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How to Be an Expert Foundation Series Part #2:
The Power of a Mentor
To become the expert in any given field, you need to apply deliberate practice. You need to put your head down and work hard. You need to put in the hours.
Before any of that, though, is an even more obvious starting place. You need to know what to do. You need knowledge and information about your field of interest – and a lot of it.
The obvious assumption would be to do research. Information is highly accessible in today’s world. If you want to learn something you can just Google it, right?
You can learn vast amounts of information, apply it, and get really good at something this way, but there’s a better, much faster way.
You need a mentor.
Long before the internet was around and before universities existed, the only way to learn something well was to study directly under someone who was already an expert. If you wanted to be a blacksmith, you first became a blacksmith’s apprentice.
When it comes to effectively learning and applying a skill on the path toward expertise, the age-old practice of mentor-ship still stands as the best way to do it.
Let’s explore a few of the key reasons why.
Why Put in 10,000 Hours?
So, if it takes 10,000 hours of dedication to become an expert (debatable), then why would you decide to put in that kind of time in to begin with? What would keep you from giving up long before that number? Sheer will-power? Or is it something else.
Turns out, most world-class performers and experts started out with a coach, a mentor. They had someone who made learning more enjoyable, and easier to stick with. Most people at the top of their field were not born prodigies. Having a mentor guide them along provided support, both as a role model and emotionally.
It also helped them learn concepts much faster.
One of the best reasons to have a mentor is their ability to teach using mental representation.
Mental representation is simply the way an expert visualizes the right way to do something. It’s a way of taking complicated concepts and situations and being able to apply them, without ever having experienced them before. Simply put, it means learning from someone who has done it before – and more specifically how they did it.
A mentor is often an expert themselves who has “been there, done that”. They have taken the concepts to be learned and applied them to real world situations. Through that they developed mental representations that they use to quickly visualize the right, and fastest way to do something.
These mental representations can be taught, shortening the learning curve for a mentee.
So, How do You Find a Mentor?
To cut right to the chase, here’s a quick list:
- Avoid someone who doesn’t require real effort and keeps you in your comfort zone
- Seek someone who watches you closely, requires action, and is honest
- Seek someone who gives short, clear directions
- Seek someone who loves teaching fundamentals
- Other things being equal, pick the older person
There are other factors involved, but these provide a great baseline. Another thing to note is that often a mentor will appear when the time is right. This isn’t some ethereal statement to convince you to sit around until it happens. The old saying is true,
“When the student is ready, the master appears. — Buddhist Proverb
“When the student is ready” is the key here. When people are pursuing excellence and putting in the time, their work will start to get noticed. It is much easier to build a relationship with an expert when you already contributing. It’s also much better this way. Mentorship is not a one-way street. You need to give as much as you take.