Throughout history, most of the great achievements and incredible comebacks have been the result of an individual whose motivation to persevere was influenced by a coach or mentor. In science, art, politics, sports, and business, there is a common thread of having been coached among those who achieve greatness. A coach doesn't need to be a professional consultant or counselor. He or she could be someone within your organization or industry, or it could be someone from your personal life whom you respect or admire.
A study was undertaken on the Hawaiian island of Kauai by two researchers, Emily Werner and Ruth Smith. This study, which followed more than 450 people from childhood through their adult lives, was an attempt to learn why some people are motivated to overcome severe disadvantages, while others from the same background seem to have been overwhelmed by their problems. This research continued for an incredible length of time: 40 years, to be exact.
According to the research, one of the most interesting qualities of these motivated individuals is their ability to recognize potential sources of support in other people, to look beyond the walls of their homes to find relatives, friends, teachers, or other role models who can provide help. This very important finding illustrates the benefits of forming mentor relationships to encourage achievement.
Choosing a coach or mentor is like having an additional correctional device to keep you on target. An analogy of this premise comes from aerospace technology. Years ago, the military used inertial guidance systems on missiles. Unfortunately, once the course of an inertially guided missile is set, it proceeds along that path with no capability for adjustments. It's like a bullet fired from a rifle. Even when the aim is good at the outset, if the target moves unexpectedly once the projectile is in flight, the shot is going to miss. And if there's one thing you can count on in life, it's that the target is going to be moving! In the Gulf War of 1992, the Patriot missile that defended Israel and Saudi Arabia was introduced. Unlike previous defenses, this system had an advanced self-adjusting navigation system that continuously monitored the missile's trajectory as well as the path of its swiftly moving target. The Patriot was able to make whatever corrections were necessary, regardless of changes in the position or speed of its objective.
A highly motivated person uses a coach or mentor in the same way when he or she has targeted a worthwhile goal. A coach or mentor can assist you in making adjustments and navigating through difficult times.
Selecting the Right Mentor
Finding coaches and mentors is an important mission, and you will no doubt have several over the course of your life. It is critical that you choose them wisely. Your mentor is someone to whom you'll be committing a great deal of time and attention, and who ideally will take a very focused interest in you as well.
The process of selecting a mentor begins, first of all, with a clear-sighted view of what your life's goals are, both for your career and your personal life.
If you're just starting out as an associate in a large law firm, you might choose one of the senior partners as your mentor, or perhaps a partner in another firm you're familiar with. If you're just starting a family, and you're facing the lifestyle adjustments that kids require, your mentor could very likely be someone who is reaching the other end of this very exciting, but demanding, process. In any case, your mentors should be people whose experience can serve as a model for reaching your most significant goals in the most important areas of your life.
Selecting a mentor is not just a matter of finding someone you like or feel comfortable identifying with. Make sure that the mentors you choose have a genuine history of success. I'm continually amazed by the number of people who look to only superficially successful people as role models for achievement. Even experts can make conspicuous mistakes of judgment in this area. The next time you're in a bookstore or library, take a look at the bestselling books on business and management from four or five years ago. There's an excellent chance that some of the companies cited as models of efficiency are now out of business. I don't bring this up to disparage anyone's business expertise, but simply to point out the need for great care in selecting a coach whose success will stand the test of time.
In addition to selecting your coaches based on their ability to achieve goals similar to your own, choose mentors who in the process have overcome some of the same obstacles you're facing. Ideally, a mentor really represents both what you want to become in a particular area of life and what you want to do. Seeing your mentors today is like seeing what you intend to be. The coach has arrived at or been to places similar to where you want to go.
Choosing a celebrity or public figure as a mentor is a very questionable decision. If at all possible, select a mentor with whom you can actually spend time and with whom you enjoy having conversations and exploring ideas.
Of course, you can have admired historical personages, authors, educators, or artists as role models. If you discover someone with whom you feel a special affinity, make an effort to obtain everything that person has written or said. Really become a student of the person's work and life. Don't just admire him or her; genuinely learn from him or her, as I have learned from the life and wisdom of Benjamin Franklin.
One of the most interesting aspects of selecting a mentor is the fact that one can rarely separate people's tangible achievements from the qualities of their character. More than their bank accounts or their real estate holdings, role models prove by the conduct of their lives that they're worth emulating.
Avoid Fair-Weather Supporters
When you seek support and feedback, be sure it is from people who are truly interested in seeing you succeed. Don't seek feedback from fair-weather friends, competitive peers, or any person who doesn't have your best interests at heart. Neutral doesn't count. Get feedback from someone who is on your side but will still be objective and brutally honest with you.
Misery truly does love company, and jealousy creates some of the most miserable people. Surpass the achievements of your particular social crowd or your business colleagues, and look out for the slings and arrows of those who wish you were back where they are.
You have to dodge the snide remarks and catty comments. Let them roll right off you. Don't internalize them. Pay attention only to feedback from those who have similar goals or who are working actively alongside you to achieve goals of their own. Motives and fears run deep. Study them in others. The manager who supports you and comforts you when you're down may like you best when you are in just that state: down and dependent. When you start succeeding beyond his expectations and comfort level, he may be among the first to get you to back off, limit your horizons, and lower your goals. Recognize this feedback for the insecurity it is. It will rarely be objective or well-intentioned.
Even parents and significant family members aren't immune to emotional conflicts that can pollute their feedback. Many relatives and siblings have difficulty accepting the success of others in the family or encouraging further success.
Ultimately, nobody else is responsible for your life but you. Nobody else is accountable for your actions but you. Therefore, nobody's expectations for you and opinions about you are as important as your own. So make sure your opinions take precedence in your mind over all others, and when you do need to consult with someone else, think very carefully before you choose exactly who.
The Time to Start Is Now
When I was researching the history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge as a major illustration for the ideas of success and motivation, I became engrossed with the story of how the first bridge was built over Niagara Falls. You see, to build a bridge over a giant gorge, first you have to get a line over the canyon, from one side to the other. Easier said than done at Niagara Falls.
The engineers couldn’t cross the falls in a boat to take the line from one side to the other because the boat would go over the falls. And the airplane hadn’t been invented yet. The distance was also way beyond the bow-and-arrow range, which had been a common method at the time of getting the first line across to build a bridge.
The designing engineer, Charles Ellet, pondered the question until he came up with a revolutionary idea. He decided that, while solving the problem, he would also have some fun and generate some publicity for the project. Ellet sponsored a kite-flying contest and offered five dollars to the first person who could fly a kite across the gorge and let it go low enough to the ground for someone to be able to grab the string. In 1849, five dollars was a prize similar to a small lottery today. The boy who won the price relished his accomplishment until his death, nearly 80 years later.
It all began with an idea and one thin kite string. The kite string was used to pull a cord across, then a line, then a rope. Next came an iron-wire cable and then steel cables, until a structure strong enough to build a suspension bridge was in place.
I’m struck by how that string is like a single thought. The more vivid and clear the thought, and the more you come back to it, the stronger it becomes — like the string to the rope to the cable. Each time you rethink it, dwell on it, or layer it with other thoughts, you are strengthening the structure on which to build your idea, like building a bridge over Niagara Falls.
But unlike a kite, there is no string attached to how high and how far your goals may take you. They are limited only by the power of your imagination and the strength of your desire.