Monday, June 13, 2011

Lulu's Mailbag: How do you find a mentor?

I101 reader Trevor commented on a recent post about the changes to the IDP:

As an intern in architecture at the moment, i've found that the most difficult thing for me is finding an architect to be my mentor (as opposed to my supervisor). Finding an architect from outside my office who's willing to spend time with me ever week or two is an awful imposition. It was hard enough finding someone who would take me on in exchange for 8 hours a day of work, but asking for help from outside the office is even harder.
I don't live very close to my University anymore either, so having a professor mentor me would be impractical. Do you have any suggestions for finding a mentor under the new guidelines?
My course of action has been to start a new blog over at as a sort of cover letter for myself.

This is a great question, Trevor, and one that all interns (and dare I say even architects) should consider: how do you find a good mentor, especially when the whole mentorship process seems like such a burden?  First of all, let's consider the point of a mentor.  A mentor can provide guidance and advice on matters small and large regarding your job and your career.  Small things might be "I did this and my boss said that and I said this and I think I've messed up--what should I have done instead and what should I do now?"  A large matter might be "should I change firms/go back to grad school/quit the profession?"  A mentor, quite frankly, should also be something of a friend. Not a drinking buddy/loan you money to pay off a credit card/bail you out of jail friend (though you should totally have at least two of those, no joke), but someone who will speak with you honestly but kindly, someone who will listen to you patiently and ask questions without judging you, but also be willing to call you on your bullshit.  

This would seem a tall order indeed, and yet...we all have many people around us who are willing to do this.  Consider every friend you've ever had in your life or have now: did you walk up to them and say, "I'm looking for a good friend who will listen to my crap and laugh with me at Farrelly Brothers movies and make sure I get home after one too many Jager bombs.  Can I interest you in such an arrangement with me?"  Probably not--it just happened.  So, the first thing to remember about mentorship is that it doesn't have to be necessarily formal.  Some mentorship programs (often sponsored by colleges) have an essence of formality to them, and that's fine.  However, asking someone formally to be your mentor might suddenly trigger in them a response of oh God now I have to add yet one more appointment to my planner and come up with something to talk about with this person I barely know and so on.  Sometimes, first getting to know some architects, whether in your office or outside your firm, can smooth the way for a further, better, deeper mentorship relationship.  (Interestingly, my recent survey of interns showed that a majority have an informal relationship with their mentor, and the majority also felt comfortable asking their mentor for advice on things other than work/professional stuff.)

Second, consider how often contact needs to take place.  Maybe it's exchanging emails every couple of week and then actually meeting face to face once every month or every other month.  Truth be told, I've had mentors that I've literally never seen--I've met them through my blog and I've never spoken to them in person or even on the phone.  But they have provided me with immeasurable advice and insight, and frankly some kindness in there to boot.  Contact in general would ideally be regular so that neither of you forgets about the other, which would kind of undo the whole point of mentorship anyway.  

But the bigger question we have yet to discuss is why mentorship is such a burden, or at least seems that way.  I think it's because mentorship has been seen as such a one-way street.  It's often viewed through the lens of "here's a young kid just starting out, and now I've got to download my thrity years of exprience to him/her during what precious little free time I have."  No wonder so many people say "no thanks" to the arrangement.  Too bad--mentorship really is a two-way street.  I can't tell you the number of times I've emailed, called, and talked/met with my interns, past and present to ask for their advice or ideas on everything from the best way to set up a website (including this blog) and how to best use Revit and even what's the best new music coming out these days. (This last one is especially important for someone who grew up listening to Paula Abdul and Huey Lewis and still thinks that Def Leppard is the best band in history.  I'm sure there are some Killers/Muse/Conor Oberst fans out there begging to differ with me. Bring it.)  Part of making your mentorship relationship work by starting out informally is that it can allow you to show your mentor(s) what you can do for them.  I say that not in a business transaction-type of way, but in a friendship kind of way.  If your friendships were a one-way exchange, you'd quit being friends with that person, right?  Same thing applies here.

And yes, I did say "mentor(s)" just then.  It might be that the best way to get good advice is to have more than one informal mentor.  I have more than one mentor, and it serves two purposes: one, it lightens the load of any one person (see above about the "burden" of mentorship); and two, it gives me more viewpoints and allows me a little more data collecting before I make decisions.  Remeber: everyone you deal with, work with, live with, interact with brings all of their mental illnesses to the table every day.  If I have only one mentor and s/he has a real bug in his/her hair about, say, the AIA, and I ask him/her a question about doing some event for the AIA, I might get a really strong negative reaction to something that is actually a good idea.

Finding a good mentor (or multiple mentors) can be a challenge, but by relaxing the formality of the situation and thinking of it as a two-way interaction can help the process along.  If nothing else, maybe you can convince a 35-year-old hair metal enthusiast to put Meaghan Smith and Li'l Wayne on her iPod.

Got a question you'd like to ask or a topic you'd like to see covered here?  Got a band or musician I should be listening to instead of Warrant?  Drop me a line in the comments or via email in the sidebar.  Holla!


  1. I just read this post, and I was in the same boat (for a few years) until last month. I enrolled in my IDP the summer before my fourth year, I graduated two years ago, I started working (for the government), and found that my work could apply for IDP. Since having my IDP record I could not for the life of me figure out who to ask to be a mentor, like you said a mentor's suppose to be like a friend, and as much as I loved my professors and how well they knew me...I wanted a different perspective. During school I was very active in AIAS and when I graduated I sought out the Assoc. AIA at our local AIA Chapter. I've been active and volunteering there for two years now, met a lot of young professionals--recent grads, ARE testers, and YAF folks.

    One night last month it struck me that I have befriended this YAF-er, organically happened like any other friendship, been licensed for 7+ years (I think 10)...Why didn't I think of this before?! She's heard me talk about work and all my challenges, we've volunteered together for events, reminisce about both our Philadelphia architecture schools, she would be great! Since she is very active at our local AIA Chapter and runs some of the programs there, I formally asked her to be my mentor. I thought it could work, since we go to the same meetings each month and even the same events. We saw each other a lot in two years and via email. Anticipating her response back, I thought she might decline since we both knew how busy our schedules are (we're very similar people in how we get involved in organizations), then I got the response back the next day. She said yes! Since she lives outside of the city, she loves having an excuse to come down on the weekends for brunch.

    Point of my comment, get involved in your architecture community like with your local AIA, Habitat for Humanity, or Centers for Architecture. It's outside of the workplace doing non-work stuff, like Halloween events, putting up exhibitions, going to social events, mentoring programs, etc. You never know who you might meet and develop a life-long friendship with.

  2. Well done, patrikecrafty, and you make a good point about getting to know other architects: if the only place you hang out with architects is at work, and you've only worked one place (or two) with other architects, then you'll likely have a harder time finding decent architects to talk with, learn from, and find a mentoring relationship. Also, if you're still in school, it might be worth getting business cards from any guest jurors who are practicing. You can develop that relationship in school by emailing them a question or two a month and maybe asking to meet for lunch or coffee at the end of the school year. Then, after a year or two, you've got someone who knows you pretty decently and can possibly be a mentor.