Freelancing,  Journalism

Mentoring: the why and the how of doing it

If you were to ask me if I was a mentor, my immediate answer would be “No.”

“No. I’m not.” But I’d have to correct myself. It’s not quite true.

I’m not set up as a mentor with a mentoring program. I don’t have regular meetings with a mentee of any sort.

But yes I do end up mentoring people or being in a mentor like position quite often, very unofficially.

And that’s because I believe that it is important.

1) I learn a lot from having to help or train or teach or supervise someone in their work. What I usually end up doing is having to really think about my creative practice and craft so I can answer their questions and explain things to them. That often throws up questions for myself along the lines of “That’s a great way of doing things that follows on from what I do now so why haven’t I done that yet?”

2) There are things you can learn in the experience of doing your work. There are also things you can learn from your peers. And when you walk into a new job, you expect there to be someone somewhere who will be able to show you some of the ropes at least no matter how deep the deep end of the pool that they have thrown you into is. You don’t often have that luxury starting out as a freelancer or starting out as an artist or a writer unless you find other artists and writers and creative or freelancing people and make an effort to mix and mingle. There are lots of things you learn from just observing how people go about achieving the results you want to achieve that may not be able to articulate to you clearly.

3) Learning to be a mentor is a skill in itself. You have to learn how to lead for starters and how to encourage others NOT according to how you wish to encourage them but according to who they are and what sort of encouragement they respond to. You also have to learn to tell, often without being told directly, when to push them and when not to and how to let them learn at their own pace or in their own way. Or how to get them out of their comfort zone but not too far into really unfamiliar territory. These are valuable skills to have for any relationship you have with anyone.

4) People need people. Why say no to creating a relationship if you can with someone? And if you know that mentoring is a two way street, you are then open to expanding your circle of people doing the same thing as you, on the same playing field as you, being just as awesome as you are and you helped them get there. And that is wonderful and amazing because get a circle of people who are all equally awesome and equally keen on similar goals and you have the potential to partner up and totally wow the world with what you can come up with. And then you have more people who support you when you need and who actually understand what your work is like and about. Which is a good thing.

How do you do it?

1) Figure out what they want.

Sometimes they don’t know so it is still, for them, a process of discovery. Sometimes they know what they want – help with something or an answer to a question, perhaps. Once they have an inkling, then try to help them get what they want. You aren’t grooming someone to follow in your footsteps here. You’re their guide for a path they have decided on and that they haven’t gone down before so that they don’t get lost their first few times around and you are a bit better reading the map for now.

2) They are equal.

Just having this at the back of your mind helps a lot because it’s not just about treating them fairly or equally, it means I look at them and say “I’m going to ask you to do this because I think and believe you are equally capable of doing it as I am and also just as equally capable of mucking it up as I am and I don’t do that often so this is definitely something you can do. Don’t freak out, off you go.” Equal in everything. They may need to ask me for something but they may know something that I don’t. It balances out.

3) Have a sense of humour and make it fun.

I am rather informal. I think that helps a lot because I am more approachable to people and quite a few people do walk up to me out of the blue at events and the like and ask me questions. But I also think it takes the edge off the anxiety and nerves that you get when admitting that you want someone’s help, asking for someone’s help when you get the impression that they are too busy or too important or when you are trying something for the first time. If I can joke with you then you aren’t likely to freak out so much about what you are trying to do.

4) Give them opportunities.

I do like doing things. I like being responsible – as the meme says – for all the things. But it’s important to turn around and say “Hey, come help out at this event.” or “Come sit on this committee.” or “You are going to go interview this person and take pictures.” The last one is a lot of fun when the person expects to only be allowed to tag along and shadow people rather than actually do the entire story because they are usually rather shocked that they are allowed to do it. And I don’t miss it when I click publish and see another byline on a story I was originally going to do – I am excited and proud. I don’t miss it when I see how well suited for a role someone else is – I am relieved.

5) Explain clearly why you are making changes to or fixing their work.

Sometimes this is easy as saying “Is that how you spell her name?” or “We need a comma there.” It depends on the work. Sometimes it’s something like: “You have the camera, you know this is what we need the final shot to have but beyond that, experiment and make it exciting. This is your work and your call and not mine so feel free.”

6) Teach them something new.

Perhaps even something that they aren’t primarily focused on. If they come in to work on one skill, when you can, teach them another. It may broaden their horizons and make them re-think their goals for the mentoring process, it may clarify and confirm things for them but at the very least, they have learnt an extra skill that will be useful to them.

7) Make them feel part of the group.

This is part of the equal thing. Invite them to things the rest of the group is doing. Introduce them to everyone. Include them in on conversations and ask them for their input on decisions and choices.

8) Give them responsibility that they don’t expect to have.

See how they cope, see what they learn, see if they take it own and do well. Don’t overburden them.

9) Be honest and direct.

I tell people point blank how hard freelancing is and that helps them decide that it isn’t for them and that’s a good thing because it is far better that they find out now if it something they feel isn’t right for them or what they are not well-suited to than to try to attempt it for years going crazy before figuring it out.

Questions for you:

Have you ever been mentored? Or mentored someone else? In what? How did you go about it?

Photo credit: Jose Téllez via photopin cc

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Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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