Answer by Gayle Laakmann McDowell on Quora.
You don’t ask someone to be your friend. So why do you ask them to be your mentor? Think about your closest friends — or even your less close friends. When you asked them to be your friend, what were your terms? How often would you hang out? What would you do together? What would the expectations be on each side?
Oh, right. You didn’t do any of that. You didn’t ask them to be your friend. That would be weird. But somehow or other, you became friends. Maybe you just “fell” into a friendship by hanging around each other. Maybe there was something specific that connected you, like having children the same age. Maybe someone introduced you two because you just moved to town. Regardless of the reason, nothingness evolved into friendship.
Like friendships, mentorships — the ones that actually exist, not the ones that exist in name only — rarely start from a formal request, and certainly not from a near stranger. It doesn’t work for mostly the same reasons. It’s artificially trying to create a personal relationship. Moreover, with many mentorship requests (especially those between strangers), the more junior person is often not actually committed to making it work. If you’ve never sought out my advice before, why do you think you’re now going to want it regularly? Your interest will likely wane. Let’s be honest: neither of us are likely to follow through with this mentorship, even if we both intend to.
If you want someone to be your mentor, don’t ask them to be your mentor. Let it build (or collapse) authentically. That doesn’t mean you can’t seek out mentorships. You can, just like you can friendships. They’re not all that different. Both are fundamentally personal relationships, even if one is forged over drinks and gossip and other over coffee and advice.
Make yourself not a stranger
I recognize the names of people who regularly comment on my Quora posts, who re-share my Facebook posts and who re-tweet my tweets. If I feel like you’re not a total stranger, I’m more likely to help you.
I can absolutely forgive grammatical mistakes. But if you’re adding spaces before periods or not capitalizing words, that’s just being lazy and unprofessional. If you’re lazy and unprofessional, I’m unlikely to try to help you professionally. Why bother, if you’re not doing what you can to help yourself?
Get to know them — in person
An online connection just isn’t the same. Make it really, really easy for the other person. Find out where they work or live and meet them nearby. Offer to buy them coffee; it’s not about the money. It’s about establishing that you value their time.
Be persistent — but only a little
I get a lot of emails and, much as I wish this weren’t the case, I don’t respond to all of them. If this relationship matters to you, follow up. For the most part, I don’t refuse to respond to emails. I just haven’t yet gotten around to yours yet.
If I know you (even a little), if I feel like you’re trying to help yourself, if I feel you’re a nice person, and especially if I feel a little obligated, I’m a lot more likely to chat with you — especially if you make it easy for me. We can see where things go from there. We don’t need to establish terms and conditions, so please don’t ask me to be your mentor.
This article originally appeared on Quora: How do I ask for a mentor?
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