Photo by Suzanne Neubauer

By Taku Taira MD

One of the most common refrains in career development is to “Find a mentor.” It is one thing to understand the utility of a mentor, or to want one, but it is something entirely different to know how to go about finding one. Because it is neither intuitive nor easy, we come up with myths and excuses that prevent us from finding those people that can help us.

“I am not really sure who to ask.”

Start by identifying someone that you admire or want to emulate. This can be because of their position, their expertise and accomplishments, or how they carry themselves. Do you think you might want to be a program director? Do you want to be good at EKGs? Do you want to be a national speaker? The leaders in those areas are your potential mentors.

“I am not really sure how to ask that person to be my mentor.”

People do not instantaneously become your mentors. Mentor is a “label that’s eventually applied to something that develops over time.” Mentors start as advisors, and there is nothing weird about asking people for advice. When people are accomplished, they expect people to ask them for advice.

An effective way to break the ice is to start your communication with a touch of flattery and a request for guidance or advice. I recommend something along the lines of:

“I wanted to say how much I enjoyed your talk. It really resonated with me. I was hoping that you might have some time to talk to give some advice. I hope to someday be in your position and would like to know how to go about it.”

Although this can be intimidating, this approach is no different than saying “I really enjoyed your talk.” The difference is that you get something out of it as well, and it can get you to some surprisingly prominent people.

“I don’t want to bother them.”

Yes these people can be very busy and yes you are asking for a favor. However, as many of us can attest to, being a mentor is one of the most fulfilling things that I do. Many of us are actively looking for opportunities to provide mentorship and guidance. Asking for advice is an acknowledgement of their status and is a sincere form of flattery that would not be taken the wrong way.

“I don’t need a mentor… I don’t even know what I want to do… besides, I just want to find a job and to work.”

Not knowing what you want to do is an important reason to find a mentor. Mentors can listen to your interests and help to find a direction. Most of us have interests but lack the assuredness that that is what you want to pursue. These nascent interests are the best things to explore and discuss. They can help you make your interests into ideas, your ideas into projects, and projects into skills. Having skills and interests provides you with flexibility through increased opportunities that can help with balancing your professional life as well as finding work-life balance.

“There is no one here that is interested in what I am interested in.”

One of the beauties of Emergency Medicine is its diversity. This diversity means that you might not have a local expert. Mentors do not need to be in your department, institution, or in the same geographic area. Although having an outside mentor may be inconvenient, it has its advantages. Broadening your search can improve the chances of finding a personality match. The mentor’s distance can provide greater perspective. They are less likely to be mired in the local politics and therefore may be able to give you unbiased advice.

“I already have a mentor.”

There is no perfect mentor. No one person can provide direction or advise on everything. I personally have multiple mentors. I have a person I go to for career direction. I have a person I got to for program direction. I have a person I go to for research. The best mentors understand that they cannot provide everything for you and understand the need to have multiple sources of advice.

Finding a mentor and being a mentee is a skill. It can be intimidating and counterintuitive. Like any skill, it can be developed. All it takes is a little bit of faith and a little bit of guts. As the proverb goes, “Fall down 7 times. Get up 8.”