Whether you approach your mentor, or they approach you, it’s important to be aware of the skewed power dynamics that happen when a younger person hangs out with an older person. Your mentor should never make you feel uncomfortable, emotionally or physically, and should never act like you “owe” them ANYTHING for their time and energy. Just like you admire your mentor for their work and for the vibes they put out into the universe, your mentor should respect you for your energy, effort, and intelligence. This might include your taste in movies, books, or music, or even your personal style. But commentary on your physical body or looks does not fall into this realm, nor does any other personal topic that makes you uncomfortable.
Jenny: One thing to be careful about: If your would-be mentor is constantly bemoaning about how much it sucks to be old/to be him/her, stay away. If your mentor talks about how it’s going to be so much easier for you than for him/her, stay away. There are exceptions: Obviously, don’t stay away from every single slightly bitter old person because, whatever, most of your older artists are just that way, but as a general rule, your mentor should be able to control/not indulge that side of themselves when around you. I think also maybe this goes without saying, but if your mentor is constantly like “you are so young and beautiful,” or like, “It’s so rare to meet someone who is knock-out smart and a knock out,” then STAY AWAY.
Tova: It can be suspicious when someone has an abundance of free time and chooses to spend it by being aggressively interested in you. My best mentors aren’t running around trying to be mentors or asking to be admired. They’re living life in cool ways, but not pushing that on anyone. If someone is trying to get you to “confess” to them or tell them your “dark secrets,” something is off.
You should never feel like a mentor is trying to “fix” you, or that they think of you as their “project.” If you come to them with problems beyond their expertise, they should recognize that and help you find professionals to address your particular needs, whatever they may be! A good mentor will realize the limits of your relationship and will respect boundaries by not treading into emotional territory you have made clear you don’t want to discuss (through your words, or body language) and by respecting your personal space. If you feel like those boundaries are unclear, you can always say, “This is a sensitive topic for me and I would appreciate it if we could change to subject,” or, “Sorry, I don’t feel comfortable discussing this right now, could we talk about something else?” If you feel that handling an uncomfortable or inappropriate situation is beyond your means, definitely tell another adult you trust about what’s going on.
It’s also important to acknowledge that there are limits to what any person can be to you and do for you—even someone who you get really close to, or who has helped you secure opportunities that you never would have gotten otherwise. This is especially true if this person is an adult, with a family and career or their own. Definitely let them know you appreciate them, even if it’s just by writing them a card or remembering their birthday. Reminding them that you’re thankful for their time will strengthen your relationship. And always share your successes with them—they will be as excited as you are to hear your efforts are paying off!
Sometimes it’s really, really hard to find the kind of adults who have patience and interest in teenage lives (I speak from the experience of being involved in a literary magazine whose faculty sponsor just…never showed up). In those cases, if you look around, there may be some other people who are willing to encourage you and get involved in your projects and passions: Yer peers!
Some of the most exciting “mentorships” happening today are among young people of the same age. Look at Abbi and Ilana of Broad City! They are each others’ own motivators/best pals. Check out what Illana has to say about facing intimidating meetings as a team:
Some people are scared of us, and some think we are dumb little girls. But the way we combat that is just being ourselves in meetings. And having a partner makes that so easy, because when all else fails, I’ll just talk across the table at Abbi like we are chilling by ourselves.
That’s awesome! And here are more wise words from Jenny:
Sometimes not having power makes a person a better mentor than someone who does have a small amount of power, you know? Think of mentors as FRIENDS. And FRIENDS as MENTORS. Friends are not wizards. Friends are not know-it-alls. Friends have not learned the secret to the world. Friends are just friends. Some of them have more insider-y information to a certain aspect of life and this world than others do, and a good friend should be willing to share that with you.
Who wants to see you succeed more than your partner-in-crime does? With your combined powers, you can help each other out. With or without a mentor, you’re taking yourself and your goals seriously, which is proof-positive that you’re well on your way. You’re gonna shine, and other people will take notice. ♦