How Mentoring Gave Me New Insight Into the Meaning of Career

3 things I've learned from being a mentor and mentee

I'm both a mentor and a mentee. These roles are not by any means mutually exclusive. While I am a mentor to someone else, it certainly doesn't mean I have "all the answers" when it comes to career, and don't also benefit from the advice, insight and guidance that having a mentor provides. Nor should it. If there's anything I've learned from my dual roles, it's that there are a number of familiar themes when it comes to career that are consistent with both.

I've always placed a huge amount of importance on career mentoring. In all of my professional roles, I've actively identified smart, successful and strong people around me that I can learn from. I would observe their conduct in meetings and managing difficult stakeholders, I would ask questions, and I would seek out opportunities to work alongside them. But there was a point in my career when I would look up to these people and think they had it all figured out. Oh, how wrong I was. 

No one has all the answers.

When I first began mentoring (through the excellent New York Women in Communications organization) I wondered if I, too, was meant to have it "all figured out" when it came to career. I absolutely had valuable experience and learnings I could share, but did I know everything? Of course not. And did I need to? That's another hard no. 

Talking to my own mentor helped to drive that point home. She was intelligent, insightful and straight-to-the-point, with an incredibly impressive résumé. All of the things that someone wants in their mentor. But like me, she had her own career questions, despite being 10 years ahead of me in her professional journey. Having a more senior title, more experience or being older doesn't mean you wake up one day as an all-knowing career oracle. You still have questions, you still have challenges, you still have ideas. They're just different to the ones you had at earlier stages in your career. 

Which leads me to my next learning. Careers are rarely (if ever) linear. 

Nothing's forever.

When I was interning at college, I casually mentioned to my manager that my college job in retail "wasn't forever" and I was looking for a job aligned with my career that was. "Nothing's forever" was her response. It stuck with me. Here was someone working a great job in an industry and field they enjoyed. Why wouldn't they want to stay there forever? Because people grow, things change, and goals and aspirations evolve. It was an eye-opening moment.

When talking to my mentee, who was at a career crossroads herself and wondering about changing industries, that phrase came back to me. If she was to change roles or industries, it didn't mean she would be committed to that for the rest of her career with no ability to change it. She had the power to change her current career path, and she didn't need to simply progress from one role to the next because that was how it looked on paper. 

The more I talk to intelligent women, my mentor included, the more I see that rarely do people's careers follow a perfect linear path. Careers are messy, they are always evolving, and what you wanted to do as a wide-eyed college intern is likely very different from what you want to do 10 years later. And that's how it's supposed to be. 

Career is worth thinking (and talking) about. 

That's not to say career is something you want to leave purely to chance or good luck. In both the conversations I had with my mentee and my mentor, I was almost surprised that there were people out there thinking about their career as much as I was. I shouldn't have been surprised. Thinking about your career helps you make better decisions and act with intent, directing your focus and energy to give yourself the best chance possible of being in the right place at the right time. 

If thinking about your career is valuable, talking about it takes it to a whole other level. The conversations I've had with both my mentee and mentor have been interesting, insightful and inspiring. I leave my meetings with new ideas, new perspectives and a motivation to turn my thoughts into actions. Saying something out loud makes it real. It opens up discussion, invites feedback and holds you to account. And hearing the stories of others is inspiring. Everyone's career story is unique and their own, but there is plenty to be learned from hearing the journeys of others. 

It pays to put the time and energy into thinking about your career and what you want it (or think you want it) to look like now, in six months, in five years. Chances are you'll never figure it all out, it won't go to plan, and what you're doing now will be completely different in five years time. 

But that, as my mentee and mentor have taught me, is all part of the fun. 

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Claire Nance
Claire Nance is director of corporate communications at IPG Mediabrands.