When I was a little girl, I had a hard time finding the right role model. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, yet the lives of my favorite authors—Jack London, Laura Ingalls Wilder, John Steinbeck—couldn’t have been more different from my own.
The women in my real life weren’t viable options either, since they worked mostly as teachers and nurses. And though I didn’t consider following either of those career paths, it appears many women did. In fact, most of the women surveyed for the Professional Woman Report released by Citi and LinkedIn said that as kids they aspired to work in the educational (23%) or medical (22%) fields. That said, less than half (47%) ended up doing something related to what they dreamed of when they were younger.
I was lucky to find such a powerful role model in my own family, but the truth is, great professional mentors are everywhere.
Meanwhile, my desire to be a writer only intensified as I grew older. But it wasn’t until college, while pursuing a journalism degree, that I connected with someone who did what I wanted to do for a living. My father’s cousin and his wife, Deborah, were both newspaper writers, and she had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. We met up one day when she was invited to speak at my journalism school. Deborah walked the campus with me and gave me valuable career advice. Her example encouraged me to get a strong foundation in journalism by working at a newspaper before launching my freelance career, and I’ve continued to turn to her for encouragement and practical advice about making my way as a writer.
I know I was lucky to find such a powerful role model in my own family, but the truth is, great professional mentors are everywhere. Here are three tips for connecting with the right person:
1. Don’t limit yourself to superstars. While it seems intuitive that the highest achievers in any field are the best role models, research suggests that it’s better to choose a successful but not exceptional role model. Why? Researchers created a simulation to pit skill against luck and found that those who make it to the very pinnacle of success often took big risks and got lucky. The chances of someone else achieving success by following the same path is low.
2. Look beyond your field. It may be helpful to broaden your search to include women or men you admire from other walks of life, especially if you work in an industry with few female leaders, such as technology. Focus more on finding someone who inspires you, regardless of their profession.
3. Tap into your support network. Perhaps surprisingly, Facebook Chief Operating Officer and women’s leadership guru Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t recommend that women ask someone to be their mentor. Mentors select their mentees based on potential, not because they were asked, she says. But that doesn’t mean women should just sit back and wait to be discovered. Sandberg recommends forming or joining a circle of peers who meet regularly and support one another. From there, a natural mentor/mentee relationship may begin.
Who’s your role model, and how did you choose him or her? Share your experiences in the comments section below.