Mentoring: It’s Not What You Think
Or: How not to give your mentees an existential crisis
Mentorship is not just advice. It is not a contract. And like most things in life, it takes time, and practice, to be good at it. Equally — and I regret that I’ve heard reports of this happening recently — mentors can inadvertently do more harm than good.
So how do you make sure you’re actually helping? You might scoff — who amongst us likes to admit fault? — but if you’re diligent, and committed to helping those some way down the ladder, or grasping for their first rung — you need to consider that you need to do some work, and I aim to help you start.
And mentees — how do you find the right mentor for you, and know when to actually discard a mentor’s advice? I’m going to write a follow up piece soon addressing that/you more specifically!
Firstly, just because you join a program, or some kind of scheme, that doesn’t mean you’re a great mentor. I hesitate to say ‘qualified’ because gatekeeping is not helpful — the world needs more, better mentors — but I say great, because if you are one, you owe it your mentees — present and future — to solicit feedback and improve yourself, because being a mentor is a huge responsibility.
I wasn’t a great one when I started, and I doubt I’m a great one now, but I have at least learned how not to leave my mentees more stressed and baffled by the industry than when they met me.
My Mentoring Credentials
Skip ahead to the next sub-heading if you trust me implicitly!
Eager to help others avoid the existential dread, lack of any formal advice, emotional knock-backs and financial hardships I’d gone through getting into the industry, I started mentoring in 2018.
I’d heard that the London College of Communication were looking for game industry mentors for undergrads and recent graduates— by then, I’d spent 5 or so years in games-adjacent media/marketing, and a couple of years as a dev.
My first mentee was a lovely lad called Sam Wong, who collaborated with the folks on the excellent mobile game Too Many Cooks by Finifugu Games (who I believe all met at the LCC) — Sam went on to make a number of beautiful experimental game experiences, but we naturally fell out of touch as he was less interested in a traditional career or my specialty — narrative.
The scheme’s coordinator also ran the City University of London’s program, and when she asked me to sign on there to help out post-grads, I readily accepted — and mentored another couple of talented folks who were interested in going into either film or digital media, which my background before games was in.
The experience was rewarding, but if I’m honest, I hadn’t felt I’d found the relationship of the kind I’d read about in interviews with high flying entrepreneurs — that tremendously rewarding exchange of ideas and the vicarious joys of having paid it forward.
So, emboldened by my training, I started offering mentorship to individuals — and since then I’ve technically mentored about four people, specifically in the narrative arts.
Crucially, I also found a mentor for myself, because a little (perhaps a lot) like therapy, you can’t expect to be taken seriously until you’ve been in analysis yourself. The formidable Nina Rousakoff and I began by knowledge sharing — she was interested in expanding her narrative understanding, and I was fascinated by her multi-disciplinary approach to design.
Happily, our relationship blossomed into friendship over the years (years!? Already?!) and access to Nina’s voraciously curious design mind, her professional experience, and her sage advice has steered me through multiple tricky straits and helped keep me professionally sane — long may it continue to do so!
That is to say, I mentored for a couple of years as part of accredited schemes, and became a mentee, before I felt confident offering personal, unregulated mentoring — which I’ve now been doing for a few years.
A quick note on something that, fittingly, Nina raised to me — sometimes, you may get a mentee who just doesn’t click with you, or is not respecting your time — or worse, respecting your feedback. In those cases, you have a value judgement to make — is getting through to them worth the opportunity cost, or are you fundamentally wrong for one another? That’s not for me to say, but ultimately your time may be better spent with someone more receptive.
Pillars of Mentoring — Anti-Dogma, Socratic Method, Transparency.
As I mentioned before, if you’re a mentor, you have a great deal of responsibility. A mentee is, on average, someone who looks up to you and puts a great deal of trust in your experiential anecdotes and advice. Nascent careers, for want of a better word, are fragile things like the first green shoots of a plant, that can easily be trampled by outside influences, grow too fast and unsteadily towards the light, or be cast into stultifying shadows of doubt.
Of course, mentoring can involve things like CV help, portfolio reviews, website advice, and the like. But fundamentally, a mentor is an experienced, trusted advisor. Trust takes time. Trust is not on a schedule. Nothing meaningful happens to a person’s career trajectory or philosophy in 6 months. If you are part of a scheme with a set time-frame however, you need to be even more precise with how you work with your mentee.
Let’s start with what I believe to be the most important rudiment, bar none. That is, you must watch what you say, and remember that your way is not the only way.
People are complex creatures, and frankly what has worked for you will not, verbatim, work for anyone else. The great teacher of story, Robert McKee, will break down the science of storytelling to the Nth degree — but he will also underline it all by saying something like ‘I cannot tell you how to do this for yourself. I’m merely telling you what has worked, and why — but it’s up to you how you use it.’
Mentors — do not be dogmatic. You can discourage a mentee more easily than you know, and they will hide it from you. Yes, it can be hard to get into the industry, or into a certain role. We’re all the heroes of our own stories and take a certain amount of pride in how we accomplished it for ourselves. But our job is not to tell a mentee exactly what they should do — how could you know? Do we tell our friends, whom we’ve known for years, known their intimate workings, how to accomplish things in life? Perhaps you do, but I wager you don’t know your mentee like you know a childhood friend.
I cannot overstate the importance of this point. If you tell a mentee to do something, directly, the worst case is that they will do it. The best case is they won’t, but will doubt themselves for it, and/or feel guilty for not being able to.
The vastly preferable alternative, is to use the socratic method to help a mentee. You know, with the benefit of your experience, what the important decisions in your career are. The mentee may not. It’s your job to ask them the right questions that will help them make those decisions.
One exercise I like to get my new mentees to do is ask them to write a personal mission statement. What kind of creative are they — where are they hoping to go, what are they hoping to build, and why — and what unique perspective or combination of skills are they bringing to the table? It usually takes a few iterations to get them really thinking/writing specifically, but once we drill down to the core of the matter — no fluff, no mentions of being passionate about anything — then we have a benchmark that we can both work from and refer back to.
Another example of a good question you can ask a mentee is, ‘why?’. Over, and over, and over again, until ‘because it seems like a cool studio’ or ‘because it’ll be good for my career’ becomes something truthful like, in the negative example, ‘because that’s what everyone tells me to do’ or better yet, on the positive spectrum ‘because it’s really important to me I work on the kind of game I want to play’, etc.
What you must not do, is ask questions (usually in the form of ‘why don’t you…’) or worse, give them advice that disparages a fundamental desire of the mentee. This segues into why transparency is so crucial. If they say they want to get into narrative design — a field with not many jobs, even fewer junior positions, an oblique entry vector, and a nebulously defined field at best — do not tell them how brutal it will be. Do not tell them to do what you did. Simply explain, and I cannot emphasise this enough, explain candidly how it happened for you. Better yet, explain how it happened for some other people you know. And then take them the pros and cons of each approach.
In short, be transparent, not ‘brutally honest’. I took part in an alumni event a while ago at my old uni, and on the same panel as me — at a time I was working a non-glamorous job, but it was a job, in online marketing videos — was someone like the editor of Vogue. Luckily for my ego she was a fair bit older than me. When it came to her to describe how she’d got to such a vaunted position in the publishing world, her answer amounted to ‘I studied x, I worked really hard, I made sure to network a lot — and here I am!’
I mean, good for her, but that answer is fundamentally useless to any graduate. When it came to my turn, I was transparent. I explained how I had no idea what career I wanted to, or could do after uni, about my wilderness years living back at home with my mum, how I ended up taking whatever shitty job I could to get something, anything on the CV, and about how I eventually stumbled, blagged and lucked into something resembling a career.
This is what your mentee needs to know: that they are not experiencing some fresh hell — that you have been through what they are going through, and have come out on the other side. That they are not crazy for not knowing something, or for feeling something. Etc, etc, etc. If you cannot be authentically vulnerable, and candidly transparent about your trials, tribulations and privilege (there will be privilege involved) then you have no business mentoring anyone.
I hope it’s clear that I by no means believe this to be an exhaustive guide — it would take a book that I am not currently qualified to write. This little article does however contain some fundamentals that I feel bloody confident will do no harm. So if you’ve made it this far — thank you for reading, and just remember that real mentoring is not about adding a feather to your CV, it’s about minimising pain, and maximising potential.