Forget the idea of older and wiser mentors giving you a foot up the career ladder, today true success comes from confiding in your friends about your career
‘Do you remember when boleros were cool, like Rachel Bilson in a bolero on The OC?’
‘I haven't thought about boleros in a long time. Did you know in America you can buy a space in a bomb shelter for when climate change gets worse?’
‘Def couldn’t afford a space.’
‘Should I download Tinder?’
What you’ve just read is a verbatim snippet from a group chat between me and two of my best friends, Issey and Nat. ‘Conference’ – as we named it in 2017 when our ad hoc FaceTime calls started to become a daily (and compulsory) check-in – is by far the most active of my group chats. Regularly, and in intricate detail, we dissect texts and discuss everything from the politics of Love Island to, well, actual politics. Like many a group thread, it’s come to be relied upon for everything from news and podcast recommendations to gossip, memes and positive affirmations. But in the last year, I’ve realised Conference is also a vital tool for my career.
Let me explain. Nat and Issey are my friends, but they’re also my mentors. We’re all freelancers and we all work in the creative industries, but that’s as far as the similarities go (Nat is a stylist and Issey is a picture editor). Our day-to-days are very different, but whenever the topic of career comes up, on and off the group chat, they frequently offer advice (‘you’re not wearing that to the interview hun’), encourage me (‘you’re absolutely the right person for this job, don’t let your head psych you out’) and hold me accountable when things aren’t going so well (‘don’t you have a deadline tomorrow? We’re not replying to you. Stop texting and do your work’).
Like many of my peers, I used to really romanticise the idea of a mentor in a more traditional sense; I wanted a wise adviser who was at least a decade older, preferably a woman with a kind face who would buy me lunch and share her wealth of contacts while ushering me up the career ladder. In short, I was being lazy. What studies have actually shown is that in reality, a mentor relationship works best if it’s mutually beneficial, with both mentor and mentee reporting ‘greater career success’ and ‘increased work-related fulfilment’. ‘The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides,’ says Sheryl Sandberg in her career bible Lean In. In order to establish an equal mentor relationship, friends can often be the perfect candidates. Unless you’ve picked bad ones, the chances are they already trust and are invested in you, they’re honest and you feel comfortable going to them for support.
Rachel Campbell, 30, set up music PR company Wired in 2013. Her roster of acts now includes Stormzy, Jorja Smith and Foundation FM, another start-up in the form of a female-centred radio station. Launching a company from scratch with no previous expertise was a big challenge and Campbell says she relied on the advice from others, predominantly friends she had met in the industry. ‘A big part of my job is pitching the acts Wired represent to journalists,’ she explains. ‘When I was starting out, I became friendly with a writer and, when I’d see her at magazine photoshoots or events, we’d often talk about how to navigate the music industry. She’s essentially on the receiving end of what I do, so she’s great for getting feedback on the ways I pitch a client or word an email. Now, six years on, we still ask each other for advice, but now we get to do it at the pub or on holiday.’
Last year, a study revealed that 40% of UK workers have a ‘side hustle’ in addition to their primary income, a number which is expected to increase to half the adult population by 2030. As more of us embrace flexible working styles and multiple roles, it’s harder to find an established mentor who straddles the same interests and industries. ‘I think it’s really key to remember that everyone is a unique body of knowledge and has different things to teach you – and vice versa,’ says Tami Clarke-Brown, a freelance artist and curator. ‘I’m surrounded by so many amazing people – artists, thinkers, cultural producers, but also people outside of my industry. Over time, it's been powerful to realise that the most important thing for your own practice is often thinking about it as part of a wider collective practice, realising that your friends are your contemporaries.’
While studying for a Masters at Goldsmiths six years ago, Clarke-Brown realised that she could learn more from studying in groups and discussing ideas with friends. ‘We keep up this network today,’ she says, ‘pooling our collective experiences to help each other out, shifting to a more collective way of doing things. I see so many powerful DIY happenings around me like BBZ [a curatorial collective celebrating the experience of Queer Womxn, Trans & Non Binary people of colour] and EAST [collective of young emerging artists of colour] and it’s made me realise the power of investing in each other rather than necessarily seeking help from traditional mentors.’
While the idea of a mentor as an authority figure is far from redundant, the world of work is shifting and so too are the parameters of who is eligible to give advice. We’re living in a halcyon digital era where a source of honest and relatively instantaneous advice is available only a text away in the form of our friends, advice that might be from a different, unexpected perspective.
So, if you’ve yet to find your kind-faced mentor in shoulder pads, look around; they might just be closer than you think.