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The commercialization of mentorship
June 24, 2014 9:54 AM   Subscribe

In the ultra-competitive worlds of business and freelancing, should mentorship come with a fee? Arguments for and against: "When someone asks to pick my brain, I bristle. My brain is how I earn my living — would you ask a plumber to unclog a drain for free?" "Not every investment of time has to be 'worth it.' Sometimes you just have a brief conversation with someone because—why not?"
posted by rcraniac (76 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
The basis for the medium article seems a little insane to me, considering their source is the New York Post.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:56 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


If you don't want to share your knowledge or wisdom, fine. No need to be a crass, entitled dick about it.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:04 AM on June 24 [47 favorites]


People will absolutely ask plumbers to do things for free.
posted by Benjy at 10:07 AM on June 24 [22 favorites]


Well, if you examine the situation closely, I think you'll find that your social skills are how you earn your living. In other words your ability to persuade people that your time and insights are worth money. It's not quite the same thing, and I would note that that quote doesn't make you sound especially persuasive...
posted by Naberius at 10:09 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


I think he is entitled to be a dick about it. Unless the process is highly formalized, people hoping to be mentored often approach potential mentors with no idea of what they are getting into, and there are incredible demands on time, commitment, and even attachment.

Everyone wants something for free these days. The more you can push back and say "No!" the better it is for all of us.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:10 AM on June 24


I honestly got annoyed with people taking me to lunch and thinking that the cost of a meal could equal my contacts, expertise and advice, so I created a service called ‘Pick My Brain’ on my website. For $500, I give 90 or so minutes of whatever advice the customer need
I can't quite put my finger on why, but my gut reaction is that "networking" in that context is probably worth less than uncompensated networking. I guess because it turns it into a one time purchase rather than a potential connection?

I admit that I don't really get networking, though.
posted by postcommunism at 10:11 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


I'm so eternally grateful to my mentor. We just kind of slid into it accidentally when we realized we were both simpatico. I will to the end of my days take a bullet for that lady. I like to think she gets the joy of seeing a young person succeed and someday I will pay it forward to another young buck.

And hopefully, I'm about to work for her again soon!
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:13 AM on June 24 [13 favorites]


Let's discuss my reader's fee.
posted by boo_radley at 10:14 AM on June 24 [37 favorites]


I don't think people should work for free. That's ridiculous. However, my understanding is that being a mentor is more about inspiring younger people, helping people who are just beginning their journey get a leg up, paying it forward, being kind - these things are their own rewards. Unless someone is really trying to use you, it's hard for me to see charging for an hour of coffee or lunch to talk about what you do as anything more than greedy, entitled assholery. It is not at all the same as asking a plumber to unclog your drain for free.

I think more fondly of the mentors I've had in my life than almost anyone. If I can be that for someone one day, that is payment enough.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:16 AM on June 24 [43 favorites]


I can't quite put my finger on why, but my gut reaction is that "networking" in that context is probably worth less than uncompensated networking. I guess because it turns it into a one time purchase rather than a potential connection?

This is exactly right. You never, never know when someone to whom you give advice today will be a great person for you to know tomorrow. Or when that person will tell their next boss how helpful you were, and THAT will be great. There are enormously selfish reasons to become known as generous.

In no way do I believe that you're obligated to share your knowledge endlessly and without charge, but in no way do I believe it's inappropriate for a person who's trying to advance in a field to ask, humbly and appreciatively, for your time. Some of the most rewarding things I have ever done professionally involve the enthusiastic embrace of young writers who have gone on to be wildly awesome and who, in some way, believe that it helped them to be thus embraced.

I don't as much believe it's wrong to refuse to mentor anyone; I more think it's sad. Of course you have to set limits, of course you have to be able to say no. But all other things being equal, particularly if I have some acquaintance of any kind with someone, however tenuous, I attempt to say yes.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 10:16 AM on June 24 [30 favorites]


To my mind, there's a difference between being a mentor and being a consultant. And there's a difference between being asked for guidance and being asked to do free work. I am not in the least incapable of emphasizing my worth or saying no, but I'm never offended by people genuinely asking for help.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:18 AM on June 24 [24 favorites]


I just had this vision of a wizened old grandparent saying "OK, Little Timmy, I'm about to give you some good advice...but first, stick a quarter in the Wisdom Jar."

OK, carry on.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:18 AM on June 24 [18 favorites]


I used to really help others, then I realized a number of them don't want that advice, they still think they know all the answers and don't see how I am trying to ease their difficulty. They just want to take the long way through. I've realized it is more meaningful if they come to me and ask for help sincerely. Also, some people are still at the beginner stage, so I would have to plow through a lot of defense in order to help them, which is a waste of time. So at that point I will let others do that early work for me and then help them out when they are at the level where I can teach them.

So you can say I now operate by the when the student is ready, the teacher will appear model of mentorship.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:18 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Telemachus walked to the shore, alone, and washing his hands in the grey salt water prayed to Athene: "You, Divine One, who yesterday came to my home, and suggested I sail over the misty sea to search for news of my long-lost father’s return, hear me. The Achaeans obstruct me, the evil and insolent Suitors most of all."

He prayed, and Athene approached him, in the form and with the voice of Mentor: and she spoke to him winged words: "My time is valuable, and every minute I spend with someone is one less that I have to work on what I need to get done."
posted by Iridic at 10:19 AM on June 24 [83 favorites]


To my mind, there's a difference between being a mentor and being a consultant.

Yeah, this really seems to be the crux of it for me too.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:19 AM on June 24 [10 favorites]


I've had the honor to informally mentor a couple of people over the years. Software engineer types, a little less experienced than me or in a new role with more authority. In every case I feel I got the better end of the bargain. Not just the pleasure of helping someone, but also learning skills and seeing things in a new light. Perhaps I should be paying them?
posted by Nelson at 10:22 AM on June 24 [7 favorites]


I had a company where I applied for a job once call me up to tell me I didn't get it, but they really wanted to talk to me about the position. "We just want to pick your brain," they said. "Great, my consulting rate is..." "Oh, no, we don't want to PAY you." "So you want me to give you all my wisdom for the benefit of the person you hired instead of me?" "Yeah!"

They were genuinely surprised when I told them to go fuck themselves. In those words.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:25 AM on June 24 [71 favorites]


I'm not paid to give my opinions. I'm paid to implement them in code.

So the going rate for "picking my brain" remains $0, but only for reasonable requests.
posted by ocschwar at 10:33 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


My Dad's a plumber. He does all sorts of shit for me for free. Since unclogging a drain could take all of 5 minutes, its not a huge request. When plumbers do house calls they invariably bring the snake to unclog a drain, because otherwise, if they go to house armed with only a plunger, quickly unclog the drain and leave, the customer will think, 'i could have done that myself!'.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:41 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


there's a difference between being a mentor and being a consultant.

As OnTheLastCastle and Lutoslawski hinted at, I think the difference is that a mentor sees potential in the student that's worth taking the time to cultivate. A mentor's task is to act as a coach or counselor to the next generation. If someone wants an info dump, pay a consultant for their expertise. Also, a plumber doing favors for people has absolutely zero to do with mentoring.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:44 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I never really thought of mentorship as an obligation for people...is this a thing in the USA? I thought if you basically felt like taking someone under your wing and showing them the ropes, you did so, and if you didn't want to, you simply didn't. If some random person called you for advice, regardless of whether it's "your time is money" or if you just would rather sit around in your drawers and eat Cheetos, why can't you just say "no, sorry"?
posted by Hoopo at 10:46 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Altruism begets altruism. If your desire is for a world free from it, then you're on the right track.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:50 AM on June 24 [15 favorites]


Also, from the second link:

"... he’d been recommended to me as an academic who understood the field of technical communication, and I wanted to ask him some questions about graduate programs. ... Based on our conversation, he told me I’d probably like the program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute."

That's not asking for a free education over coffee, that's getting some advice on the best way to further her education; which to me represents a perfect example of a small bit of mentoring. He didn't provide anything for free that he was "making his living at", he just used his overall experience to suggest how the student could help herself, pointing her in a specific direction.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:57 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


It's not an obligation here either. It's just that high profile people get asked a lot. Obviously, they can't mentor everyone and they're not trying, and they're turning it into a consultation rather than a true mentorship.

This is likely a result of our interconnected world due to social media. It's really easy to reach out to someone via LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. and ask for help.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:58 AM on June 24


To be fair, mentees aren't what they used to be, either. Time was, a willing pupil thought nothing of:

-Climbing a sheer precipice to reach secluded abode of mentor
-Preparing tea for mentor
-Placidly accepting scalding tea thrown in face when preparation not up to unreasonable standards of mentor
-Giving deep tissue massages to mentor
-Assuring the mentor that the mentor is good-looking, and that people enjoy spending time with the mentor and are not just pretending to do so
-Wearing stone shoes to build leg strength
-Not holding it against mentor when the stone shoes inflict crippling tendinitis
-Avenging the mentor's death
-Avenging the mentor's dishonor
-Staking the mentor at Texas Hold 'Em
-If mentor turns evil, cheerfully joining mentor in bid for world conquest
posted by Iridic at 11:00 AM on June 24 [80 favorites]


A case both for and against offering your time for free: Adam Grant's radical helpfulness.

Also, a one-time coffee date does not a mentorship make. I like the way Nelson describes mentoring relationships: ongoing, of significant value to both parties.
posted by torridly at 11:01 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


To my mind, there's a difference between being a mentor and being a consultant. And there's a difference between being asked for guidance and being asked to do free work.

Real mentoring, in my book, is an ongoing relationship that can last years. I still get emails and texts from people I mentor, updating me on news and asking for advice (or, occasionally, telling me about something interesting). I check in with my own mentors from time to time.

Going for coffee/lunch and giving advice is not mentoring, and I could see how that would get tiring if you got requests for it all the time. I get such requests a couple times a year, and I try to accommodate the person, if possible. Why? I see it as part of my job. People did it for me, so that's a duty. And, basically, I think it's the right thing to do.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:07 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Altruism begets altruism. If your desire is for a world free from it, then you're on the right track.

I have found people who demand altruism often already think they are doing you a favor.

Small theaters do this all the time. The demand massive amount of free labor from their artistic staff, and they congratulate themselves on giving these people the opportunity to express themselves.
posted by maxsparber at 11:11 AM on June 24 [5 favorites]


Altruism begets altruism. If your desire is for a world free from it, then you're on the right track.

That's the next blue_beetle T-shirt right there.
posted by contraption at 11:13 AM on June 24


When Bernard Clark asked the Earl of Clincham to "rub [Mr. Salteena] up a bit in Socierty ways," the Earl offered to do so in exchange for a total sum of £42, paid in installments, for which Mr. Salteena was appropriately grateful.

Good luck explaining socierty ways to the entitled and ungrateful youth of today, though.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:17 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


If you really want to be a dick about it, why would you reject the best possible position to crush your future competition?
posted by Free word order! at 11:18 AM on June 24


When someone asks to pick my brain, I also bristle, but only because that turn of phrase makes me start to imagine rusty medical tools and incisions and twitching corpses and ew.
posted by Pfardentrott at 11:18 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Altruism begets altruism. If your desire is for a world free from it, then you're on the right track.

Altruism isn't the same thing as doing everything anyone might ask of you though. If you have even a single protege, is that somehow not altruistic? I'm not really in a position to get asked for mentorship or anything, but if I were in a place where people I didn't know were tracking me down for advice all the time, some/a lot of them are getting turned down so I can do things with my family and enjoy my time off sometimes.
posted by Hoopo at 11:18 AM on June 24


A friend of mine from high school recently posted a note on fb about one of our teachers from high school, a legendary history teacher, who died about a week ago. The post has been steadily filling with comments from his former students from our era (30ish years ago), many of whom have gone one to careers in history. My friend who posted the note is head of the history department for a large public high school; another friend became a Civil War scholar in part because of how our teacher taught it. Nearly everyone mentioned how they had kept in touch with him over the years, and how much he had helped and guided them.
posted by rtha at 11:22 AM on June 24 [7 favorites]


In any industry, the people you meet on the way up are the people you meet on the way down. I don't see lost dollar signs flying away when someone asks for uncompensated expertise. I see it as an opportunity to invest in myself and someone else.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:39 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Sharing wisdom for a fee is fine - particularly if this guy has paid fees for all professional wisdom accumulated from others of the course of his. Otherwise, maybe he should give as he was given to.
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:42 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


Presumably the good teacher was paid to teach Civil War history so well.
posted by LonnieK at 11:43 AM on June 24


Yes? But he was not paid to keep in touch with former students over the years or to answer whatever questions they had about grad schools or jobs or career tracks. So...your point?
posted by rtha at 11:47 AM on June 24 [5 favorites]


I think the notion of mentorship is being diluted a bit by the institution of official "mentoring" relationships.

When I started working at a law firm, I was assigned a couple senior lawyers as "mentors." They were expected to take my calls, show me the ropes, and so on.

These people were completely gracious and helpful. But they didn't take me under their wings. They weren't the kind of mentor that helps make a career. Rather, they were just fulfilling a low-bandwidth job responsibility. Assigning mentors is probably less functional than assigning friends would be.

The kind of mentor relationship that really puts gas in your tank is something else. And the mentor doesn't do it just to be nice -- they do it because they are getting something out of it, some kind of concrete benefit.

It still seems a little odd for that benefit to be cash! But the framing of the debate here as "altruism" vs. money-grubbing is wrong.

Robin Hanson discusses some research on this from Sylvia Ann Hewlett (especially block quotes at bottom).
posted by grobstein at 11:48 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


And here I am bringing the wisdom for free.

Either I'm a chump, an alturist or nursing the largest ego in Christendom.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:55 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


No reason it can't be all 3...
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:57 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


This is why Mathowie pays me for hanging out in AskMe.
posted by bleep at 11:58 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]


I've said too much.
posted by bleep at 11:59 AM on June 24 [7 favorites]


vorpal bunny: “Sharing wisdom for a fee is fine - particularly if this guy has paid fees for all professional wisdom accumulated from others of the course of his. Otherwise, maybe he should give as he was given to.”
Precisely. I had the trade passed to me by the men and women who were a generation ahead of me. They're all retired now. It's my turn to pass the trade to the young people just starting out.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:00 PM on June 24


I feel like I've heard something similar to this, somewhere before... ahh yes. I do believe I heard it spoken by a philosopher and a zealot.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 12:01 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


As someone who is continually trying to do something, and as such, has over the years asked more knowledgeable acquaintances questions, what I find is that most people don't mind a random question now and then. The ones who know you better don't mind offering more often, but at a certain point, I think it gets a bit tiring with even the most simplistic answer.

While Iridic joked about the difficulty of being a "mentee", it is true that once one hits that point where continuous questions force the presumed mentor to "turn off".

It is only when someone specifically OFFERS to mentor, to help, to train that questions asked are seen as less bothersome. That said, I think there is still a strong obligation for the individual to continue seeking out the answers on their own and really diligently work the best they can to resolve the problems they have before asking questions.

The best questions to ask a mentor, I think, are almost divergent in their scope:

1) Local/Minimal: I have X problem, specifically. Here is how I see the issue. Here is how it exists in the larger frame. I think the solution is this, but it clearly isn't. What am I doing wrong? What information am I lacking for this to be resolved.

2) Global/Maximal: Hey, I have this vision here. I want to dig into the issues, but for now, can you give me a few tips on where to start and dig in? Approach from the outside. Turn that little jewel in your head around, find the best places to cut the first facets... Once you get in, as the mentee, it is now up to you to dig in further.

The problems I described as mentee in knowing what to ask are part of the learning process. I see two more issues here:

1) Overasking questions at the "local" level: Each tiny little sticking point, you bring up. "Oh, this variable x isn't doing what I expect..." so you get a tip from the mentor, try it, it doesn't work on the first try, so you ask again, and again... Or it does resolve it, but then one new thing pops up. Since that first hit was cheap and easy, why not take a second... "Hey, mentor!" Inevitably, each tiny little problem becomes an "easy to answer issue" that slowly adds up to a larger problem of constant interruption.

2) Not knowing where the Local begins and the Global ends. There's a fuzzy space above the local level where a detailed answer just isn't possible, but it's still more concrete than an abstract global starting point (of a given problem, not necessarily, even, of a full project). Asking this question, while it may seem simple at first, might entail a much larger need to educate on reframing how you approach or think about a problem. If you have a real mentor, they should relish this opportunity to teach you HOW to think, not a specific answer for a specific problem (in fact, isn't this what a real mentor/teacher does?) However, if one isn't able to integrate these teachings of abstraction at these levels, and moves on to the same level of complication/design in a given issue, they will inevitably be retreading the same questions over and over. The problem there is that each sub-problem has it's own unique solution. This is why detail and concreteness are not necessarily the things you need to know at this level. But you still need more information at this point than you do from a very early starting point, so it's incumbent upon both you and the mentor to be aware what your context and knowledge of the situation is, and figure out how to integrate it the information not just for the given problem as a concrete solution, but how to abstract it out in the future for problems that may require the same approach or pattern of thought. (I use the term "pattern" here very purposely, as it relates to programming, but really, any sort of "pattern/templating of ideas... framework, whatever flips your flipper).

All I know is I'm grateful for the person who is helping me, even if his approach to teaching isn't necessarily the most clear, and it's a more "jump into the deep end of the pool with the sharks" he's been patient and willing to answer questions when he can, so long as I show effort to learn on my own and integrate as well.

Yay for mentors. Yay for people who want to help. I'm sorry that sometimes people who are eager to learn sometimes end up being the little dope fiend looking for an easy fix, calling their dealer each time they run out, instead of trying to rely on a larger network of resources that might be around.
posted by symbioid at 12:04 PM on June 24 [6 favorites]


Yeah, the NYPost article really seems to unnecessarily conflate mentoring and one-off consultation. It does make me curious about the websites mentioned, PivotPlanet and PopExpert; they're clearly designed to be more on the latter end of the spectrum but I wonder if they end up being satisfying for customers.
posted by psoas at 12:09 PM on June 24


This guy is an idiot.

Not only is social capital not finite, but it grows with the more people you help.

This guy and his "F*ck You, Got Mine" mindset is not only selfish and morally wrong, it's also actively hurting his reputation, his networking strength, as his ability to attract new business.

Which is fine by me, because he sounds like an asshole.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:15 PM on June 24 [21 favorites]


Mentors are nice, but what you really need are people who are invested enough to open doors and create opportunities. It's easy to find people willing to give free advice, but much rarer and more valuable to find someone willing to dip into their social capital and help make something happen. It's low risk and low effort for me to give free advice, but much higher risk to ask for a favor on someone else's behalf -- if they screw up or underperform, I will look very bad.

Done right, these relationships have a very long term quid pro quo element. Initially the mentor provides, but eventually there should be a return, perhaps in the form of prestige, friendship, or more concrete rewards. Without that two way relationship I can imagine continued requests for your time to get tiring and I'd start saying no.
posted by Dip Flash at 12:17 PM on June 24 [4 favorites]


That'll be .02, btw.
posted by symbioid at 12:17 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]


I am a funeral professional and the third-generation owner of a family funeral home. Much of what I do is clouded in mystery and there are wildly incorrect misconceptions about what my job is and how I do it. I appreciate any chance I have to help friends through what is likely one of the most difficult moments of their lives.

The good thing about the funeral business is that much if it (at least in the United States) is very similar from state to state. There are regional differences (which can be fascinating), but for the most part, I have the exact same duties as an undertaker in Iowa, Wyoming, or Maine. I've assisted dozens of MeFites who have needed unbiased advice at the time of death of a parent, spouse, or child. I consider the opportunity to share my time and knowledge a gift.

Kindness is its own reward.
posted by ColdChef at 12:27 PM on June 24 [60 favorites]


You are a real human being, ColdChef. I don't say that lightly.

It's what I aspire to.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:44 PM on June 24 [9 favorites]


People will absolutely ask plumbers to do things for free.

If porn is an accurate reflection of real life, then yes, yes they absolutely will.
posted by gurple at 12:52 PM on June 24 [10 favorites]


I have the opportunity to mentor a 12yo kid this summer. He's really interested in electronics, mechanical systems, computers and SCIENCE!! and that's right up my alley. I've got all sorts of plans laid out for the summer, starting with Erector sets to get basic mechanical theory down, then electronics kits and breadboards to get those fundamentals, working up to basic "build it yourself" kids like a simple robot or a car that follows a line, maybe building and launching a model rocket with a camera, finally building up to the final project of putting together a 3D printer from parts and using it to produce parts for a second printer.

As for compensation for my time and materials, just the opportunity to feed a young mind that is so hungry to learn things that I know something about is more than enough reward. To me, that's what mentoring is all about, the opportunity to share your lifetime of accumulated knowledge and experience with someone who wants to learn and will appreciate it, and will hopefully pass it on as well. If you're in it for the money, you're not a mentor, you're a consultant.
posted by xedrik at 12:55 PM on June 24


LOL. Someone who is full of himself. He just happens to have a few bucks and I wonder how much help he had in getting to where he is.

I know folk who think they have 'made it on their own.' They conveniently forget about a 'small' inheritance ($120k in 1974)
I found out about that 30 years later.
posted by notreally at 12:55 PM on June 24 [8 favorites]


What's all this talk about paying for mentos? Of course you pay for your mentos! You don't expect to get your candy for free, do you?! If someone offers you candy for free, you should hightail it in the other direction, because they are up to no good! Why, my grandmother always said...

...what was that? Not mentos?

Oh.

Never mind.

/emilylittella
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:07 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


If someone is genuinely interested and working to advance themselves in the fields I work in, a networking/brain-picking session can be pretty enjoyable and a has the possibility of long-term benefits. I've also encountered my share of people who think that an hour or two talking to the right person or getting the right contacts is all they need in order to succeed as a software developer or working musician. I try to not let those folks jade me.
posted by yorick at 1:08 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


ColdChef: "I am a funeral professional "

Eponycannibal?
posted by symbioid at 1:46 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


bleep: "I've said too much."

You've said too little, and your pay is consequently being docked.
posted by boo_radley at 1:50 PM on June 24


Urgh. Most of the people I know who actively try to mentor younger folks have essentially irrelevant skillsets and are just trying to prove to themselves that they still have value. Beware of people who claim to be knowledgeable but don't actually produce anything. That's my advice, kids.
posted by miyabo at 2:06 PM on June 24 [8 favorites]


Unless Anna Davies is a famous celebrity with a full schedule, getting coffee with someone in her field isn't some kind of huge burden, and nor is this kind of discussion with a low-level member of her industry some kind of major consulting service. This isn't "mentoring" or consulting. It is the minmum expected of a professional colleague. If it is so constant, lucky for you! Write up a document with the answers you are constantly fielding!

This person thinks a lot of herself. Anyone who is really that important can afford gatekeepers or can afford to redirect these junior colleagues to other people with more time for a quick coffee.
posted by deanc at 2:12 PM on June 24


I think one of the points sort of alluded to in the article is that, for freelancers, other freelance writers are both your colleagues and your competitors. It's not the same thing as mentoring a young engineer who can't compete with you on experience or seniority, nor is it like giving free advice or services to someone who is a client of yours or someone in your industry.
posted by muddgirl at 2:21 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


Unless Anna Davies is a famous celebrity with a full schedule, getting coffee with someone in her field isn't some kind of huge burden

I realized I didn't actually know what it is she does (beyond "freelancer"), and turning to one of her earlier pieces it appears she's a former magazine writer who recently had enough free time (and funds) to take a belated gap year. So...point made, I guess?
posted by psoas at 2:28 PM on June 24


If I were getting called once a week by people who wanted to pick my brain, I would start to get a little resentful, too. I get these requests way less often than that, so I'm happy to have my brain picked.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:56 PM on June 24 [3 favorites]


I think asking for payment is going to depend on how broke the asker is, and how much they are willing to commit to whatever it is, plus time investment.

"Mentor" implies to me a long-term continuous relationship. Mentoring is generally considered to be free because the poor young dumb broke schmuck who needs it couldn't afford to pay for regular counseling. I don't think a one-off fishing expedition by someone who's young, dumb, and broke should count as mentoring. This isn't the same kind of thing as asking a plumber to fix your toilet for free, either.

I tend to think if someone wants me to pay their however-high consulting fee to talk to them once, that seems like a bit much. I can understand their logic if someone is asking them to do something for free that they normally do for pay, but just asking about their business or whatever once? We call that an informational interview, I believe, not a professional business consultation.

Asking for full price implies a commitment and perhaps even a continuing financial relationship. Not everyone is looking to do that, exactly.

"I’ve found that those who value my time and expertise are happy to pay the fee,” she explains."

I don't always think it's that you're not valued and thus they want it for free. It's more like, they want to dip a toe in the water to see if it's fine before they go put on a bathing suit and all that sunscreen and hop in the water (which if you're me, takes a while) and then find out it is way too cold to swim in. Sometimes I'd just like to ask a few questions and be on my way and see if I like what you say and see if I want to continue following up on this field or not. I may just not be ready to commit to paying a professional full price on this topic. And the price may be high enough to intimidate me. I know I've backed out on wanting to talk to people once they said "I will if you pay me $90 an hour first." Which maybe was their goal there anyway.

I'm siding with Karen McGrane on this one: give 'em a one shot and see what happens.

"When someone asks to pick my brain, I also bristle, but only because that turn of phrase makes me start to imagine rusty medical tools and incisions and twitching corpses and ew."

I keep thinking what, like there's lice in there?
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:27 PM on June 24


ColdChef: "Kindness is its own reward."

My rule of thumb is "today you, tomorrow me". If I can help someone, I do. If I can't, I try to refer them to someone who can.

As a corollary to this, though, I try to avoid having personal or professional associates who view me as an exploitable resource. Fortunately, those people are easy to spot:Avoiding people who fit these three criteria has improved my life immeasurably.
posted by scrump at 3:37 PM on June 24 [9 favorites]


I sort of feel like, in most cases, if mentorship is a wholly charitable undertaking You're Doing it Wrong. The two people I see as mentor figures established a relationship with me, not a knowledge donation. They give me advice (and more importantly, opportunities/experience); I give them my work and connect/laud them to others whenever I can. I imagine when I'm in the height of my powers, so to speak, I'll be able to either give back to them in some immaterial way or to pay it forward. There's definitely a quid pro quo there, but not in a cynical way.

(Explicitly charitable mentorship definitely does have its own place, but if that's not your intention and you feel taken advantage of, I think something's gone wrong.)
posted by threeants at 4:02 PM on June 24 [3 favorites]


I think one of the points sort of alluded to in the article is that, for freelancers, other freelance writers are both your colleagues and your competitors. It's not the same thing as mentoring a young engineer who can't compete with you on experience or seniority, nor is it like giving free advice or services to someone who is a client of yours or someone in your industry.

This is very much true. I have a technical career, plus I do freelance writing on the side. (Did, anyway.)

When I've had interns at my regular job, it generally goes pretty smoothly (plus I'm getting paid for my time, so there's that). But one of the people who 'picked my brain' about the writing immediately turned around and poached a client by deeply undercutting my rates. Most people aren't that bad about it, but it is kind of one of those things that everyone thinks they could do, so everyone wants to know more about it. Plus the undercutting. It's almost impossible to make even minimum wage anymore unless you're very specialized or well known, just because the field is full of plagiarists and hacks who will work for pennies.

So freelance writers, even schlubs like me, do get an unusual number of people wanting help starting out. If she gets regular, highly visible bylines, she's probably getting a lot more requests than you imagine.
posted by ernielundquist at 4:24 PM on June 24 [6 favorites]


I've never had a mentor, and I wish I had. But on the other hand, I tend to take jobs that never existed before or are done in a weird way for a particular company, so there isn't anyone who could mentor me. Or that I can mentor.

With the job market changing constantly, I have to wonder if that isn't true for lots of folks. There aren't many guides when you work in a niche profession and/or one that's only existed for a few years.
posted by emjaybee at 6:06 PM on June 24


Most good mentoring should be possible in the context of just going about your day. And if you're doing it wholly within a work environment (ie supervisor/supervisee) relationship, it should make the job of the mentor easier. If it doesn't, you're doing it wrong.

I just found out that my mentor got summarily dismissed as part of a re-org. I'm trying to reach him to offer what support I can, even though he'll be fine without any help from me. His approach was to expect things of me, and be available to answer questions when I needed steering. It worked amazingly well for me.

Why will I mentor somebody? Because somebody did it for me. Pay it forward asshole.
posted by dry white toast at 6:45 PM on June 24 [5 favorites]


Pretty sure their brain is how a plumber earns their living too
posted by Greener Backyards at 7:51 PM on June 24 [2 favorites]


Anybody who does anything, their brain is how they earn their living. I don't have time for people who say they don't have time for things.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:45 PM on June 24 [3 favorites]


I'm always torn on this, on one hand, I genuinely enjoy helping people. On the other, there are plenty of demanding people that want you to share your knowledge for free because it's free. Some people have taken advantage and used my desire to be helpful to make themselves look good, and it can be frustrating when they're reaping rewards and accolades on something they wouldn't have gotten to without my help. Or taken credit for because I'm the one that knows how to fix the problem.

And people get upset AND indignant when you say you don't have the time. It's the people that want to get the answer on a plater, not figure it out on their own. Figure it out, ask of you're stumped and show me why so I know you're not just trying to avoid doing the work of searching and testing yourself.

On the other hand, I've considered consulting because I have a mad amount of knowledge for someone in my field. I keep wondering if I shouldn't try to do some consulting but I don't really know where to start. I know my field and am frequently asked for help. But I am not good at selling myself, so it's a moot point most of the time.

Anyway, I can see the point. There are many people looking to use your time, energy and knowledgeable no cost to turn around and use it to make money for themselves.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:22 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


We should seek to bring down the ultra-competitive worlds of business as well as any freelancing not paid for actual technical knowledge. Accepting that goal will help clarify the difference between being a mentor and being a consultant.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:01 AM on June 25


I have said it before - and will say it again - the more I give back, the more I receive.

... and frankly, there is only one person who "abuses" things a little bit - but that person is also a friend, so...

Thanks to this, my network has reached a point where I will hear about opportunities prior to getting the calls from recruiters/agencies - which is a far far better place to be. My rate has steadily increased and I am considered a trusted advisor - even by my competitors. (Which I do not truly see as competition - there is more than enough work for all of us)
posted by jkaczor at 11:33 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


In the graphic design community there are people who want to be mentors. They go to conferences and join professional groups like the AIGA.

Then there are those other people who don't have time to be mentors, don't attend conferences, lectures and don't want to be mentors.

Naively, to call this mentoring for a fee is basically looking at mentoring from the other side--as a consultant who doesn't want to mentor in the first place, and thinks about everything in terms of the cost of their time.

Frack 'em!

And Ms. McGrane didn't have a mentor. She got surprisingly good advise (or misinterpreted bad advise or talked to the monkeys at the zoo, who knows) from a kind hearted stranger--she doesn't even remember their name!

What's at issue in mentoring and networking and conferences and all that jazz is socialization around one's profession. If you want mentoring, that's where you need to look. Otherwise you're finding someone who thinks you're funny (or sexy or whatever) and wants to talk to you. If a friendship grows out of that, which is supportive of your professional (and life goals) then that's a mentor.

The idea of mentor for hire is just dumb. But hey. There are a lot of desperate people out there with $500 and no idea what the hell to do with their lives. And the NYPost will point you to peeps who will take your money.
posted by xtian at 3:47 PM on June 26


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