On April 13, Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering and one of the biggest brains on the planet, revealed the latest tool developed by Google. It may be the mentor you're missing.

It's called Talk to Books, and it provides an entirely new way to explore books. When you ask it a question, the tool finds passages in books that address that query, with no dependence on keyword matching.

The tool uses semantic analysis and machine learning to parse hundreds of thousands of published works in a matter of seconds. By doing this, it's able to generate intelligent responses to very sophisticated complex questions.

Most importantly, it's free.

I decided to test it, starting with the question, "How can I get promoted at work?" Here are some of its responses:

  • If you work hard, well, and are reliable, you will get promoted.
  • If you're at a company with a career ladder, sitting down with your manager and asking her what areas you need to focus on to get promoted is usually a good idea if you are actively seeking a promotion.
  • Do you know how your work fits together into the larger operations of your company?
  • Recommending reading: The Manager's Path & HBR's Guide to Performance Management

Next, I asked, "What is the best way to achieve work-life balance?" The responses included:

  • The notion of balance implies the need to establish clear boundaries between work and home lives.
  • Achieving work-life balance means you need to build downtime into your schedule, drop activities that sap your time or energy, rethink your errands, get moving, and relax.
  • After all, if as adults we spend most of our waking life at work, it had better be a place that provides meaningful activity. This has led us to a rather different take on the conventional question about work-life balance. Work is a defining human characteristic, and without it, life itself loses some of its meaning.
  • Based on this approach, balance is defined differently for different people, and is achieved when individuals experience high levels of effectiveness and satisfaction in the domain(s) onto which they place high priority.
  • Recommended reading: Understanding Careers, Viking Economics & Understanding Careers.

What's interesting isn't the answers themselves, but how they compare to traditional mentorship.

If a mentee had asked me the first question, my answer would have been similar: Figure out where you fit in your company's value chain, map the routes through the organizational chart, and engage your manager in planning your path. 

For the second question, I likewise would have started my answer by asking the mentee, "What does work-life balance look like to you?" Then I would have guided the mentee to map their work hours and non-work hours. Only after we had a strong handle on the objective data would I suggest blocking off time and creating boundaries for work, like "no email at the dinner table."

The Power of Mentoring

A mentor can help expand your perspective and grow your understanding of the world in ways you simply can't do on your own. A great mentoring relationship will expose both parties to new skills, processes, tools, and awareness.

To get the most from mentoring, you need two people, regular face-to-face contact, a deep level of trust, and a bidirectional relationship based on genuine connection and communication. This is something Talk to Books can't replicate.

Unfortunately, mentorship is desired more than it is available. The number of top-performing people willing to invest hundreds of hours into someone who is not their employee, friend, or family is relatively small compared to the demand for such a person's attention.

The best mentors in my life never answer a question directly or explicitly. Instead they use their unique perspectives to help me find an answer for myself. Most of the time, this is followed up by a recommendation for further reading.

When I mentor startup founders, this is the path I follow. I help the founder explore the topic and then leave them with several places to learn more. This is what Talk to Books does really, really well.

How the Tool Can Help You

Let's say you don't have a mentor. Or if you do, they are not available when you need them. What do you do?

I think Talk to Books can be used a supplement to mentoring or as a secondary source for sage advice--not to explicitly answer questions (which I believe mentors should never do), but to help grow the mentee's critical thinking.

Just as my mentoring sessions often end with book recommendations and further reading, Talk to Books can get your critical thinking started by sharing with you the insights of authors included in the gestalt--just as my mentors do for me.