First published in The Collective, August 2017.
If you’ve ever needed proof that your dream mentor might fall short of your expectations, it’s hard to go past The Devil Wears Prada. In the cult 2006 comedy, Andy Sachs, a wide-eyed aspiring journalist played by Anne Hathaway, lands a job assisting Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, a queenly fashion magazine editor whose stamp of approval could catapult her career. Surprisingly, it’s her colleague, an art director with a talent for no-nonsense pep talks, who prepares her for reality and gives her the courage to make her mark.
Unlike Andy, I’ve never had a boss who’s asked me to steal a manuscript or charter a plane out of a hurricane zone but when it comes to finding career guidance in unlikely places, I can relate. Like many professionals who work in creative industries, I struggle to pinpoint a benevolent older mentor, whose wisdom and expertise have helped me tackle a workplace challenge or embrace a new opportunity. But I can identify friends and co-workers who’ve pushed me to take risks and whose own success has emboldened me to follow paths I’d never considered — whether that’s moving to a new city or throwing in my day job to attempt self-employment.
Turns out I’m not alone. “When I look back at the people who have most shaped my career — those I’ve turned to in moments of crisis or at major decision points — most of them are my peers,” writes Ann Friedman in an October 2016 article for New York magazine. An October 2015 report by Edelman Berland found that 4.1 million Australian workers freelance in some capacity and an October 2016 report by the Freelance Union revealed that entrepreneurs in the US now comprise 35 percent of the workforce. In a world in which talent, hustle and relationships have as much currency as scaling a career ladder, is it any wonder that a weekly lunch with an industry senior who has all the answers doesn’t feel as relevant as it once did?
Jill Jacinto, a New York-based millennial career expert and associate director of WORKS, a career consultancy aimed at young professional women, says that this move towards entrepreneurial careers along with technology that makes it easy to connect with people you admire regardless of their location means that mentorship is more fluid than it’s ever been.
“Professionals understand that the world of work is transforming and because of this shift people are much more open to asking for insight from people who have jumped in this direction already,” says Jacinto, who also works as an online mentor for jobs website Career Contessa. “A mentor doesn’t have to be a person that you meet with every week and you can have multiple mentors at a time. [Because of social media] you can even have a mentor whose business acumen you respect, even if you’ve never met.”
It’s hard to argue with the benefits of reverse mentoring, a practice that pairs older workers with younger, tech-savvy millennials — especially given that a June 2016 report by Australia’s Productivity Commission revealed that digital disruption could cost 40 percent of jobs in the next decade. But it’s equally interesting that this move towards careers whose milestones hinge less on promotions and pay rises than they do on flexibility and autonomy have given rise to networks of peers across various industries that provide collective mentoring and support. Initiatives such as Creative Mornings, the global breakfast series that encourages creative entrepreneurs to share resources and the WW Club, a global women’s networking group that livestreams advice and support, is proof that mentorship doesn’t have to resemble a straightforward relationship between two individuals at different career stages.
As Jacinto puts it: “Your peers hold a certain set of information that could be useful to you and vice versa. They can help you lose the tunnel vision mentality and expand your mind.”
The Collective spoke with three set of peers who prove that peer mentorship can spell exciting new possibilities for creative evolution and professional growth.
Arabella Peterson, co-creator and editor-in-chief of The Ladies Network and cinematographer and film curator, Manuela Leigh
Arabella on Manuela
Manuela is a few years older than me and I met her through my older sister Emmeline. At the time, I was still studying and she was 22 or 23. She was already working in the creative industries and was so wise. We became friends naturally and started talking about our careers and plans.
I’m the co-creator and editor-in-chief of The Ladies Network, which is a creative agency and platform for female artists and I also work as a freelance writer. Although Manuela and I have opposite personalities — she tells it like it is and I tend to choose my words carefully — she’s been really influential for me and is such a role model. As a young woman who’s just starting out in her career, Manuela’s ability to control her professional situations and say no to things when she has to is really inspiring to me. Manuela works in film and photography and has an amazing eye, which is something that I’m still developing that she’s really helped me with.
In creative fields, the line between the personal and professional is so blurred. When you’re passionate about the work you’d doing, you can’t really separate that from how you’re feeling. Because of that, we seek support and advice from people closer to us. There’s an emotional aspect to the relationship, which a traditional mentor couldn’t really offer.
Manuela on Arabella
My work revolves around film and photography – at the moment, I’m working on a film festival called For Film’s Sake, which champions women filmmakers. I met Arabella about five years ago. At first, we didn’t have a lot of common but then we realised that we meshed.
Our professional relationship began when she started at The Ladies Network. It was a big project and every time we’d hang out, we would talk about it. Now she’s truly on her career path and has goals for each year. Arabella wants to help everyone and I’m the youngest of six, so I learned how to stand my ground early. She’s taught me to give people a chance and to be less closed off to things that I don’t understand. When she started working on The Ladies Network, I didn’t get the goal. But she’s helped me realise that women have to support one another. I see her every week as a friend but we’re also in contact as professionals.
What our parent’s generation doesn’t realise is that there’s not one definition of success. I have friends in many fields and we all give each other advice. We’re coming at it from a human perspective rather than a career perspective. Being a mentor nowadays is not about having more experience; it’s about being able to contextualise and offer another layer of meaning.
Jacinta Lippold, creative director at Jac & and Mike Cairns, web developer at Cinch
Jacinta on Mike
I’ve been working for myself for about 10 years but have only really found my feet in the last two to three years. Today, I own two businesses – a design studio called Jac & and 43 Derby Street, a new shared workspace in Melbourne’s Collingwood. I met Mike on Twitter. He used to release a mixtape series called We Dance Alone and I was a great fan. About four years ago, I was working on a project and needed a developer and Mike put his hand up. At the time, I lacked confidence but Mike was incredibly patient and our friendship was born.
Although we collaborate all the time, I’m always asking him for advice and to read my business plans. In the past, I’ve been disillusioned by the separation between who I am and how I presented myself professionally. Mike helped build my confidence and pushed me to let my guard down. He’s really great at what he does — he’s professional but who he is in the pub is who he is in a boardroom meeting. I think that senior mentors can still be valuable but that seeking mentorship from people on the same level as you is so important. Because the relationship you have with collaborators is more easygoing, it helps you grow both professionally and personally.
Mike on Jacinta
I’m a self-taught web developer and have been working in the field for about ten years now. A few years ago, I started Cinch with a colleague. We work on web projects with clients like Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal but also local creatives.
Like a lot of my collaborators, I met Jac on Twitter a few years ago and we started messaging back and forth. We worked on a big web project back in 2014 and I was just struck by her level of professionalism. I’d never seen that in a freelancer or single-person operation — especially because she was so young! She was very business-like, especially in meetings. We work on client projects together but I’ve also helped her with her own business and built her most recent website. Although we often talk shop together or discuss a tricky client, we catch up socially as well.
I have a lot of problems with the agency model but one of them is that mentorship is often forced — your design director is often your mentor. I think being your own boss allows you to seek out people whose work you respect, who you can learn something from. I’ve got friends who are ten years younger and I’ll come to them for advice and they’ll come to me for advice. There’s something to be said for experience but it’s only one element.
Dennon Clamp, director at Seakyu Creative and Shira O’Sullivan-Linker, founder of GentSac
Dennon on Shira
Along with my business partner Chris, I run Seakyu Creative, a digital advertising agency that’s built for social media. We work with a lot of clients in tech as well as fashion and design. I met Shira, who’s the founder of GentSac [a subscription-based service for men’s grooming products] a few years ago, through a networking event and although she’s one of our clients, we started helping each other out. She’s become one of my mentors, in terms of marketing, gives me strategy advice and has taught me how to streamline things and make them go faster. I also help her with operations. She’s the type of entrepreneur that doesn’t give up when a problem arises, she’ll find a way around it and I really admire that. She has so much passion, energy and vigour — it’s so encouraging! For many young people working today, the industries we work in are based on new technologies, social media — things the older generation haven’t grown up wit. Often, the best mentorship we can receive is from someone who understands it firsthand. I also find that people who are older than us embrace an approach that’s based on competition while we’re focused on collaboration. There’s a very big difference.
Shira on Dennon
I have a fashion retail background and started GentSac at home. I was always curating cool products and toiletries for my partner and he loved receiving these gifts. We realised it would be awesome if there was a service that curated these for guys and GentSac was born. I first met Dennon through his business partner at Seakyu Creative. I noticed they were a talented duo who could to assist me with photography and social media. Our synergy grew from there. I found myself having having a lot of conversations with Dennon that lent themselves to personal development and the impact that it can have on your business. He is so intelligent and creative that I could see that he would benefit from opening his mind to a greater self-awareness. I believe that this can impact the relationships he builds and the project he focuses on as well as their execution. I think looking to your peers is essential because we’re all constantly learning. It’s very rewarding to share what you learn from the people you connect with. [In the future], I think mentorship will evolve into a network of like-minded people. It’s about giving back to a community of individuals who are growing alongside you.