Mark Zuckerberg credits Steve Jobs with mentoring him through the intense pressure to sell Facebook in its early days. Bill Gates calls Warren Buffett his mentor. Eric Schmidt provided "adult supervision" for Larry Page and Sergey Brin during Google's early years.
If even these icons need mentors, having an experienced sounding board to bounce problems and ideas off of is even more important for everyday entrepreneurs. Study after study shows that having a mentor hugely increases the chances your business will be successful.
But while the case for having a mentor is rock solid, the realities of actually finding one can be complicated, especially for those from less advantaged backgrounds. Plus, being cooped up at home thanks to the current crisis is making it even harder than usual to make new connections.
So what do you do if you recognize the value of having a great mentor but, for the moment at least, can't find one? On her Cup of Jo blog recently, successful long-time blogger Joanna Goddard offered an out-of-the box suggestion: Imagine your mentors instead.
This might sound crazy, but Goddard insists it worked for her. "I've had a few amazing mentors in my life, but I haven't actually met any of them," she writes. How is that possible?
"When I started Cup of Jo in 2007, blogging felt like the Wild West. Since blogging was still new, I didn't have people in whose footsteps I could follow; my peers and I were just figuring things out as we went," Goddard explains. "So, to help ground myself, I made a list on my computer's desktop of people who I could consider mentors from afar, including magazine editor Pilar Guzmán, author Anne Lamott, force of nature Michelle Obama, and neck-hater and all-around genius Nora Ephron."
Having assembled this DIY board of mentors, Goddard proceeded to (imaginatively) consult them. "Whenever I felt lost or confused about next steps, I'd think 'what would Anne Lamott do?' or 'what might Michelle Obama think?'" she writes.
This sort of imagined advice will never be as tactical and detailed as real, live mentorship. Your imagined role models can't pick up the phone and make an important introduction for you. I don't think Goddard would argue that imagined mentors equal real-life ones. But if circumstance has kept you from finding in-person support, Goddard swears her trick can make a real difference.
"Sometimes I'd feel disoriented because other bloggers would be forging different paths -- taking gorgeous daily outfit photos or doing advanced beauty tutorials -- and I wasn't good at that. Was I falling behind? Was I not succeeding? But I'd remind myself: Nora Ephron just was herself and it worked out. I'll keep moving forward," she offers as an example.
Broaden your definition of mentoring.
The lesson here isn't to give up on finding someone more experienced to guide you. Instead, it's to adopt the broadest definition of mentorship possible right now. If you fetishize a particular kind of close, personal mentorship, the danger is you may ignore other opportunities to learn from those you admire.
You might not think that pinning a quote from your entrepreneurial role model to your desk or closely observing a brilliant but standoffish colleague counts as mentorship. Goddard insists it does. Don't miss out on opportunities to learn and improve now because you're waiting for the perfect mentor to appear.
Or as Goddard sums it up: "Secretly pinpoint people you respect and admire, note their career moves and philosophies, and consider yourself mentored."