Finding & Choosing a Mentor

Behind the Boutique Kristina Nissen Finding a Mentor

Hey all! Since stepping away from my other work and starting Ellie & June, I’ve been approached so many times from people with great ideas who just want to take that dive and are looking for advice. Originally I planned to write a post on how to create the supportive infrastructure to take that leap of faith. I came up with about 10 items but quickly learned I wanted to speak to each of them in more depth. As a consequence, I decided to break each item up into individual posts 🙂

When I first bulleted my list, I wrote “Find a Mentor” first.  To me the word “mentor” isn’t a phrase I use lightly. Here’s where I want you to pay attention: my mentor is not my exceedingly supportive husband. It is not one of my parents. It isn’t the most knowledgeable person I know. It isn’t my most successful friend. For the purpose of today, I say mentor in a professional context. This is someone who will inspire you to see the world in a different way. This is someone you work closely with, perhaps often. Think The Devil Wears Prada… except ideally in a healthier context.

My experience with my mentor had three characteristics that I’m writing about today: 1) My mentor didn’t appeal to me whatsoever in the realm of “failure or success”; rather his personal attributes exceeded the maturity of mine. 2) I offered to work for this person for free. I figured the rest out. 3) My mentor has no idea he was (and still is) my greatest mentor. For real.

Now let’s break those down.

Individual characteristics are far more important than success.

Throw out the idea that your mentor has to be the most successful person that you know. Throw out the idea that your mentor is someone doing exactly what you’re doing. Do me a favor and just get rid of the idea that your mentor is exactly who you want to be in X years. Shift your focus away from end results and towards the individual that supports it.

I genuinely wanted to be a better and more knowledgeable and self-aware person because of Lee. This was completely isolated from any type of “success”. I wanted to read more, learn more and do more merely because I was around him professionally. It wasn’t about what he did, it was how he did it. It was his personal experiences, charisma, communication, and confidence. It was who he was as an individual; and it was so beyond my own capabilities at that point.

What kind of person has the individual infrastructure to do the sort of thing you want to do (broadly speaking- for example start a business)? Again, this is completely isolated from where they are on their journey of failure or success. What kind of person, in your view, really has what it takes to do what they’re trying to do? Who exceeds your own capabilities and inspires you? Start there.

The perfect opportunity might have to be created.

Throw out the idea that your mentor will find you and offer you an apprenticeship. Throw out the idea that your mentor even has the time to coach you. While we’re here, throw out the idea that your mentor is obligated to pay you.

I met mine in a graduate class I was taking. He came in to speak and I remember thinking “Holy sh– I want to learn everything that he’s learned” (this is different than wanting to know everything that he knew). I wrote down his company. I sent him an email. I called him. I offered to intern at his firm for free so that I could observe right alongside him. I only did it for a couple of hours a week because I went to school and worked full-time.

When you find someone you want to observe and learn from you’ll probably need to get creative to make it work. Remember this is strategy not trajectory. You’re not concerned with high-rise buildings, executive suites, flashy business cards, catchy titles and a robust salary. You’re concerned about learning. You’re concerned with how closely you can work with your mentor. I’ll give you a hint: the assistant to Warren Buffet is closer to what he does than a junior analyst. Think outside of the box to make it happen.

He/she doesn’t have to know that he/she is your mentor.

Throw out the idea that your mentor has to agree to being your mentor. Throw out the idea that there’s a conversation like “Sure, I’ll be your mentor”. Throw out the idea that your mentor has to be agreeable, nice, or even like you, haha!!

When I think of mentors I visualize Socrates and Plato. There’s the sound of calm running water and bilaterally voluntary exchanges. Hey- if you can find this arrangement GO FOR IT! But I’m also here to tell you it doesn’t have to look that way.

I think that Lee was generally annoyed with me most of the time. Correction: I know he was. There were a couple of things that he taught me directly, but mostly I observed. I figured out where he turned for knowledge and I went there myself. I discovered the books he read and I started to read them too. I watched, I listened, I answered 1000 things incorrectly and then did 1500 things incorrectly. I left every time thinking of how much I would need to grow to get there (for the record, six years later and I’m still not there yet). I had no idea, but I discovered my deficit quickly.

Lee doesn’t know that he was my “mentor”. I don’t think that he was particularity impressed with me overall, and he sure as hell didn’t think that I would be one of the more successful interns that passed through his investment firm. It doesn’t matter. I’m eternally grateful for my time with him and I always appreciate a good challenge. Now go find yours and make it happen 😉



Behind the Boutique Kristina Nissen Finding a Mentor



  1. October 23, 2017 / 4:39 pm

    You are so awesome and an inspiration to those of us who are paying attention. Thank you for the lesson in your post.

    • Kristina Nissen
      October 23, 2017 / 5:54 pm

      Oh my goodness- thank you so much for that 🙂 Sending you all my love now and always. XOXO

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