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What Maya Angelou can teach us about having a mentor...

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.

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Did You Know? It's time to find a mentor!

A story from the past

The year is 1968. Maya Angelou’s friend, fellow civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, had just been assassinated. Angelou was grieving at home when her mentor, writer James Baldwin, came knocking.

“I’m taking you someplace,” Baldwin urged.

Baldwin drove Angelou to the home of Judy Feiffer, a book editor, for dinner. Feiffer was so entranced by Angelou’s childhood stories—and her storytelling—that she reached out to Robert Loomis, an editor at big-name publisher Random House. Baldwin, Feiffer, and Loomis all believed that Angelou had a riveting memoir inside of her.

There was just one problem: Angelou wasn’t interested.

Seeing Angelou’s potential at a time when Angelou did not, Baldwin had an idea: Use reverse psychology and tell Angelou that she couldn’t do it.

Motivated by the challenge, Angelou responded, “Well, hmmm, maybe I’ll try it.”

Fast forward and, with the mentorship of Baldwin, Angelou published her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which is now considered one of the top 100 non-fiction books by Time.

So, the next time you wonder whether you need a mentor, remember: Had Baldwin not advocated for Angelou, she may have never published her memoir—and become “America's most visible black woman autobiographer."

James Baldwin in 1969 and Maya Angelou in 2013 (Images via Wikipedia Creative Commons)

A study of the present

Mentors can open doors that we never knew existed. Yet, just earlier this year, nonprofit MENTOR found that:

  • 67% of today’s 18-to-21-year-olds…
  • 62% of Millennials… and…
  • 55% of Gen X…

…can remember a time when they needed a mentor, but did not have one.

And today’s 18-to-21-year-olds are 10% less likely than Millennials to have had a mentor growing up.

What does this data suggest? Despite mentorship’s association with promotions, raises, and improved mental health—not to mention the fact that Americans attribute 56% of their life successes to mentorship—most of us lack mentorship.

So what? If you don’t have a mentor, it’s time to find one, especially if you’re just starting your career.

A strategy for your future

Last week, 43% of you said that you don’t have a mentor. Looking to find one? Ask yourself:

(1) “Who seems especially invested in my future?” Ask them: “I’m wrestling with ______ and value your opinion. Might you have a few minutes to share your perspective?”

(2) “Who’s walked a path I’d like to follow?” Ask them: “Like you, I’m also ______ and would love to follow in your footsteps, especially ______. Might you have a few minutes to share your story?”

(3) “Who could I learn from?” Ask them: “I’ve always looked up to you and how you ______. Any chance you’d be open to letting me ______ (e.g., join you in this upcoming meeting)?”

Don’t worry if you’ve never used the word “mentor” on anyone. It doesn’t have to be this formal. What’s most important is that you have at least one person in your life who’s looking around corners for you. 

I know it because I’ve experienced it: If Harvard Business School Professor Len Schlesinger hadn’t encouraged me to write a book, I wouldn’t have!

Keep building relationships!