As creatives, we’re on nontraditional paths without a template for success. We have an opportunity to design our careers in many different ways. However, without a model for moving forward, we can feel overwhelmed by choice. How do we know we’re making the “right” decision? What’s the best path forward? No one can predict how our careers will unfold, but mentors can provide support as we figure it out. They know what it takes to be courageous in the face of fear, and they know what it feels like to regroup after a failure. They’ve already traversed some of the ambiguous landscape we’ll walk as creatives so their support can help us move forward.
I’ve had mentors during most of my professional life, but as my career has evolved so has my view of the mentor-mentee relationship. Curious about others’ experiences, I spoke to three creatives about what mentorship has looked like in their lives, the role it has played in their careers, and insights they’ve gained along the way. From support during big leaps to lessons about living with as little regret as possible to encouragement during major life transitions, mentor relationships can become a catalyst for growth and change.
Dedicated mentors have encouraged entrepreneur Erik Rodin to take big leaps.
London-based Erik Rodin left behind the known to do something big and scary multiple times. The first was when he quit his job in advertising to explore innovation and learning design. Encouraged by Christina, his then-boss and chief strategy officer, Erik took the leap. “It was a tough conversation to have, but she was supportive of me pursuing what I wanted to achieve. She gave me the push because I was uncertain.” It’s been nine years and Christina and Erik still check in by phone every six to eight weeks: “She has been there to give outside perspective that is honest and direct.”
Most recently, Erik left his full-time role with August Public to start his company, Able, which helps create organizational change in startups and companies of all sizes. He looked to what he calls his “personal advisory board” for support. “There was no way to be 100% prepared. As a company of one who doesn’t want to scale, having mentors has given me trust and confidence that no matter what I’m faced with, I’ll be okay.”
Mentorship provided Erik with support during big transitions. “We all have blind spots,” he said, referencing the Johari window, which defines blind spots as what’s known to others but not to yourself. “Having someone who can hold a mirror up to me and hold me accountable and say 'I don’t believe you,’ or ‘This doesn’t make sense,’ has given me the courage and ambition to take a leap at times when I’ve been nervous to do so.”
An unexpected mentor helped designer Pavithra Dikshit find reasons to say yes more.
Designer and artist Pavithra Dikshit who works as a Senior Designer at Landor in Mumbai, found guidance in an unexpected place—her home. Jawaharlal Ojha began working for her father as a personal chauffeur when she was 14 years old. “He was a person who was always there. I didn’t really think about it. He was with us through many things that happened—sickness, loss, and moving.” More than her dad’s employee, Jawaharlal became part of the extended family, which Pavithra notes isn’t an uncommon thing in India, but also an inspiration and guide for her.
When Pavithra studied at Rachana Sansad College of Applied Arts and Crafts at the University of Mumbai, Jawaharlal was always available to enthusiastically lend a hand and help Pavithra build out art projects. “For him, no job was too small, he took everything as an opportunity to learn, and he used what he had. He was good at Jugaad, which is an Indian word that means to innovate with what is available and think on your feet.”
And then, an unexpected turn: Jawaharlal saw a specialist for concerning medical symptoms and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Pavithra spoke with Jawaharlal on the phone, but never had the chance to say goodbye after he went to the hospital for emergency surgery and slipped into a coma. Jawaharlal left her with one final lesson: Rather than make excuses, she now finds reasons to say yes to the things she really wants to do, like traveling or working on personal projects. “I put the filter on it: Will I regret not doing this? If so, I do it.”
Mentors at milestone moments helped photographer Aundre Larrow move forward.
Brooklyn-based photographer Aundre Larrow says his mentors have been present for specific milestones in his life, but he hasn’t had one dedicated mentor over the years. Instead, he is open to small moments of guidance that have big potential to shape his work and life. He notes that a variety of mentors have helped him “normalize the process and the ebbs and flows” of building a freelance business over the years.
As an eager college student, Aundre’s photography teacher John Kaplan helped define his interest in storytelling. “I pitched a commercial campaign, which he told me would be hard to execute. I was setting myself up for failure.” Kaplan suggested Aundre do a project closer to home about the people he knew, which led to more personal projects that evolved into the work he does now.
After college, Aundre worked for Walker & Company, which specializes in health and beauty products for people of color. There he met Mari Sheibley, then Walker & Co's creative director, who pushed Aundre to develop his talent and wasn’t afraid to say no to work that didn’t measure up to his potential. “Having that guardrail is important. If someone knows you enough to say no, then their yes matters even more to you,” said Aundre.
In the spring, Aundre experienced mentorship from the other side when he taught his first Intro to Photography class as a CUNY adjunct professor at LaGuardia Community College. When asked what he learned, Aundre reflected, “You have to know when to listen so you can provide a moment of clarity. It’s about augmentation versus trying to take control.”
You don’t need an invitation to reach out.
Mentors are everywhere, as Pavithra noted. Her mentor relationship was informal and Erik echoed this approach of taking off the pressure to formalize it. He said it’s important to find someone “experienced in life, whether personal or professional, who is willing to be open and give advice. They need to care, but also challenge you.” Who already exists in your life who cares and might be willing to offer guidance? You don’t need an invitation. As Aundre said, “if someone shares their work and it’s important to you, reach out to them. The internet gives exciting opportunities to meet people you can learn from.”
Mentor relationships can help normalize the natural ups and downs of navigating our careers, through both the expected and unexpected moments. The guidance of mentors gives us confidence to own and pursue our ambitions. Their wisdom challenges us to be open to new approaches when we feel stuck. Their thoughtful questions can help us shift our perspective and connect the dots in new ways. Whether the relationship is formal or casual, whether it lasts years or just a moment in time, the influence of mentors can leave a lasting legacy in our work and lives. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to reach out.
Tina Essmaker is a New York City-based coach, writer, and speaker.