Lessons learned from a toothless dry cleaner

Earlier this fall, I made a post on Facebook about a mentor of mine who passed away several years ago. I was absolutely stunned by the reception it received — people came out of the woodwork to share stories about my mentor, and the similar, profound effect he had on them. 

Anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes in a business school has been lectured about the value of identifying and building relationships with mentors. In school I was always told to identify someone very successful in my field and glean what I could from them. That’s good advice, but has the terrible side effect of disqualifying many people from seeing themselves as mentors.

When are you truly successful enough in your field that you ought to take on the responsibility of passing that knowledge on to someone else?

This impression that we need to be somewhere in the c-suite to be an effective mentor is misguided. Everyone has the rewarding opportunity to mentor, from the minute they apply for their first job.

Howie, the mentor whose Facebook post elicited such a strong response, was a dry cleaner from Dorchester. He served in the Army, had little formal education, and was missing most of his teeth (something he used to comic effect). He was not particularly successful in his field, certainly was not affluent, and did not have much in the way of the credentials you’d expect from a traditional mentor.

What Howie did have, though, was tremendous insight. He was very observant, understood people well, and was comfortable sharing his perspective widely. I doubt he ever saw himself as a mentor; he probably felt he was just another guy passing on unwanted advice to people.

But what the response to that post made clear to me was that one person and one piece of advice at a time, Howie had directly impacted hundreds of people (and indirectly thousands more). There’s no possibility this was by design, and it’s unlikely he had any idea of the scope of his impact. But his willingness to mentor, encourage, and invest in people had a profound effect on the community, one person at a time.

Howie, and my countless other mentors, have inspired me to be equally giving of my time. I’ve never run a publicly traded company, but I’ve accumulated plenty of other experiences to share with other people: I know what it’s like to lose a job, sell an idea, experience rejection, start a company, win a big sale, purchase a small business, and countless other things. My experiences are far from all-encompassing, but they’re valuable to some people. And seeing people learn as a result of my experiences is rewarding.

Thank you to all my mentors. The time you’ve invested in me is appreciated, and valued. And thank you to everyone I’ve had the opportunity to mentor; I’ve learned from you as much as you possibly could have learned to me. For everyone else: keep looking for good people to mentor you, but make sure to pay it forward no matter where you are on your life’s journey.