Be a mentor, find a mentor

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November 16, 2011
In a previous article of mine, somewhere on the web, I mentioned finding a mentor. People commented that they would really like to find one or really needed one. None of them had any idea how to find one. The reward for opening my big mouth was a dozen or so emails asking me to either become their mentor or instruct them how to find a mentor. As promised to so many, here’s an article explaining it all. The practice of mentoring goes back as far as the days of the cave men (and women) when the elders of the tribe, probably 16 years old at the time, taught other non-upright beings how to dodge sabertooth tigers, make spears, clean and prepare the pelts of sabertooth tigers and other survival techniques like pooping outside of the cave. It was easier then as meetings and the Blackberry hadn’t been invented and there was time to mentor the young. As time marched on and humans evolved to live to at least 32 years old, people created apprenticeships to train the replacements who would do the shop work when the craftsman was no longer able to pound barrel staves, cobble soles, or flunken gerflunkenheisers until the wee hours of morning before the daily witch burnings. Mentorship is the modern gerflunkenheiser flunkening. It’s not a dead art and you’d be surprised how common it really is. I was lucky. My mentors were my art school teachers. They saw promise in my talent and drive and, being mature adults, forgave my youthful…verve and bad attitude. My mentorship included odd jobs around their studios, invitations to cocktail parties and industry events which I could never dream of being invited on my own standing in the industry, or just dropping by their studio or office to chat and watch their everyday work routine. I learned a lot from them. They imparted lessons on business, or I would see how they handled difficult situations. I would be introduced to the top talents in the industry and, like an illegal cockfight, sometimes be thrown at an obnoxious creative for the occasional fistfight or battle of wits. It was a wonderful time for me.

What do you get out of mentoring?

Your peers form a group within which you grow, but they are on the same level as you. Some will grow faster and move out of your group and some will fall behind and disappear. Throughout it all, while they offer support and commiseration via “misery loves company,” they cannot give you what a mentor will provide. A mentor has pre-made your mistakes. He or she has dealt with the pain and heartaches and can steer you in the right direction. They are someone you can call and ask about what you need to charge, how do you get paid and generally bounce ideas off to advance your career. A mentor is a teacher, guardian angel, and friend. You will advance light years beyond where you would be on your own. They will give you information and feedback you can’t find anywhere else and give it to you straight. It’s like being home schooled by a parent who’s a famous designer; you receive loving one-on-one attention. With all of that, you will find yourself with an uplifting feeling as you trudge through a very hard field. Whether freelance, with all of the twists and turns of running your own business, or working staff and facing weird office politics and power struggles, a mentor has been there and will give you sage advice. You, in turn, must learn to listen to it.

Why would someone WANT to mentor you?

Many professionals feel it’s giving back to the industry. Some feel it’s good karma and some do it because they enjoy helping the next generation. I’ve always felt all of the above and that when you help the next generation enter the field and do it as professionals with all of the correct information on business, they make the industry stronger. In almost every article I write, I relay the wise words of Brian Singer, creative director and founder of Altitude Associates:

"The way you get ahead in by lifting up those around you."

I’ve mentioned in several articles that I was not happy with the treatment I received from my former alma mater but I am big enough of a person to look past that and help students from my old school. I judged people by who they were and wanted to encourage those with talent and professional drive. As the art director for a large, well-known publication headquartered in New York City, I was contacted by the head of my former school's art department about taking on some interns. I despised the man to no end and tried very hard not to scream at him and hang up when he called, but I listened to what he had to say. Sure, I wanted interns and had already hired several students from the school, unbeknownst to him. “And I don’t want them going for coffee or just making copies,” he demanded. “I want them actually designing the magazine!” I counted to three under my breath. “You’re in no position to make demands,” I replied. I think his aggressive demand was based on either the fact that he knew he had treated me badly for many years and now I was in a position of power or he was just a pompous ass. The latter, I believe. “I’ve hired a couple of students from the school and they seem very happy getting coffee and making copies,” I quietly continued. “When I was a student, I would have PAID to just be inside this publication, cleaning the floors with my tongue if that was what they needed!” Which brings me to an important point: Attitude will haunt you forever! Be kind to those you meet on the way up because you’ll eventually need something from them. An apt quote to consider is: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Dr. Maya Angelou said that. Actually, people will remember it all, so watch how you treat people!

Where do you find a mentor?

As I did, you may want to start with one of your teachers from art school. They have a certain oneness with you as a student and although there are certain states with laws that won’t allow them to fraternize with students or even friend you on Facebook, once you are out of school, a professional relationship is fine. Maybe you didn’t go to art school or you did but your teachers hated you or they just aren’t worth the effort as mentors. Perhaps your family knows someone in the field? A good friend of my parents was a big wig in advertising and was always happy to see me when I dropped by his office. My grandfather fixed the cars of people who would be happy to do him a favor and let me tour their office or sit around and watch them work. My uncle was in the mob and people who owed him “favors” were happy to meet with me and answer questions and give me office furniture, electronics, and cartons of cigarettes. Family can be a great avenue to finding a mentor. If you have no former teachers and your family has passed on or is doing a 20-year stretch in a federal penitentiary you still have a way to find a mentor: Ask someone. Is there a local design studio owner you admire? Write them a nice note and ask if they would agree to be your mentor. Offer to bring them lunch once a month so you can chat informally about the business. If they take a liking to you, there will probably be an internship or job offer. Maybe the relationship is purely via digital communications. Emails back and forth may not be as advantageous as face-to-face but it’s better than nothing. I get many emails from young creatives who read my articles and I answer all of them. Most of them thank me and express amazement I took the time to thoroughly answer their questions. Maybe when they are in positions to hire freelancers they’ll remember the kindness and take pity on me? Some people will refuse to become your mentor or answer emails but eventually, you will find someone who believes in mentoring. When you do, treasure the relationship and don’t screw up!

Screwing up the mentor relationship

You’ve gotten your in. You have what many other creative want and will wait for you to screw up or die…or both so they can grab your spot. Unfortunately, I have seen too many people screw up the chance handed them. Rather than relive the stories of those who I had to fire and their utter embarrassment of having to explain to friends and family why their big break lasted four hours and the tears they cried as security walked them from the building, let me give you an important list that will save you heartbreak and career suicide:
  • DON’T be late! If I have to wait twenty minutes to an hour for you to show up, you are not respecting me, my time or my schedule.
  • DON’T steal from me! Yes, it has happened and it has cut down on those I allow into my office.
  • DON’T refuse any job! As with the demand that interns not make copies of get coffee, you have to start at the bottom. Even at that bottom, you are still heads above those not interning or connected with a mentor.
  • FOLLOW DIRECTIONS! I’ve had to fire several interns because they had a “big surprise” for me when they finished an assignment.
  • RESPECT YOU MENTOR! If you go on Facebook and post something negative about your mentor, it’ll get back to them. Remember all the other people waiting for you to screw up or die? They’ll be happy to see that your boss/mentor gets the message.
  • WORK HARD! Bosses and mentors like to see their time and trust is rewarded when they see you take responsibility for your own career. If you show you don’t care, then why should we?
  • HELP OTHERS! Keep the good karma flowing. We help you, you help others, they help the next and so on.

Why should YOU be a mentor?

We paid our dues and spent years clawing our way to the top…or middle but we all should remember how hard it was. Do we say, “Tough! Do it like I did,” or do we practice compassion and help those young people who deserve a break? More importantly, do we train our next generation to keep the business strong and not allow them to be the ones to whom business owners refer when they say, “I can get it cheaper,” pointing at new graduates? Business acumen has changed over the past few years. When I entered the field, the Catch-22 of needing experience before you were hired to gain experience frustrated us all. Now, young and cheap is the preferred hiring practice. Older workers are laid off and there is no natural flow of learning within companies. The young are no longer groomed by the older, more experienced worker. Training for growth is absent. It is part of nature that the young are taught by the old so they can move on and become the mentors to the next generation. The natural order may be discarded by economics and foolish business decisions, but we, as creatives, can keep to the path that nature demands. We can teach, write, mentor and then you take our jobs and spit on us as we crawl for safety. You young punks! Still, we do it because it is in the natural order of things to pass on our experience to the next generation, however ungrateful it is. Socrates had something to say about this:
The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
Plato had Socrates and you should be able to find someone who takes you under their wing… just stay away from mentors who demand you wear a toga! Did you have a mentor or mentor someone? Share your story with us!

Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. Follow him on Twitter @speider or add him on Google+

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