Everyone’s career path is different. We all take different routes — determined by the choices we make and the people we meet. My path began with a quest for knowledge and an insatiable curiosity that eventually landed me in a fire department while in college and progressed to owning my own business. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a series of mentors and teachers who helped me learn from their mistakes and successes, and their guidance has shaped my path in life.

Mentoring session
photo credit: Gvahim / Flickr

In fact, if I hadn’t had these mentors, I may never have started my own business. This is how my company and I progressed through each stage — and these are the people I leaned on along the way:

1. The Friend Who Helped Me Realize My Potential

When I was in college, a friend told me that I should work at his new check-processing company as a sales representative. He thought I would be good at it; because I was living on about $400 per month, I decided to give it a shot.

Six weeks later, I was hooked. My friend was right — I was good at finding and bringing in accounts. Sometimes, it’s hard to see your potential or decide on an area to specialize in, so when someone close to you gives you an outside perspective on your skill set, listen.

2. The Mentor Who Pushed Me to Take the Leap

I really got into the check business and wanted to find a way to become more profitable, so I began considering going off on my own. The only problem was that I was terrified — which I confided to Jean-Pierre, my friend, over dinner one night.

He wouldn’t hear it, and he pushed me to go for it. Jean-Pierre helped me make the transition, and he continued to mentor me afterward. He came to my meetings and helped me make important decisions to get my business off the ground, even though he was going through a difficult time himself.

Having someone who not only sees your potential, but also provides you with the push you need to move forward, is valuable to any young entrepreneur.

3. The Person I Wanted to Be

In a lot of ways, mentors are role models. They’re people you emulate, whether that’s in business, in life, or both. I look for people who are far better than me, and I follow them. Jean-Pierre is one example, but there have been others along the way — people I don’t necessarily have relationships with but am inspired by.

This could be anyone from major players like Richard Branson and Arianna Huffington to a local business leader in your tight-knit community. And don’t assume that your mentor has to be a retired industry veteran. In fact, it’s sometimes better if he’s not. That way, you know that his advice is still relevant.

Arianna Huffington
Arianna Huffington – photo credit: Communitech Photos / Flickr

Seeking Out a Sensei

When I started my business, I was trying to do too many things at once, and I had no idea how to venture out on my own. These mentors gave me the confidence, security, and belief that anything was possible, and in my opinion, these are the mentors every entrepreneur needs. But how do you find them?

First, you have to be open to opportunity; then, you need to know who you’re looking for. Most of the mentors I’ve had haven’t been famous. They’re quiet and humble, but they’re masters at their work. I found them in odd places, but I wouldn’t have found them at all if I weren’t open to learning.

Approach someone you respect, and ask for advice. Go to awkward networking events, and step out of your comfort zone — at the very worst, you’ll get free food and drinks. By simply opening your mind to learning from people, you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect mentor.

Look for these qualities in the people you meet:

  • Authenticity: Notice that I didn’t say “hype.” Put marketing aside, and look for a mentor who knows what he’s doing. Look for authenticity and experience, not bravado.
  • Mastery: Seek out people who have mastered their craft. Too many people jump into an industry headfirst with a arrogant attitude that will get them nowhere — they’re the same people who are given certificates after one seminar and think they’re industry experts. If you really want to learn something, go after people who’ve honed their craft over several years, not several hours.
  • Sincerity: You want someone who cares about you so much that he’s not afraid to call you out when you need it. A lot of mentors are too soft in their approach, constantly patting mentees on the back. But pats on the back won’t help you grow. I hardly ever got compliments from my teachers; when I did, I knew they meant something.

A good mentor is hard to find, but when you have one, stick with him. After all, he’s taking a genuine interest in your success. But remember that mentorship is a two-way relationship: He’s learning from you, too, because when you teach something, you learn it twice. As I continue to grow in my career, I hope to pay it forward by learning a little more.