When I was about to graduate from my design degree I was constantly advised to find a mentor. Various tutors at uni propounded the legend of finding this elusive teacher who would be your go-to person for advice, feedback and reassurance. Same goes for various design industry sites who would often write about finding “the one” in their top tips for graduates. The fabulous reality was that my Mr Miyagi never showed up and I was left to figure everything out on my own. This entailed an often-shocking journey of being pushed into the deep end, becoming disillusioned, taking a step back to reflect (which often meant taking breaks from working altogether) and doing it all over again.
Yes it would’ve been nice to have a go-to teacher, but maybe the realistic lesson could’ve been to seek a wide array of teachers instead of putting the expectation on finding one individual.
Teachers are everywhere and they don’t necessarily need any Photoshop skills to be a messenger with the right advice. These teachers may be a co-worker from a completely different department, your extended family, friends who are in the same becoming stage as you, previous employers or even an interviewer who didn’t give you the job.
Once when I was working at a small digital agency I called the head of digital at one of the big ad agencies in Australia who I’d unsuccessfully interviewed with a month earlier. I needed help resolving a complex technical design issue, and had no one senior to turn to. In my moment of desperation I asked myself who might have a solution and hit the call button. As the phone was ringing I was shocked that I was even doing it. I knew that he would’ve been insanely busy and might not even remember who I was. When he picked up I was nervous and felt like a burden. I told him that I required expertise outside of my understanding and that he was the first person I thought of. He was incredibly gracious in taking the time to listen to the solutions I’d already tried. He ended up talking to one of his senior developers to help me resolve the issue. From then on I’d call him if I needed technical advice and he even picked up the phone when he was on holiday.
The lesson is to never rule anyone out from being your teacher, and to always ask even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Just remember to be respectful of their time and reiterate that you highly value their opinion.
If you’re not into calling ex-interviewers out of the blue there are less compromising ways of finding the answers you seek. One of my family friends remarked how wonderful it was that YouTube enables us to learn from some of the greatest gurus of our time without travelling to the foot of a secluded mountain. Use that modern resource. One of my favourites for design-industry advice is definitely James Victore, who famously said, “Never learn to enjoy the taste of shit” and “your work is a gift”.
Of course you can still find a creative mentor if you require one, but don’t expect someone at your place of work to put their hand up and take you under their wing. You must actively look for one. Start by asking yourself what specific things you need help with. Is it someone to look over your portfolio and offer feedback on which pieces should be included? Is it someone to provide guidance about payment, freelancing or how to ask for a better rate? Is it someone to help you develop specific skills like public speaking or how to work with web fonts? The more definite your question, the more likely you’ll receive a definite answer.
Ultimately it is up to you to find the answers and guidance you seek. More often than not it can be found by reflecting upon what you do, asking for what you require and consulting a diverse support network of teachers. Sometimes the answers come from the most unexpected places.