When I look back on something that I’ve done that I’m proud of, I usually do a little involuntary post-mortem exercise involving a series of simple questions. What did I learn from this? What did I wish I’d learned? How would I do it differently given the same opportunity? And among more specific questions, why did this work out for me? What were the things I did? The places I went? But most importantly who were the people involved? As much as I’d like to think I've created my opportunities all by myself, I know that I only occupy a tiny sliver of the pie chart of reasons for my success. 90% of my success shares are held by a slowly expanding list of people who have invested in me. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had a series of amazing personal investors—or simply mentors—throughout my life. Looking outside of my own life, there’s a very strong case for why your lack of good mentorship is probably holding you back. Here’s why.
No one builds entirely from scratch. Purely original thought is the hard (and likely impossible). But that shouldn't discourage you. Every uber successful had an uber helpful mentor to be inspired by, to learn things from, and even at times to argue with. Plato had Socrates. Henry David Thoreau had Ralph Waldo Emerson. Steve Jobs had Robert Friedman. Even Kanye West had Jay-Z. Believe it or not there was a time in Kanye West's life where he wasn't the ultra egotistical rap royalty that we all know and love (hate?) today. There was a time in his life where he was too shy to even attempt to talk to his idol but it's only because he did that he got to where he is today. If a man self-assured enough to famously have said "my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live" felt he had a thing or two to learn from an older more experienced person, why can't you?
Two summers ago, I started my first technical internship at a startup here in Austin. Being a CS transfer who hadn't been programming for very long, I was initally intimidated by the talent in my intern class. Everyone around me who seemed to know so much more than me and I was sitting there nodding and laughing about a SQL injection story that I was having trouble even pretending like I understood. It wasn't until I began to interact with the members of my team more that I realized that if I was miles behind other interns, most of the full-time employees were running laps around me with their hands tied behind their backs. There was one member of the team in particular, a young math PhD, data scientist, and competitive marathoner from Rice name Colin, for whom everyone—even management and VP's—had the utmost respect. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to work under him. After having subtly inserted myself into conversations about his projects and asking him for tidbits of advice in passing, I was no longer overwhelmed or intimidated. It was my third week and I'd finished the first few tasks I was assigned and I knew I would be put on a new task in a day or two, so I dug through Colin's code and tried to learn what I could from it. After some time spent sifting, I realized that there was a useful tab on his dashboard that I (with some help) could implement. It didn't take much convincing and soon after working with Colin for a few weeks, I was entrusted to build my own very own analytics dashboard. Every cryptic error in my R code was met with Colin's seemingly infinite wealth of knowledge. A month later I decided I wanted to learn data science concepts, so Colin walked me through the basics. Four months later, after the summer had ended and we'd all said our sad goodbyes I decided I wanted to run my first marathon, so Colin sent me some advice. And even now when I've left the company entirely, when I have questions about running, math, or life in general, he's still just an email away.
There are few things in life more valuable than guidance. After having been given a lot of it, I can confidently say that I would not be the person I am today if not for the people who've coached and mentored me along the way. That being said, you have to be willing to ask. If there's someone you admire, someone you think you can learn from—a professor, an acquaintance, or even a complete stranger on the internet—reach out to them. Stay after class, ask for an introduction, email them. No matter how you approach them, do it with a genuine desire to learn from them. You'll be pleasantly surprised by how willing most people are to help.