What do a gruff, sarcastic professor and a warm Italian nun have in common with a little green alien?
- They changes lives
- They’re wise
- They see potential
- All of the above
If you chose D, you are correct! Different as they may be, these three people—my professor, my spiritual director, and of course, Yoda—are all similar in one way: they are mentors. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, from Dumbledore, the bearded wizard of Harry Potter, to Edna Mode, The Incredibles’ quirky fashion designer. Yet they all share a few common themes.
What makes a Mary Poppins?
“Practically perfect in every way.” This iconic quote, spoken by the wonderful mentor Mary Poppins herself, sets a high standard for our teachers. And for good reason—mentors are a fundamental part to every successful person in history. But while you likely won’t find a mentor with a flying umbrella, it’s absolutely possible to find one who will completely change your life.
Not sure what to look for? Here are a few key factors that make a great mentor.
They believe in you
Imposter syndrome: the belief that you don't really belong, that you're not cut out for the job, and the fear that everyone will find out sooner or later. No one is immune to this pesky affliction. Take a look at Simba, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter…really, every single fictional character that’s ever lived. Even those highly accomplished professors experience it! Ask any one of them.
In times like these, there's nothing so empowering—and often nothing so surprising—as a mentor's unwavering belief that you are capable of achieving anything. They think the world of you and let you know it…even when you fail.
And when you do reach your goal, their radiating pride inspires you to keep pushing forward. In the famous words of a great mentor to his mentee, Christopher Robin tells Pooh:
“You’re braver than you believe and stronger and smarter than you think.”
They let you make mistakes
Their unwavering confidence in you might lead to a fear of disappointing them, but mentors don’t expect perfection—they expect learning.
As an inexperienced undergraduate researcher, I had the notion that, yes, failure was part of the process, but it would never happen to me. And then it happened to me. It was the day of my first independent DNA extractions, and the results were all wrong. As each new number popped up on the computer, my heart sank a little lower.
It was with great trepidation that I texted my mentor. Her response? Pure encouragement: “Don't worry about it. You're doing fine.” And the next day, she told me to extract DNA, no supervision required.
Her image of me didn’t change one bit. But this realization then changed my own self-image. If she, one of the women I most admire, didn’t expect perfection of me, why should I expect perfection of myself?
Mentors don’t just let us make mistakes—they expect them. It’s this mentality that encourages us to take risks and try new things, allowing us to learn exponentially more. I think Dumbledore said it best:
“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are far more than our abilities.”
They offer advice
Have you ever expressed a problem to someone, expecting simply a sympathetic "that's tough"? Mentors don't do that. Rather, they take a step back from their incredibly busy lives and think. Only after they've looked at all possible angles will they offer advice.
Their wisdom often comes unexpectedly. On commenting to my spiritual director that I felt especially tired, she made a connection I hadn't considered. “Could it be guilt over skipping class this morning?” And she was so right.
Mentors come to know us well enough to help us understand ourselves on a deeper level. And the crazy thing? They care about us enough to do it. This is often shown in the form of tough love, as Edna Mode tells Elastigirl in The Incredibles:
“Go! Confront the problem! Fight! Win!”
They love you too
At the opening of my mentor-mentee relationship with two grad students, I'd temper my desire to go talk to them. They're busy. You barely know them, I’d think. I would knock on their door every month or so. I soon realized they didn't view me as a bother. The intermittent visits became a daily occasion.
Now we've laughed, complained, and woken up at 4:00 am for research together. At each step of the process, our relationship has grown—a relationship that is very much mutual.
Mentor relationships aren't just about what we, the mentees, get out of them. They’re two-way relationships, valuable to both parties. Gandalf from Lord of the Rings put it best when he said:
“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging.”
Related: How to Be an Amazing Mentee
Bonus: they’re quirky
You might think Edna Mode, Yoda, and Dumbledore’s quirks are purely for entertainment purposes, but real mentors are surprisingly eccentric.
Here’s an unabridged quote of a recent email from my professor, “…you poo poo’d that earlier #I’msohipitcrayyo.”
Some mentors are competitive. Some are sarcastic. Some collect cute mugs. One of my mentors rolls her R’s when frustrated…I find myself doing that too now. Be warned, they rub off on you.
But rather than making them “weird,” their quirks make them all the more compelling. They add spontaneity and laughter to life, even on the hardest days.
So, what next?
You know what makes a good mentor. But how can you identify one from the outside? Maybe you loved them as a professor, or maybe their book is fascinating, or maybe they're always smiling. Trust your gut.
The question then becomes, once you've identified a potential mentor, how do you transition from acquaintance to mentee?
Go talk to them!
All that's left is to go talk to them. Yes, it is terrifying. What if I'm bothering them? Or, They're way too cool for me. But if they're someone truly worth admiring, they'll make time for you. Email them and ask for a 10-minute meeting. Or if their door is open, go in person. It'll be worth the risk, trust me.
And don’t just stop at one! The more mentors the merrier. As Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender put it:
“It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.”
Really, find a mentor!
Mentors are inspiring, quirky people whom you admire and whom you want to make proud more than anyone. Though each mentoring relationship is different, each one will bring so much joy and help you cultivate success in your life. Take the time this semester to establish and nurture a mentoring relationship. A relationship that is practically perfect in every way.
I’m truly grateful for all my amazing mentors and am so glad I was able to give them a shout-out and let them know, once more, that they have and continue to change my life.
Related: How to Find a Mentor