’re terrified that by reaching out you will bother them, embarrass yourself, or sound needy and desperate, I can help.
ACTION STEP #1 » Check out my Insider’s Guide to Writing Amazing Outreach Emails where I provide step-by-step instructions to send cold outreach emails that will not only get responses but can lead to priceless career advice, meetings, shadowing opportunities, mentorship…or maybe even your next gig!
Not sure exactly who the perfect mentor might be for you but you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and get dirty doing some research to figure it out?
ACTION STEP #2 » Get on the waitlist for my brand new online Masterclass: Virtually Build Your Network with IMDbPro so I can help you build an extensive database of fulfilling projects you’d kill to work on, and then organize and prioritize the people who can open the right doors to get you opportunities on similar projects.