I’ve made a general observation concerning millennials – at least one within my limited context. Young people seem less inclined today to ask for help or assistance related to either professional or personal needs. Twenty-five years ago, many of my college-aged students frequently asked for help. Many have stayed in contact with me over the years, still needing occasional tips or advice. But despite offering this to every class or workshop I’ve ever taught, students – or even the young professionals I work with now – rarely take me up on it.
When having coffee recently with a group of “seasoned” friends and colleagues (seasoned being defined as someone old enough to have gained enough life and professional experience to have learned some lessons along the way), I jokingly shared this observation with the group, thinking that millennials just didn’t want my help. To my surprise, everyone in the group agreed with my general observation and shared similar stories and experiences.
Assuming there’s some validity to this, the next obvious question is “Why?” When I was young I frequently asked for help.
For example, in 1976, I read an issue of Popular Electronics that featured some basic plans on how to build your own computer based on a new RCA microprocessor. At the time, there was no such thing as a personal computer. So the prospect of building my own computer didn’t just excite me, it energized my seventh-grade mind. I used money I had saved to buy many of the parts from Radio Shack, but I had two very large problems: not enough money to purchase the expensive microprocessor and a very limited knowledge of electronics.
What I did have was a neighbor, Bill, who was an electronics technician. I then did what any passionate kid my age would have done. I asked (or more accurately nagged) Bill for his help – something he graciously gave me. Bill even used his connections to secure some free samples of the microprocessor and other components. I learned a lot from Bill. And of course after I constructed the computer, I then wanted something bigger and better. Despite being a busy man, Bill was always there to help. He was my first mentor.
While in high school, I took the knowledge I gained from Bill’s assistance and knocked on the door at Archives, Inc., Iowa’s only computer manufacturer. I asked (nagged) the CEO, Hal, for an internship so I could learn even more. I then spent a couple of years working as a paid intern in the R&D department working with the lead design engineer, Bob. He not only taught me about Archives’ systems, he often helped me on my personal computer project, which by that time had gotten pretty complicated for the limited knowledge of a 17-year-old.
This pattern of asking for help and guidance has persisted throughout my life and throughout the lives of most of my colleagues and friends from my generation. We’ve all had numerous mentors over the years who, when asked, have graciously provided their precious time to help when needed – help that often had a direct impact in developing our thinking and problem-solving skills.
But now that we’re at the point where our age and corresponding knowledge and experience are ripe for helping others, few seem to be asking. Now, I’m not saying my friends and I have all of the answers – although our experience has taught us a few lessons – but something has changed. We want to give back by sharing the wisdom we’ve gained over the years, but few millennials ask for it.
I know young people are busy. Social lives, social media, families, and working a variety of jobs all take their toll. With a continuous influx of new books dealing with the phenomenon of “busy” like Smarter Faster Better and Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Living, it’s apparent that people can still perhaps use a bit of advice, or better yet, some personal support from a mentor now and then.
Why is having a mentor so important?
First, we shouldn’t have to learn everything through personal experience or direct observation. Life is and should be a collaborative experience. It shouldn’t be scary and overwhelming, especially since we’re all surrounded by the cumulative experience and learning of people who have already “been there…done that.” Mentors can help us deal with frustration, give constructive criticism, deal with disappointment, and celebrate success.
Second, we all need people we can confide in. True mentor-based relationships are built on trust and meaningful commitment because most mentors are truly there to help, and they take pride in seeing us succeed. Each relationship should be honest, confidential, flexible, and one that strives for mutually defined outcomes.
Mentors want to be mentors. As Lori Greiner from ABC’s Shark Tank said in a recent interview, “I’m paying it forward. I believe in karma. I think it’s important [to mentor others], and I enjoy it. I feel like I’m doing the right thing.”(1)
Find at least one good mentor - someone you believe has the knowledge and experience you can learn from along with the personal character you hope people see in you. The worst that can happen is they say no, but like Greiner also said, “People are flattered by being looked up to and asked for advice.”
You just have to ask.
©2016 Anthony D. Paustian
(1) Shark Tank's Lori Greiner on the Importance of Mentorship (April 10, 2015) Retrieved April 10, 2016, from the Entrepreneur website: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/244902