Some optometry students view the idea of seeking out a mentor as terrifying. Maybe that person is you, the reader. The first time someone said it to me, I was admittedly scared.
What I didn’t know is that some of the most successful CEOs and business people have all benefited from a mentor at some point in their career. Many recognizable figures, including Tesla’s Elon Musk and former governor/actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have attributed their success to mentorship.
Many successful optometric practice owners—like Dr. Will To, known on Instagram as @theTravelingOD, for example—have mentors. As young practice owners or entrepreneurs, the benefit is to help achieve their personal and professional goals in a streamlined and efficient manner.
Personally, I call my mentor—a Trustee in the American Optometric Association—when our schedules allow the time. We’ve talked about subjects ranging from how to deliver a concise message when writing a speech, student advocacy within the profession, running a modern practice, succeeding in optometry school, to name a few.
This article will offer tips for finding an optometry mentor, and the best kinds of questions to ask!
Why you need a mentor
Let me be clear: you can be wildly successful without someone else’s help. It is my opinion, however, that the benefits of having a mentor far outweigh the costs of not having one, and I’d like to explain why that’s the case.
John C. Crosby, a lawyer and American politician, describes mentoring as: “ . . . a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” Simply put, it’s expertise from someone who has been where you are, and who can provide sound advice to address your particular situation.
A mentor tends to have knowledge and experience in your professional field, or success achieving goals similar to the pupil. They have unique insights to bestow upon the mentee to help avoid making mistakes in achieving their goals. In this way, the mentee will not have to learn how to handle a new or complex situation on their own, but will have an ally to lean on when necessary.
What a mentor can do for you
Mentors can provide insight into what experience you already have, and what gaps in knowledge might exist. They can help to set personal goals and outline where you need to grow. They can even help identify areas where you might be stuck, and provide guidance about how to find your own answers to the problems at hand.
A mentor can also ensure that you aren’t making common mistakes, or correct mistakes that you might already be making. Through an open and honest dialogue, mentors will probe your current state of affairs and provide feedback and insight into how you can be more efficient and effective in achieving your goals.
What a mentor will not do for you
Mentors are like guides: they can show you the way, but you still have to make the journey. They can provide insight and advice, but they are leading their own lives and working to achieve their own goals. It is important to realize that they facilitate your growth, but that growth is yours to attain, not theirs.
A good mentor will help you to achieve your established goals, but they do not always provide cut and dry answers; remember they are providing guidance. Not every piece of advice will translate perfectly to fit your situation. You must take the initiative to seek out your own answers to particular questions, and have a degree of self-reliance to make the best use of a mentor’s time.
So you want a mentor. What’s next?
You’ve decided it might benefit you to find a mentor to help with your optometric ____________ (career, business plan, public speaking, research grant, etc.). Great! So what’s the next move? Before running out and trying to find someone, there are a few things to do first.
Set your personal goals first: long-term, short-term, and key questions
First, you should determine your long-term goals. What specifically do you want to work on, and what would you like to achieve. Make these goals tangible, and not vague. For example: “I would like to open my optometric practice within six months of graduation,” and not “I want to open my practice when I graduate.” With this plan, you can determine what short-term goals need to be achieved to realize your long-term goal.
Second, write down what you would like help with in the short term. Maybe it’s business marketing for your new practice, preparing your CV to apply for your first job, or learning how to draft your practice’s business proposal. Unlike a long-term goal, these smaller tasks are easier to complete and very achievable.
Third, write down questions that you’d like to ask a mentor. While these aren’t specific goals, they might help to focus your ideas. For example: if you’re interested in developing optometric continuing education, what sort of help would you need? You might realize you need to take a speaking class to get comfortable in front of a group, and that sort of skill doesn’t require a mentor, but a teacher who can help develop your speaking ability. A mentor would help ensure the message of your presentation of your CE is delivered in a concise manner.
If you’re stuck with setting some goals, I highly recommend this fantastic article at MindTools about the Golden Rules of Goal Setting.
Finding a mentor
Now that your goals are outlined, you should have an idea of the sort of person you’re looking to mentor you. You might even have someone in mind already, and that’s wonderful. If you don’t know someone (yet), that’s okay! You can find someone with a little bit of work.
Asking someone you know
If you already know someone to approach for mentorship, you’re off to a great start. It’s best to ask in person if possible, but that might not be possible at a conference or in passing, although you really only need a brief moment to make the ask. Make sure to have your business card handy and a brief introduction: “Hello, my name is Alex and I am a third year optometry student. I have enjoyed hearing you speak to your success and would like some advice about developing my own business plan for after graduation. Would you be available in the near future to answer some questions?”
If you are unable to make the ask directly in person, then it is best to send a short email detailing why you’re seeking their mentorship, and if they’d be amenable to developing the relationship. It can be a simple and concise ask, similar to the one mentioned above, but try to have some degree of rapport before using this approach.
If your mentor agrees to take you on, ask to set up a dedicated time to meet and speak. Make this a regular occurance (once per week should suffice to start) and meet in a comfortable space, like a library or coffee shop, or utilize a teleconference if your mentor is not local. Come prepared to talk about your concerns, and try to keep the conversation professional without de-escalating into casual talk, unless it pertains to the topic at hand.
Should someone refuse mentorship, don’t take it personally. You might not be aware of how busy someone’s calendar might be when you ask them to share their time, so it is important to realize they might not have the availability right away. If that’s the case, make sure to thank the person for their time, and ask if they’ll let you know if they reconsider.
Lastly, consider this: while asking someone you know has obvious advantages (they know you, they’re more easily approachable, etc.), realize that someone who isn’t a known acquaintance might be willing to provide more balanced feedback.
Seeking out a mentor
If you don’t know someone to ask right now, then it’s time to get out and mingle within your professional community. Continuing education seminars, business retreats and conferences are great ways to meet others in your profession. If you’re trying to find a mentor outside your chosen field, consider attending a workshop or networking event. Regardless of your modality, make sure to spend some time developing rapport with a person before asking if they will mentor you.
Alternatively, you might seek out a dedicated coach to help achieve your goals in a timely manner. There are life-coaching options, or personal consultants, who can act as a professional mentor. These options usually have associated costs, but the cost/benefit ratio is very high if you want to make changes in a prompt and focused manner.
There are also some great articles to be found on the internet, like this article about finding a mentor.
Responsibilities as a mentee
Once you’re able to secure a mentor, it’s important to play an active role in the relationship. It’s not your job to be passive, but to come prepared. It’s important that you respect your mentor’s time and demonstrate how you’re striving to improve your situation through the advice they provide. Basically stated, it’s time to get to work!
It is important to realize that the journey towards reaching your goals can involve tough decisions, difficult conversations, and plenty of self-reflection. Show your dedication to your mentor by asking engaging questions. It will nurture your relationship and help to make your mentor a better teacher at the same time. These ideas are emphasized and expanded in this article by NPR about finding a mentor and making it work.
One last point: notice how your mentor conducts themselves, and pay attention to the details. You can learn more than just the answers to questions you’ve prepared—maybe they listen intently to your questions and repeat them to make sure the question is understood, or maybe they put away their phone during a meeting to ensure focus in the moment. Your mentor is successful not only in your field, but because of their habits. You can pick up more than just business tips from a mentor, so pay close attention!
Moving forward and giving back
At some point, the mentor/mentee relationship ends. Maybe you achieve your goals and don’t need the help of a mentor, or life happens and one person moves on in search of other opportunities.
When a mentorship ends, the relationship doesn’t have to. Utilize each other as a resource when necessary, because you never know when you might have advice to give to your mentor. As a personal example, I still regularly correspond with prior mentors via email—sometimes I’m asking a question, other times I’m just saying hello to ensure we keep in touch.
The last point I’d like to make is to not be selfish with the knowledge you’ve gained. You can mentor someone else once you gain the experience to do so; remember that someone took the time to mentor you, so why not share what you’ve learned. I believe that Sir Isaac Newton said it best: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Learn from the best, and then teach others.