Building Your Army


Taryn O'NeillThis is a post that I wrote in late 2010, which I still find relevant every time I read it, especially as I still struggle to find my right ‘orbit’ when it comes to working on and defining my career.


Do you have a mentor?

Do you have that one person in your life who is an established figure in your chosen field who is your guide, your champion?  Do you have that someone who you can turn to, ask advice of and seek direction from, someone who helps to nurture your talent and open doors for you, as someone might have done for them? If yes, then head over to Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomer site and read cool stuff about arsenic bacteria because this post is not for you.

If you don’t have one then stay put. And I’m assuming most of you don’t.

The word mentor is an archaic one, first coined by Homer as a character in the Odyssey. He was a friend to Odysseus put in charge of Odysseus’ son as he embarked on his epic voyage. Being known both as a confident to the great voyager and his son, the goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, would often disguise herself as Mentor to give advice and counsel.

The word mentor, as used in its current form, was first recorded in the 1600’s. That’s over four centuries where artists/creatives/scientists/etc have been documented as having their raw, God given talents supported and sculpted by trusted advisors already acclaimed in their field. No money (supposedly) exchanged hands; from a simplistic perspective it was a relationship meant to lead the next generation of a field to the forefront, an artistic procreation of sorts. And this relationship has extended to more current times. In our fields of art and entertainment, especially, you needed a champion. A young John Wayne was mentored by John Ford. Future head of Paramount Robert Evans was mentored by then studio chief Darryl Zanuck. There is a great list (though I don’t take it for 100% fact) here.  And it shows how much young talent was guided by the established seniority.

Oh the changing times, and yes I admit to painting a bit of an idyllic picture here. Most mentor/protégé relationships are not pure of heart and selfless…they are after all a relationship which is never simple considering there are human beings involved, but mentoring was certainly a common practice. So where are the mentor/protégé relationships today? Yes there are commercialized ones- like the Rolex Mentorship and Sundance Iconoclast programs, as well as some lingering studio writing fellowship programs, but unfortunately, young talent is left mostly to fend for its own.

So what happened? There are a number of reasons I’ve mulled over but the one I gravitate towards the most is the instability of the hierarchy. The teacher is no longer the master. With technology accelerating, the traditional corporate structure is crumbling. Those with seniority and experience don’t necessarily have the power anymore because that experience is often deemed irrelevant. The able mind of the student, someone keen to jump on the newest technology bandwagon, more in tune with rapidly changing trends, now has something to teach the teacher.   With the paradigm of entertainment and communication fields shifting rapidly, no one has security anymore; it’s just as easy for a Senior VP with 15 years at a studio to lose his job as an assistant. Stability is gone in the work place and the 24 year olds are now the billionaires.

So who leads you and champions you to greatness if everyone is now in competition?

Most of us now take the journey alone. We dream, plan, execute and self-promote all on our own. I know I do. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t looked up to others and followed their inspiring lead, nor been given a helping hand or great advice from many talented people (of which I am greatly appreciative), but that ethereal relationship of mentor/protégé is not something I have had the luxury of.  But one day, about a month ago, as I was spinning madly to The Dark Knight soundtrack, I saw this amazing image before me. Here was the perfect person who would champion me, someone who would support my dreams, my vision, open doors for me, trumpet my cause and my skill, but also gave me hard advice and push me. It was my mentor. Finally! I suddenly felt this golden wash of comfort come over me and a big smile erupted on my face. But there wasn’t really anyone in front of me.  It was just, at that moment, I realized that I had the power to create my own perfect mentor.

So I did. I looked at people who inspired me, who had been put on one path by society, circumstance or expectation but ended up on the one they truly wanted. Someone who didn’t need an army of ‘yes men’ around them paving their way to success. Someone who, whenever I thought of, made me feel empowered…yes, even badass. For me that mentor became a fusion of two people- perhaps a result of my Gemini nature- it became Katharine Hepburn and Albert Einstein, or in his more current iteration akin to my passion for science, technology and the future, Chris Anderson of TED. I went to my white board and started bullet pointing and sketching my current challenges and projects in my life, and then what I supposed Katharine Einstein Anderson would say and do. I made categories and listed actual phrases that I imagined would come out of their mouths. And I was hit with the most wonderful, empowering ideas…as well as some tough realizations. I knew the actions that I needed to start taking…and if I didn’t, then it was my own damn fault with no one to blame but myself. So in a way, I became my own mentor.

What about you? Who would you love to sit down with and have a heart to heart with over a five course meal? Not someone who’s life or career you covet – I’ve seen much of that and it always leads to unhappiness- but someone who intrigues you, awes you, makes your heart and mind activate when you read/think about them. All of you are talented, creative people, so why not create that perfect, inspiring mentor for yourself. And then see where they take you and what larger picture they inspire you to see. Believe me, they will give you permission to think differently. To tackle your challenges differently, not be tethered to your normal actions. It is the strangest phenomenon, and it’s awesome.  Then look around and acknowledge how much opportunity you have to collaborate and share with your community of peers. There are many visionaries within our midst.

So step it up, make the big moves, create your tribe and assert your prowess, your intelligence, your vision. Embrace your abilty to see people, their strengths, their weaknesses, be kind, find the story, see the grey, see the good, grab the moment and then reflect it, as others might have missed it.

Who’s your mentor? Have fun meeting them.

Be back soon…All Things T

Who would your mentor be? I want to know! Leave it in the comments and we’ll have a party!