There is nothing wrong with being self-taught. You are able to go at your own pace, learn exactly what you want to learn and not have to answer to anyone.
But this freedom has its share of limitations. By not having someone there to guide you, you run the risk of making the same mistake over and over again, take longer to build connections and sometimes it’s harder to stay motivated. Here’s how to avoid this risk by having a mentor because everyone can benefit from a mentor.
A chance meeting turned into a mentorship: How this example can help you
To help understand why a mentor is important, I’ll use a chance meeting with a 20-year-old photographer at Photoshop World as an example. As a self-taught photographer, Taylor Cready started to feel the limitations of being self-taught. She boarded a plane for the first time by herself and flew to Orlando to attend Photoshop World. The purpose of her trip was to spark her motivation and to decide her photography fate.
She networked with a few fellow attendees and hung out with them throughout the conference. The group went to Midnight Madness — a social event at Photoshop World. As luck would have it, I met her and the group standing against a wall all dressed in black.
The group was fun and spirited, so I invited them and a few others to our traditional after Midnight Madness burger meetup. The group found themselves sitting at a table with Scott Kelby — the promoter of the event and a well-known photographer/educator — and many of the instructors. They had a chance to socialize, listen to what’s new in the photo industry and a chance to ask questions.
I chatted with Taylor about her photography goals, and about 10 minutes into the conversation I stopped her and asked, “Who is your mentor?” The confused look on her face told me she didn’t have one.
I asked her why not and her excuses for why she didn’t have a mentor were all too common. She didn’t know anyone local to where she lives, how do you ask someone to mentor you and why would anyone want to mentor me. What I heard was I would love a mentor, can you help me find one. It was 1 a.m. so instead of calling my friends I sent several emails out and asked at the table who knew of any mentors in Michigan. After Photoshop World we stayed in contact.
Building your confidence to ask someone is the first step in finding a mentor
Finding a mentor for Taylor in a small town where she lived proved to be a little difficult but we kept trying. A month after Photoshop World, Taylor saw I started to mentor a few members of the group that she was part of. We included her the best we could with phone calls and sending photos, but it wasn’t the same.
I could feel her hope fleeing. I tried helping where I could and even invited her to attend ClickCon in Chicago as my guest. While in Chicago, I introduced her to some of her favorite female photographers/educators — Dixie Dixon and Lindsay Adler. I offered both Dixie and Lindsay to use Taylor as an assistant during their ClickCon classes for anything they need in hopes it could lead to an internship. At this time, neither needed an additional intern.
I finally said, “Taylor, just ask me the question.” She smiled and asked, “Will you mentor me?” In my usual joking manner I said “NO” but then quickly followed it with a yes. The first step in finding a mentor is to have the confidence to ask.
Don’t let ego or lack of confidence stop you
Lack of confidence is just as bad as an overbearing ego. In Taylor’s case, she wasn’t sure how to ask someone to mentor her. I helped guide her to break that barrier and to just ask. After all, I couldn’t mentor her if she didn’t want to be mentored and to show you want to, you have to ask. If she didn’t have the confidence to ask me, I wouldn’t offer to mentor her, it would be a waste of both of our time.
The same goes for an overbearing ego. I’ve received numerous mentor requests from photographers that I’ve turned down because of their overbearing ego. They want to tell you how great they are and don’t want to hear your opinion. They just want the benefits of your network and connections but offer nothing in return. This one-sided relationship isn’t helpful for either party.
Both sides need to benefit in a mentorship
For a mentorship to work, both sides need to benefit. In Taylor’s case, my deal with her is I will mentor her provided she writes and shares what I teach her — along with her experience — here on Photofocus and social media. This helps to create fresh new content for our site and helps me personally by continuing to develop new and exciting teaching skills.
Others I mentor help keep my photo gear in order and assist on shoots in exchange for knowledge and the use of any gear they need. To avoid the feeling of a one-sided relationship, it’s always best to occasionally review your arrangement to ensure both sides are benefitting from the mentorship.
This example showed how a chance meeting at a convention gave Taylor a new outlook on her photography path. Do you have a mentor? If not, use these examples to find a mentor because everyone can benefit from a mentor.