How To: Find A Mentor (and succeed even if you don’t)

I did a series of posts about hiring an intern (the original job posting, my analysis of round one, analysis of round two, analysis of round three, and explanation why I hired an assistant like that) and since then three very interesting things have happened:

1. The number of opportunities for the finalists exploded: Of the final 11 people I selected, 7 of them are now working on various projects either with me, or with one of three other friends of mine (one is also a best selling author, one runs a major tech company, one runs one of the biggest websites on the internet). The craziest thing is that all three of those friends came to me asking if I could pass along info on the runners-up, because they wanted to fill an intern type role, but didn’t want to go through a whole formal hiring process, and they liked how I vetted people–I had no idea this would happen.

2. Some people disagreed with my choices: A bunch of people who were not selected to move forward at some point in the process took a look at the final winning Round Three submission and thought that they could’ve done something as good or better, and they should’ve been selected to be my research assistant.

3. They may have been right: I fully admit that #2 may be correct for some people. I designed my hiring process to have no false positives (people who looked qualified, but aren’t), but the side affect is that there appear to be many false negatives (people who are qualified, but didn’t look it). After working with the people I selected for a little while, I can say that so far, all of them are doing great (no false positives), and one of the people I DIDN’T select to move forward in the process that I am working with anyway is doing great as well (so I did have at least one false negative).

Explanation: Because Ian (my old assistant) was so fucking good at his job, I ended up having to hire two different assistants to replace him. The primary research assistant I hired through the process lives far away from Austin, so I still needed another local person. By pure chance, one of the guys I train BJJ with happened to go through the research assistant process. With no help from me he made it to the third round, and his third round entry was good, but not in the top 11. I hired him anyway to do all the local tasks my remote assistant couldn’t, and fill in on other things. Lo and behold, he’s just as much a star as she is, and he probably could have filled the primary assistant role.

This led me to a few inescapable conclusions:

1. There is obviously a demand for this sort of part-time intern/mentor role; both from people who want to do it, and people who want to hire those people.

2. The people who want intern/mentee jobs have absolutely no idea how to go about getting them, or even that these jobs are an option.

3. The people who want to hire interns/mentees need some good way to identify them and contact them.

Well, when there are two groups of people who want to connect and they aren’t doing it, that’s a business right? Maybe. If there is, that’s for someone else to start. I have enough other shit on my plate, the last thing I need are more business ideas (you’re welcome to take that one and do something with it if you can).

I”m not going to start that business/website, but I can explain the non-traditional mentorship/internship to those of you who still want to find this on your own. There are two things you need to understand before you even begin this process:

1. No one is going to do it for you: This really applies to almost everything in life, but it REALLY applies whenever you’re trying to do something that is unusual, different or difficult: No one is going to give it to you. If you want it, you have to resolve that you’re going to do what it takes to get it, regardless of the obstacles you have to overcome or setbacks you may encounter. And then you have to, you know, actually go out and do it. Nothing gets done on its own, and no one will do it for you. It’s up to you.

2. Focus on the process, not the result: What does this mean? It means that if everything you do is done with the sole purpose of working for [insert specific person here], you won’t get anywhere. The odds he/she’s going to hire you are very small, and if you don’t get hired quickly, you are eventually going to lose momentum and quit. But if you approach this as a process of learning and developing yourself for whatever it is you hope to do and develop a process that you enjoy and find rewarding to you regardless of end goal, then its something you can not only sustain for years, it has the added benefit of working no matter if you get an internship or not. This is a CRUCIAL concept to understand. Here’s a parable that best expresses this idea:

Let’s say you want to win this archery trophy. That trophy is the most important thing to you. So how do you get it? You have to be good at archery first, in order to hit the bullseye and ultimately get the trophy, right? And how to you get good at archery? By focusing on archery, not on the trophy. That’s the paradox; you’re so focused on the outcome that you never learn to enjoy the process, which ultimately sets you up for failure. But if you focus on archery (the process), you’re more likely to hit the target, and win the trophy.

Getting hired by a successful person to an internship/mentorship position is the same thing. Focus on the process, and you’ll reach your goal. Focus on the goal, and you’ll compromise the learning process and ultimately come up short. Whether you win the trophy or not is irrelevant — the process is what matters.
So what is the process to getting hired as an intern/mentee? HOW do you get hired?

Well, the first thing you have to understand is that there is not one single way to get hired as an intern by someone famous who doesn’t have a formal hiring process. This isn’t a college application process where thousands of people do it every year and the process has very specific and identifiable steps. I cannot explain to you the exact specific steps you have to take, because there are infinite paths to the goal and those paths are going to vary depending on who you are, what you like to do, and who you want to work with. But there are some principles that apply to everyone trying to walk this path:

1. Demonstrate performance: Before anyone hires you—ESPECIALLY for a non-traditional job—they want to know one basic thing before everything else: Can you do the job? If you are looking for a normal job, then you list prior experience on your resume, right? Well, getting hired to be an intern for a successful person is not fundamentally different, you just have to demonstrate your performance in different ways.

That was the entire point of the process I created to hire my latest set of assistants: I wanted to see examples of the type of work they’d be asked to do for me, and I also wanted to see what they’d done before the application process started. And the sad fact is, the vast majority of people did not fail at the simple tasks I asked them to do, but they failed catastrophically at the task of their own life. I cannot tell you how many people said they wanted to, for example, “be a writer” but almost none of had actually WRITTEN anything. I’m not talking about a published book; I’m talking about a blog, or a tumblr or even a fucking half-decent Twitter feed. NOTHING. That WANT to write, but they don’t ACTUALLY WRITE ANYTHING. What the fuck is stopping them? Nothing but their bullshit excuses.

So how can you demonstrate performance? Well, there are about 1000 fucking ways to do that, and the specific answer depends on what and who you want to work for.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say you really want to be part of the new and emerging diet/nutrition/exercise world of Paleo/Crossfit/Ancestral health/natural movement. Let’s say you read “The Paleo Solution” and you decide your ideal mentor in this field is Robb Wolf. Good call, Robb is brilliant, always looking for smart people to work with and he’s a super generous guy who could teach you a lot. Say you approach him trying to establish this sort of relationship. Why does he hire you over any number of other people approaching him? Do you have training diary/website/tumblr showing your dedication, and maybe starting to explore the ideas in the new field to show him? If you don’t have that, you could have a blog that explores cooking, for example, Thai food, from a paleo perspective. You could do any number of new or cool or interesting things like this; basically anything that shows you are not only care about this field, but that you’ve already done something in it. There is less risk in working with you, because Robb can SEE what you’ve done.

If you’re saying, “But I want to get hired first, then I’ll start that stuff” my question to you is “Why would anyone hire you if they aren’t already sure you love this and can do it AND can see EVIDENCE of that love and dedication?” If you wait for Robb to hire you to start this stuff, you may never get in, because why should he pick you over any number of other people, especially those who have demonstrated performance? But if you already show determination and ability BEFORE he works with you, he can see what you’ve done and can be confident that working with you will produce results. Or, he can tell you what else you need to do to prove you can work with him.

Here’s the thing you have to understand: If you’re working in a traditional field, there are already processes created to credential you for them. For example, the path to being a surgeon or engineer is very defined and the credentials are clear, and you either have them or not. But the path to any sort of non-traditional job or internship/mentee position is very unclear. You need to essentially create your own credentials, and demonstrating prior performance at similar tasks is the best way to do it.

2. To earn a position, start by giving lots of work away for free: If there is a person you specifically want to work for, learn about them, figure out where they need help, do it, then give it to them. FOR FREE. You have no idea how rare that is. When you are in my position, or really ANY position of fame or status or title, people come to you constantly with their hands out. Everyone wants something. When you come with a gift, then ask nothing in return, it gets attention because it is so fucking rare and useful. Thats actually a pretty famous con, but instead of using it as a con, you can use it as leverage to get a job and learn a shitload more things.

In the example I set up with Robb Wolf above, I bet if you right now went to his website and read a bunch of stuff on there, you could find any number of things he needs done, but either doesn’t have the time or desire to do himself. So offer to do it for him, for free. Here’s a great example: he does podcasts all the time. I hate listening to podcasts, but I would probably read a transcript of them. So transcribe them for him, for free. Do it one time, without even telling him, then email it to him. Say you hate listening to podcasts, and you bet there are people out there like you, so you transcribed it for him. Tell him that he’s free to put this on his site for others, and if people like it, you’ll do it again. He may not take you up on it, but if he does, then all the sudden you work for Robb Wolf. Assuming you already have some demonstrated performance on the internet of what you like about paleo, etc, and then pair that with the fact that you’re already doing work for him, and next time he needs to hire someone, who do you think will be first on his list? You.

This is just a random example, but you get the point—bringing value to someone you want to work for is the BEST way to get noticed, then back up that notice with your own demonstrated performance in that field. This is precisely how Ryan, Ian and Charlie came to work for me. I highly doubt that any of these three guys would have made it through a rigorous selection process, but they didn’t have to, because they came to me, showed a desire to work, and then did work for me on their own. Charlie Hoehn mastered this concept in his free ebook “Recession Proof Graduate,” and I would highly recommend you read it if this is a path you want to take.

3. Set your process of demonstrated performance up for success, regardless of end result: This is an important point, so let’s keep going with the Robb Wolf example, because I think it works great here. Let’s say you spend two years creating some set of demonstrated performance in the paleo/crossfit arena, something that really shows you know your stuff and you love doing it. And let’s say you have your heart set on working with Robb Wolf, and you do free work for him and all that, but for whatever reason, he never hires you or works with you. OK, now what?

Well, this gets back to the original question: What do you actually care about here? If what you really care about is working in the paleo/crossfit community, now you have two years of work in the area already there. You should know everything you need to get hired by someone else–Robb is great, but so are any number of other people in that field—or there is another option:

You can always do it yourself. 

Why do you need to work for Robb? Or why do you need to work for anyone, really? That’s the point of doing something, not to get validation from some specific source, but to actually DO IT, right? That’s why, at the very beginning of this process, you need to ask yourself: Why am I trying to get hired by this person? Why do I care about this internship? What about it matters to me? What is the end goal? If you aren’t doing something because you enjoy it for what it is, then you’re doing it for something other reason, something that has nothing to do with the actual activity, and you need to understand that because it changes everything. Here’s a great example:

I get thousands of people telling me they want to be a writer. They go on and on and on about how much it means to them and why they think they’d be a great writer and how do I get a publishing deal and blah blah blah. I ask every single one of them one question:

Why do you want to be a writer? 99% of them have no fucking concept of how to answer that question. They’ve never even asked themselves this most basic and fundamental question. They stutter and stammer and can’t come up with even one concrete reason. [And BTW—there is only ONE correct answer to that question, I will cover that in another thing I’m writing]

I’ll tell you what the problem is: What they want is something they associate with the title of “writer”; maybe it’s the prestige, or the money, or the respect, or the fame, or the attention. They don’t actually care about writing. This is a concept that took me a long time to understand about people because it is so opposite to how I am, and I will come back to it again and again here: how you define yourself. Most people want an identity, they want to be able to say they “are” something, but very few people actually want to do the work necessary to be that thing, because they don’t care about that. They only care about the perception of their identity, not about what they do. Everyone wants to say they’re a writer; very few want to go through the pain and hard work of actually writing something meaningful.

So what is the takeaway for you? What does all this mean for you as a person right now?

What it means is that if you want a mentor to help you make something out of your life, you have to stop waiting and hoping they will come to you; you must be proactive and go create that relationship. But most importantly, you need to set up the process of getting that relationship whereby in your attempt to create it, you can develop all the skills needed to do the ultimate task yourself, in case no one ever comes to help you.

When I started writing, I desperately wanted to find someone to help me through both the creative process involved in writing and the business side of the entertainment business. I looked and looked for that person. I tried everything I could to either attract or find him or her. They never came, but in trying to make myself the type of employee that the expert would want to hire, I set up a process that ultimately turned me into the very person I was searching for. My mentor never came, but over time–because I established my process correctly–I learned everything I needed to know anyway. I became the mentor for myself. Yes it was a harder, shittier road, but guess what: It’s ultimately more rewarding, because now I know everything I need to know and I don’t have to rely on others to do it for me. Self-reliance is very hard, but it is the only true path to freedom.