Whether in a small town or a populated tech hub, it's easy for designers to feel drowned out. I hear time and time again that mentors are hard to find in the crowd. While I do agree that often it’s difficult to hear back from busy professionals, there are other ways to think about this dilemma.
Feeling subpar to peers we look up to can be a factor in deciding to pursue a mentor/mentee relationship. I’m here to tell you that you’re holding yourself back by de-humanizing someone else. Try to understand more about a potential mentor if that helps you make a connection. Find something that reminds you we’re all on the same playing field. If you can’t see them in person, watch videos of their talks or tutorials. Chat on Twitter. Get to know their journey and work. I’m not saying to stalk them, because that’s just creepy. What I am saying is find a way to view them as they are.
Also, remind yourself that your work matters. No matter where you are in your career, the work you do matters. You may not be proud of how something turned out, but that entire journey is legitimate. Don’t be afraid to share your work or about your journeys. Be confident in where you are as a designer, even if you don’t know where you want to go yet. Navigating is the exact type of thing a mentor can help you out with.
I encourage everyone to go to events; local and far away. Making time for this is huge and it’s hard to explain why until you experience it. Meet lots of people and learn. Make friends and stay in touch. Don't let geographic location hold you back from a mentor/mentee the relationship. Don’t assume that someone who lives in a small town isn’t a great mentor for you because you’re looking for the Grand San Fran life. Sure, someone who is living the life you think you want may be helpful, but you don’t know what you want until you explore a lot a live a bit. Mentors and peers weigh into the exploration and experience that you build on top of.
When you reach out to a potential mentor, start easy and ask for something specific. Respect people’s time. Don’t ask them for a portfolio review, or their general thoughts on a project. Ask a question and explain why you came to them. This shows someone you aren’t just looking for anyone with free, random advice. It even makes sense to offer lunch or coffee to meet up somewhere. This shows you value their time. There are many articles that go into detail about how to approach this step, but finding the right person happens first. The relationship should grow organically over time as you explore your professional fit.
Good vs Plenty
Connections are important. But having a few strong foundational relationships matters more. It’s not the quantity of connections you have, it’s the quality. If you feel that you need to seek out mentorships outside of your circle or geographic location, don't let that stop you. I think a remote set up could work with mentors just like it can with clients. Of course it’s ideal to get out and travel to meet up when you can. I continue to keep in touch with other designers I’ve met through the years. It’s a great way to diversify my design connections, learn and teach others. I schedule time via Skype or phone calls if I can’t help someone out in person, the same way I would do with clients.
One thing to remember is that your career goes in seasons just like your life. Even if you find a wonderful and convenient local mentor, things change. You would of course still stay in touch via remote tools and video while trying to meet up in person. If you feel stuck in your circle, think of this as a starting point instead of what may happen later. Seek out whoever you darn well please and go from there.