"2009 was not a great year to graduate." The long-tenured VP at a major energy firm shook his head as we discussed that year's job market. "My life has taken a different path than I originally thought, but it sure has made me tougher and stronger." I replied.
This website is full of young people struggling, like I did, to really begin the career they want. Our generation has a bad habit of looking to the internet for instant answers to life's difficult questions. The internet is great for solving bar arguments or finding great deals on air travel, but you need more firepower for serious professional issues. You need a mentor.
Mentorship comes up most often in the context of older people in your industry or even your own company, but it can truly be any more senior working professional. In my case, I was lucky enough to make friends with an older gentleman who would often buy lunch at the bar where I worked. Chatting up the regulars was just my nature, but little did I know of this man's future significance. We soon became friends, and I began asking him questions about career-related topics. I figured he was a good person to ask, as this man had a law degree and an MBA from top-7 schools (I know I just gave all you prestige fans out there a stiffie), followed by a stint in the Army JAG and then 40+ years as a highly respected local. The best part was, he "saw a lot of himself in me," and he was interested in seeing me succeed. I had found my mentor (and I didn't have to send one unsolicited email via LinkedIn).
I had struggled during and after college with major family issues and illnesses and having someone that I respected and trusted outside of my family and peers was very helpful. My mentor had had similar difficulties in his lifetime and was able to provide a lot of helpful perspective and advice. As for my career, he began to introduce me to his professional friends in various industries related to business and finance. When it comes to successful networking, there truly is NOTHING like having someone respected vouch for you.
Now I had someone to review my resumes and cover letters (apparently writing legal documents and arguing cases for 40 years makes someone pretty good at word choice), and to coach me on interview skills and professional behavior protocol. This meant I didn't have to learn things the hard way by screwing up or committing faux pas during interviews.
My mentor often stressed two important virtues: patience and perseverance. This was very appropriate to my situation at the time, as working in a bar while holding a public ivy B.S. was making me anxious and desperate. One day, during a casual conversation with another friendly regular, I learned of an opportunity at a big engineering firm. I had had some engineering, a technical degree, and some finance classes, and would be a reasonably good fit for the job. I had my mentor and help me write my cover letter, and coach me one last time before the interview. Just three business days after the interview, I received the offer. No more cleaning puke up in the bathroom and no more kicking bums out of the bar. I was free, and, finally, I had begun the career I wanted.
It didn't take long after beginning work when I really started showing my true career potential. Working long nights in a bar teaches you a lot about people skills, working under pressure, and keeping your cool even if you want to do bad things to the person across from you (I'm sure all of us in a corporate environment can appreciate these skills). Having to work for $2.65 an hour plus tips also gives you tremendous drive, as I would often say to myself "I remember what it's like to be broke, and I am NEVER going back!" My career began growing rapidly, and I started receiving emails and phone calls from headhunters from across the country.
Given where I was back then and where my career is now headed, I will never forget the boost that I got from my mentor. I "found" my mentor just by striking up a conversation in a bar, so I know that all you friendly monkeys out there can find someone to believe in you, too.