I never thought much about having a mentor. In the past, I’ve had low-investment in my career. I also didn’t know how that whole mentor-mentee relationship worked. Do you just go up to someone and ask if they want to mentor you? Awkward.
But I was jealous of those people I knew who had a mentor. The mentees credited their advisors with shaping their lives, careers, and dreams. Meanwhile, I was stuck staring at Excel spreadsheets counting down the time to my lunch break. (Food is always on my mind.)
When I finally left my secure office job in a fit of self-empowerment and a "seize the day" fever to chase what I thought was (and turned out to be) my dream of writing, I faced the challenge of finding my own work and setting personal career goals. Things were even more complex because I quit my job, did a career switch, and became a remote worker all at the same time.
Disclaimer: I would not recommend this approach unless you have a high-tolerance for uncertainty and a knack for often delusional positivity. After a few months of moving full-steam ahead—enrolling in courses, applying for any and all writing jobs, and offering to edit graduate student thesis papers—I realized I needed more direction. I needed a mentor.
Investing in the future workforce (you)
To be sure, not every remote worker needs a mentor. Some people move along just fine without that sort of relationship. But I needed it. I didn't have an office or a regular team, so when questions came up that had me stumped, I panicked.
Mentorship for remote workers is an increasingly relevant issue. Why? Because according to data provided by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, “80% to 90% of the U.S. workforce says they would like to telework at least part time.” And then there is the freelance segment of the job sector—now 35 percent of the U.S. workforce. And of those who are freelancers, half said, “they wouldn't go back to a traditional job, no matter how much pay they were offered." That’s because dreams are better than cash.
With the growth of a remote workforce, the shape of mentorship must change. Formal mentor-mentee programs in organizations don’t extend far enough for workers who can’t get into the office on a regular basis; it’s hard to build repartee. Companies like LinkedIn are aware of the gap and are rolling out a beta solution with a tinder-like mentor matching system. The market knows there’s a need for flexible mentorship, but what can humans do in the meantime? And what will the future of mentorship look like?
Formal mentor-mentee programs in organizations don’t extend far enough for workers who can’t get into the office on a regular basis; it’s hard to build repartee.
Throw preconceived notions out the window
Thinking differently is tricky, but it’s important to do. We're creatures of habit and tend to stick with ideas that align with normative thinking. When I “decided I needed a mentor,” that was great, but my definition was narrow. Thankfully, I'm not the only one who found herself stuck on one path. When I spoke with Kat Boogaard—a freelance writer for companies such as The Muse and ZipRecruiter—she voiced the same feelings.
"I think one of the biggest struggles is just accepting the fact that a ‘mentor’ might not look like what you've always pictured. Just as an example, I'm still relatively young in my career (I just turned 27) and I've been doing this for three years… I still run into numerous situations where I feel like I could use a mentor myself. But, at the same time, I have a lot of other people coming to me for advice."
I couldn’t agree more. Mentorship for the remote and freelance worker often means an exchange of ideas and learning. After working in the freelance game for awhile, I too was approached for advice. And while I would never tout myself as an expert, I believe talking with another person about your own experiences, challenges, and solutions can be incredibly beneficial. Having someone ask why you did something a certain way, can also help you think more critically about, well, “Why did I decide to spam people via email?”
I remember having coffee with a friend of a friend who was thinking of going freelance, and one of her questions was about how I developed my sales strategy. I said I didn't have one, which immediately set off alarm bells in my head; I went home that night and started devising one. My coffee date unknowingly called me out on my own slackness.
Allowing mentor-mentee relationships to develop outside a rigid framework often gives them the freedom to be more candid. A Harvard Business Review article reported, “Skill-building and increased self-esteem were two more common benefits cited by mentors. Some said they’d learned to become better coaches, while others described feeling newly confident and inspired to step up their own networking efforts.” Or in my case, sales efforts.
Use your passions as points of connection
When I started freelancing, I would randomly email people in my field and try and set up coffee dates. For my recipients, it was painfully clear that I needed more than coffee... “I really need a mentor, please talk to me; I'm lost.” Those relationships, if you could call them that, never really took off. Shocking.
For my recipients, it was painfully clear that I needed more than coffee... “I really need a mentor, please talk to me; I'm lost.” Those relationships, if you could call them that, never really took off. Shocking.
But things were different with Kat Boogaard. I reached out after receiving her email newsletter—being duly impressed by her content. Seriously. I’m an obsessive newsletter subscriber, and yet I'm always astounded at the amount of mediocre advice out there. But Boogaard really did her research, and it showed. Plus, her voice and personality shone through in her writing—she sounded like someone I should get to know.
For Boogaard, her website is her passion project. It's a place to provide research, ideas, and advice to new, prospective, or even veteran freelance writers. While our exchange may not be a “formal” mentorship with a monthly check-in, I’ve learned a lot from her newsletters and how she presents herself. I've found that once I removed the expectations of a “real” mentorship filled with rigid meetings and “goals to hit,” it was much easier to learn and engage with others in my field.
Remove geographical barriers
I used to be jealous of freelancers who talked about having a full workload while also traveling the globe. Really? Having it all is possible? But after all, we are living in the wireless world. If you're a remote employee, does it really matter where you get your work done as long as you get it done? That's when I realized the same could be said for mentor and mentee relationships. Finding a great mentor relationship is about finding someone who is a good fit for you, regardless of geography.
Boogaard found the same to be true. And what better tool for removing boundaries of time zones than social media? "I read an article that I really enjoyed and sent a tweet to the author to let her know how much I loved her piece,” said Boogaard. “She responded back, and we soon moved a conversation over to email so that we could communicate (and, of course, commiserate!) without character limits. We still chat on a somewhat regular basis—and it all started with one simple tweet!"
I've found Twitter helpful as well. It removes the need for awkward introductions or posturing. Plus, the pressure is off to schedule formal meetings. Boogaard's experience also resonated with me because her email commiseration is something I've found useful. When you work by yourself, it's hard to know if you're being overly sensitive about a touchy client, or if, in fact, they really are out of line. Good mentor relationships help you develop that bullshit barometer.
When you work by yourself, it's hard to know if you're being overly sensitive about a touchy client, or if, in fact, they really are out of line. Good mentor relationships help you develop that bullshit barometer.
As a remote worker—freelance or staff—you already know that your career track and development is different than that of a 9 to 5 employee. You’re responsible for managing your own time, workload, and perhaps, even a paycheck. The same is true for finding a mentor—it requires initiative and creativity. You need to ask yourself hard questions: What do you really want for your career? How hard will you work to stay engaged and in the game?
My freelance journey teaches me that there are plenty of tools and resources in the world, but if I refuse to participate and become a part of the conversation, I won’t get very far. Give a little, and get a lot.
Rachel Henry is a Chicago-based editor at a communications firm. She spends most of her time reading her way through a giant stack of library books and trying to find the best vacation deals online.