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By Live in the Grey
April 10, 2015

A few years ago, I made a major career leap. The jump made me a little nervous, so when I saw a “speed mentoring” event in celebration of International Women’s Day, I signed to be mentored. Imagine my shock when two friends, independently of each other, emailed the event organizer and suggested me as a mentor. I switched sides of the table and met with more than a dozen women over the course of an hour and a half. At the end of the night, everyone listed who they wanted to be matched with for a mentoring relationship and I was the most requested mentor of the night!

What is Mentoring?

Mentoring sounds like such a serious endeavor, but really all it means is giving advice to someone– using your own experiences to provide some perspective or providing specific skill guidance.

Who Is a Good Mentor?

You. You’ve lived. You’ve worked. You’ve loved. You’ve failed. You’ve been scared. You’ve succeeded. There is always someone coming up behind you who could use a hand. You’re never too young to mentor. You’re never too old to be mentored.

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How Do You Find Someone Who Wants a Mentor?

The best mentoring relationships happen organically. Listen– find out who needs help you could provide. Ask a colleague to meet for coffee. Contact your alma mater’s career development office or your alumni network. Check your professional development association for opportunities. I’ve even connected with people through Twitter. Finding someone to mentor is as simple as deciding that you want to be a mentor.

How Do You Mentor?

Tell your story honestly. The more vulnerable you can be, the more helpful you’ll be. This is not the place to brag or gloss over the blood, sweat, and tears. Talk about the times you’ve failed. Talk about the risks you’ve taken. What people really want to hear is that it’s all going to be okay through proof & specific guidance, not platitudes.

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How Much Time Does It Take to Mentor?

It’s up to you. It can be just one phone call or regular coffee meetings or even just an open invitation for continued contact by email. You’ll know what feels right.

What Do I Get Out Of This?

A former boss asked me to talk to a young woman who had contacted him. She was considering a job and location change and wanted to know more about my career path. I remembered so clearly what I had been like at her age– the assumptions I’d held about marriage and family getting blown apart, the wild freedom that took hold in that wake. So here I was, more than a decade later, still unmarried, still childless, with a wild, hairpin turn career story behind me and an uncertain journey before me. For this young woman to tell me that listening to me gave her hope was strangely comforting. Our actual lives provide the alternative narratives to popular mythologies that make life much harder than it needs to be. Even beyond that, in telling her my story, I learned more about myself and my journey no longer felt so crazy.

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The Ultimate Secret Superpower

As I got more serious about building my own business, I once again sought a mentor, this time through the New York state Business Mentor program. I sent her everything I had about my business– financials, proposals, plans. The first thing she said to me when we spoke? “I don’t understand why you think you need a mentor.” And that’s the secret truth here- we know more than we think we do. It’s still important to find and be cheerleaders for each other, but you know more than you think you do.

Mentoring is one of the most powerful things you can do as a professional. We all need a “kitchen cabinet” of advisors, people we can call on when we need perspective or guidance. In offering to be that for someone else, you’re likely to find that you’ll add to your bench of cheerleaders, as well. It’s the ultimate virtuous circle.

You can learn more about Susanna on her website, and follow her on Twitter @SusannaDW.

This article originally appeared on Live in the Grey.

Read next: How to Get the Most Out of Having a Mentor

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