Have you ever met someone you wanted to be? I’m not talking about a pop princess or film star, but a real person, a role model, someone you look at and think ‘I want to be just like you.’
I met her when I was 17 years old. I was a working-class girl at art college in small-town Yorkshire, desperately trying to work out who I was, what I liked, what I wanted to be…and how I was going to get out of where I’d grown up.
Finding a role model was a pivotal moment, one where I saw a way to get from where I was to where (I imagined) I wanted to be.
Starting art college was an incredible experience. I’d hated secondary school, hated it with a zeal finely-honed over five torturous years. I’d felt trapped, bored, confused, misunderstood and lonely. Then, I went to art college and all of a sudden, things started to make sense. It was, literally as well as emotionally, colourful and bright, a place where I was encouraged to break out of all the boxes the school system had tried to force me into.
The first year was good, but the second year was great. It was then that I met my new art history tutor, Louise. We’d probably say now that I was fan-girling, but my awe went far deeper than that. Here was someone I could aspire to be, could emulate. She was bright but humble, confident but a bit awkward, capable but a bit scatty. She wrote notes on art postcards from galleries (how exotic), wore flat shoes and straight skirts (how French) and had bobbed hair (how chic). To my provincial mind, she was the epitome of an interesting, cultured, stylish woman. Her intelligence, her knowledge, her curiosity, her clothes, her manner, her voice…all of it inspired me to do more, be better.
I’m sure she saw a young woman starved for new ideas, parched by the sheer need to be taken seriously, hungry to learn and desperate to escape. Through books, films and gallery visits, Louise opened my eyes to a whole world I’d craved but had no idea existed.
But, in addition to an education in art and culture, Louise provided development and structure and she pushed me, showing me how to find new ways of looking at the things. She went beyond being a role model to be a mentor. An extremely good one.
Finding a role model was a pivotal moment, but finding a good mentor was life changing.
Louise invested in my development. She gave me her time, ideas and support but, more than that, she encouraged new directions, challenged my thinking and helped me identify how to move forward.
Later on, facing failure and with difficult choices to make, she was my go-to for objective career advice. She helped me make a fundamental shift in my education that took me from a ‘has potential’ B-grade student to the holder of post-grad and first-class degrees and winner of two scholarships. Insight and good advice. Powerful stuff.
We lost touch when I went to university, but I like to think she’d be happy to know she was the guiding force behind my academic success. (I think she’d be amused to learn my look is also influenced by hers, even now).
Positive role models and good mentors like Louise are vital in life and at work. They are incredibly powerful, useful and inspiring. Ask a successful person what helped them and I’m sure good mentors will feature in their top 5.
Good mentors need to be genuine. And skilled. Having had the support and structure I needed to find my path, I’m a huge advocate of mentoring and of modelling the behaviours we want to see in others.
Being with people we respect and admire is motivating. It makes us want to do better, be better.
I’ve used my roles and experience to mentor numerous people, particularly those at the early stages of their careers. I’ve given the same encouragement, support and push to others that I received and it’s hugely rewarding to see the results and be part of those ‘light bulb’ moments.
Role models also work in reverse and awareness of that can also help us make decisions.
Later on in my career, in a role I took for the money, status and security, I struggled to find role models and mentors. Not finding anyone I aspired to be – in fact seeing quite the opposite – I realised that a lot of mentoring is done by people who think it’s something they should do to look good and further their own careers.
This realisation led me to quit the most lucrative and prestigious job I’d ever had, but it’s a move I’ve never regretted. It was right for me and I made it by using the advice I’d been given all those years by Louise.
You can stay where you are and be mediocre or you can find the courage to say you made a wrong choice. Take control. Make a change and do something that excites you, that fuels your curiosity and pushes you.
I’d encourage anyone to think about the value they could add and the life changes they could help create through mentoring. It can be good for others but it can be great for you.
If you’d like to explore career mentoring, learn how to be a good mentor or find support to make a career change, why not get in touch to see where Career Therapy can take you?