How to Repay Your Mentors

August 20, 2012 — 12 Comments

How do you for people who have done so much for you? How do you thank them?

Well, first let’s get something out of the way. Very rarely does anyone else help anyone else out for genuinely altruistic reasons. Unless your mentors were blood relatives, they took an interest in you in large part because there was an interest in it for them. Having a whiz kid or a protege around is good for business, that’s why they’re doing it.

So deliver. Have your shit together. Want it more than they want it for you. Don’t be crazy. Spot new opportunities, never care about credit. All the “Advice to a Young Man” stuff.

But after that, when it comes to all the intangibles–everything they gave you that extends way past any reasonable definition of “work obligation”–there is only one thing you can do: earn it. They invested time in you, they gave you a bit of their truly non-renewable resource. You can’t pay them back. You can only make it have been worth it. Validate the investment and make it clear that you appreciate it. Be a good person; do what you love.

Without being cheesy, I also have to discuss the final step: paying it forward. The people who gave you your first job, showed you their secrets, picked up the check when you couldn’t afford to? They don’t want that stuff back. They want you to see you learn from their example. I’m not saying it’s good karma, but think about it like this: the stuff they gave you, that wasn’t a gift. It was given to you in trust. You don’t exclusively own that knowledge, you aren’t entitled to profit from the advice, you didn’t get some free ride. No, you just got access to it for a while, access that was contingent on you referring other deserving people to it down the line. Got it?

As we get older and more successful, we find ourselves in the position to help people. We were once in their shoes, and we know how we got from there to here. We find meaning in that journey and want other to experience it. At the same time, success makes us soft. It alienates us, makes us a little less hungry. But our experience makes us smarter–we know that our skill combined with someone else’s inefficient but fresh energy would be potent. More potent than either attribute in isolation. Which is why both parties seek each other out and benefit from it.

Just remember that that’s what mentorship is. And that whatever role you play in that equation at whatever time, you better fulfill it completely. It’s what you owe.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

12 responses to How to Repay Your Mentors

  1. True.

    I’m on both sides of the equation.

    There’s defenetly something compelling about getting good so I can pay it forward. It puts a good “burden” of success on my shoulders…

    :-)

  2. That’s the attitude that I hope will truly set us a part from previous generations. For me, the heart of it is truly understanding that by the time you are 25, the 22 year old is the one you should be listening to. You should be so lucky to hear them rant about something they care about, something they see so clearly but isn’t widely understood. Then you can give solid advice, noting that “this is what worked for me” and is not a universal truth. Then they can copy that model.

  3. A very nice way to create eustress and in a way repaying back what really can’t be re-payed.

  4. The explanation of the relationship dynamics between mentor and protege feels spot on. While I feel that I am in still in the process validating my mentor’s investment, staying in the radar with an occasional postcard/birthday card/and email update seems to be appreciated. Thanks for your perspective Ryan. Cheers -George

  5. I really enjoyed and benefited from this post, including the link to the “advice to a young man” stuff. One of the most important messages that I have gleaned from my review of books and articles on networking, especially mentorship, is that you should gradually build a relationship over many years. It’s better to slowly add value to someone you admire, than to blast him/her with random and unsolicited requests.
    Also, I really enjoyed reading Michael Ellsberg’s post on Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelellsberg/2012/01/11/the-tim-ferriss-effect/
    I’m sure that many of you have already read it because he wrote it numerous months ago, but I just encountered it this morning.

  6. Hey Ryan just getting through your new book. Awesome. Coincidentally I’m also reading a bio of Ben Franklin who to my surprise was a master media manipulator! (the details of Franklins life are not well known where I’m from) It’s interesting to see that although the medium has changed the basic tactics are pretty similar.

  7. Nice follow up. I have heard that this is the mentality in silicon valley from other articles and feel more uncertain about finishing schooling. I’m almost certain that mentor relationship would be way more valuable than a degree, especially as a web developer and entrepreneur but stigma of not graduating is frightening! I should probably find a mentor anyway before making a decision..
    Sooo…. Ryan, your about 25 or 26 now right? Maybe thinking about seeking a mentor? Well I’ll be here at the UofA if you want some guidance.

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