How to Avoid Mentor Whiplash

Whiplash arrows
If you’re an entrepreneur in any incubator or accelerator you’ve probably got access to a mentor — or several. And there’s the problem.

More often than you think, different mentors will give you conflicting advice about what to do. Who’s right? They could all be right. Mentors generally speak from their experience and what they tell you actually worked for them. So their advice is right — in the context that they were in when they did (or didn’t do) something similar.

And that’s the rub. Your context is likely different from theirs — maybe a little, maybe a lot. Mentors are human beings who come with fully formed biases and unexamined assumptions. Like the fish that is the last to discover water, most mentors are not even aware of their own context.

Suppose you had a rash that wouldn’t go away. You could ask someone else who’s had a rash what to do about it. If you had poison ivy and so did they, their advice would probably be useful. But if they had hives, or an allergy, doing what worked for them might cause problems for you.

Here are some suggestions I’ve come up with from my years of being a mentor, training mentors, and researching mentor best practices.

Take Advice — Don’t Follow it

What that means is don’t blindly do what someone tells you; no matter how successful they’ve been. Consider their advice, the context it came from, and think about the ramifications of following it, ignoring it, or adapting it. Try to get some data about your own context then make a decision.

It helps to write down the decision you made, and especially the reason you made it (along with the date). That way when you’re wrong you can learn quicker. Don’t worry about being wrong. You will be. But if you learn fast enough, business is like baseball. As Robert Townsend said in “Up the Organization” You can strike out 7 times out of 10 and still be batting 300.

Toto, We’re not in School Anymore

In school, your job was to please the professor and give the right answers on the test. But in business, the professors are your customers (not your mentors) and they don’t even know what the right answer is. They just know if they want to buy your stuff or not. It’s not multiple choice — it’s heads or tails. So they’re a hard lot to suck up to before the final exam. And certainly you don’t want to suck up to your mentors. Mentors are great for emotional support, and insight, and even a kick in the butt when you need it. But don’t expect that if you do what they say to the letter you’ll automatically be a success.

The Best Mentors Ask a lot of Questions

They help you learn how to make a decision — they aren’t there to tell you which decision is the right one to make. And when they’re not asking questions; you should. Ask why their advice worked. Ask what else they considered. Ask what they tried that didn’t work. Try to learn their context and see how yours compares. Think about why they would say what they say and how your situation is the same or different.

Opinions are like Assholes

Everybody has one and they all stink. You want something different from a mentor than his or her opinion. Why?

One word: SLANKET. 

Slanket snuggie camouflageIf I was your mentor and you had told me you were planning on putting sleeves on a blanket and selling them in all colors — including camouflage! — my opinion would have been that you were doomed to failure.

And I would have been wrong. Between Slankets, Snuggies, Freedom Blankets, and Blankoats they sold millions!

Hopefully, if I had been your mentor, I would not have given you my opinion, or at least would have tempered it with the caveat mentioned above. Then we could have discussed ways for you to test whether customers had the same opinion as I did, and how you could learn what it would cost to do a test, make a product, launch a brand etc.

So What Are Mentors Good For? Many things. It’s good to know you’re not alone. Seriously. That’s some of the emotional support I mentioned before. And sometimes they do know the answers you need. Especially when it comes to technical knowledge, industry experience, or the psychology of company dynamics. They’re good at connections and helping you expand your network. And the best mentors help you become a better entrepreneur.

So by all means, take advantage of the access you have to mentors. But don’t worry if multiple mentors give you conflicting advice. You can take their advice without following it.

[Thanks to Tim Coates and Kit Needham for comments on drafts of this article which also posted on Medium.com]

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