Don’t just find a mentor. Allow yourself to be mentored.

Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, co-authors of A MIND AT PLAY,  have a post on Medium from their book about Claude Shannon entitled 10,000 Hours With Claude Shannon: How A Genius Thinks, Works, and Lives We got up-close-and-personal with a genius for five years. Here are 12 things we learned.

One of those twelve things is about mentoring:

3) Don’t just find a mentor. Allow yourself to be mentored.

A lot of articles like this preach the value of mentorship, and we don’t want to belabor the point. Of course mentors matter. But a lot of writing about mentorship tends to treat a mentor as something you acquire: find the right smart, successful person to back your career, and you’re all set.

It’s not that simple. Making the most of mentorship doesn’t just require the confidence to approach someone whose guidance can make a difference in your development. It requires the humility to take that guidance to heart, even when it’s uncomfortable, challenging, or counterintuitive. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Shannon’s most pivotal mentor was probably his graduate school advisor at MIT, Vannevar Bush, who went on to coordinate the American scientific effort in WWII and became the first presidential science advisor. Bush recognized Shannon’s genius, but he also did what mentors are supposed to do — he pushed Shannon out of his comfort zone in some productive ways.

Vannevar Bush was Claude Shannon’s most significant mentor. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For instance, after the success of Shannon’s master’s thesis, Bush urged Shannon to write his PhD dissertation on theoretical genetics, a subject Shannon had to pick up from scratch and that was far afield from the engineering and mathematics he had spent years working on. That Bush pushed Shannon to do so testifies to his trust in his protege’s ability to rise to the challenge; that Shannon agrees testifies to his willingness to stretch himself.

There’s a whole set of possible responses Shannon might have had to that moment (“Genetics, huh?”). But Bush knew what he was doing, and Shannon was humble enough to trust his judgment and let himself be mentored.

Accepting real mentorship is, in part, an act of humility: The best of it comes when you’re actually willing to trust that mentor sees something you don’t see. There’s a reason, after all, that you sought them out in the first place. Be humble enough to listen.

Entrepreneurs need to be self-confident to withstand the ups and downs of a startup. But unless that self-confidence is combined with humility then no amount of mentoring will help them. One of the beauties of The MIT Venture Mentoring Service is that because the only thing offered is mentoring – there is no funding or customer contacts provided – virtually every founder who comes to VMS is ready and willing to be mentored. These founders manage to leave their egos at the door. I’ve been incredibly impressed by how non-defensive these founders have been, how ready they are to listen, and how their thirst for knowledge extends beyond their domain expertise into the business issues they need to learn about to be successful entrepreneurs.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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