Benjamin Franklin was only formally educated up to age 10 when he was forced to leave school and work for his family’s business. He taught himself to write at a high level by scrutinizing the works of famous writers, and even attempted to improve them himself. Franklin also read constantly, and applied his knowledge by speaking with others about what he read. Arguably, however, the most important component of his education and intellectual development was that he created forums wherever he went for people to come together and drive a dialogue about a variety of intellectual topics, placing him around extraordinary talent and thus improving his own understanding.
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” - Jim Rohn
For Benjamin Franklin, those five people were always the most brilliant intellectual human beings that he could find in a given city, whether he was in Philadelphia, London, or Paris. For some of us, on the other hand, those five people are a bunch of goofballs who are more of a detriment to our learning and life than a benefit. Your friends who play too much? They’re not helping you. The girl or boy who demands every ounce of your attention? Probably a waste of your time. Don’t let these people tear you down and prevent your growth.
Chances are, even many of your teachers have relatively little value to offer in education, not because they are not smart, but because of the fact that they have to stick to a curriculum of just-in-case learning that deviates not from the prescribed path of K12 or higher education. Talk to them after class, however, and you’ll find that for one, your teachers are usually highly educated and knowledgeable individuals, and two, that they probably disdain their standardized curriculum just as much as you do, and would be plenty willing to teach you and mentor you far past giving you homework.
Even when they aren’t knowledgeable or willing to teach and help you, bad teachers, coaches, and bosses are no longer an excuse to not develop as a student, team member, or employee. For one, there will always be negative people around you—it’s just not possible to completely control who you come in contact with to that extent. Not to mention, even if you got the best five business mentors on the planet to actively mentor you, you would still find faults and imperfections in them and their advice. Do not pretend that your teachers or authorities are at fault for your results. You are. Especially when you have the power to change who those people are in the first place.
Now, even more so than in Ben Franklin’s time, there is no excuse for not having great teachers and mentors around you at all times. With the rise of the internet’s enormous library of content and our ability to instantly communicate with anyone around the world, it’s remarkably easy to change who your influences are, even if they cannot be physically in front of you or even know who you are.
Michael Bierut, world-famous designer and partner at Pentagram, tells designers young and old to “hijack your mentors.” Essentially, this means to take information from the sources you know to be good influences without ever telling them. You don’t have to explicitly ask someone to mentor you, but you do have to put in the effort to start learning from the content they’ve already released, or reach out to them and simply ask. Below are a few ways to start indirectly and directly hijacking mentors:
Listen to mentors on podcasts
The best podcast recommendation I have is The Tim Ferriss Show where Tim interviews all sorts of high-performing individuals from venture capitalists to Olympic athletes. Through your headphones, you get to be in the room with these amazing individuals and be a part of the conversation: conversations that may have happened months or years ago that are still ripe for your consumption.
If you were invited to spend an hour speaking with Tony Robbins, Arianna Huffington, Seth Godin, or Jamie Foxx about life, work, and all that they’ve learned throughout their endeavors, would you? Of course! Minus the fact that you won’t be asking the questions (don’t worry, Tim does a great job), this is exactly what Tim’s podcast and many other excellent podcasts are all about. Take advantage! While everyone else stands by listening to their friends who have no idea what they’re doing, you can be a student of a school of greatness.
Listening to podcasts in general will allow you to hear from some of the finest minds in the world, on demand. You could also listen to speeches given by a successful person you admire. Plenty have given great commencement speeches or TED talks that you can listen to for free and on demand, all from the comfort of your own home.
Read their books
Read books written by mentors you would like to have. Many of the most successful people that you might admire either have books by them or about them at your local bookstore.
Alternatively, discover who taught your mentors. For example, Warren Buffett’s investment practices and thinking primarily came from the teachings of Benjamin Graham, an extraordinary influential value investor who died in 1976. You might say that for this reason, Benjamin Graham can no longer be your own mentor. Not true at all.
To this day, there are updated and revised editions of Graham’s cornerstone books on value investing, Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor. Benjamin Graham can still teach you investing: that is, if you are willing to pick up his books and learn from him. If you’re not already diving into the books of the most brilliant people in your industry, field, or craft, then stop making excuses and start doing it.
Another excellent way to hijack mentors through books is by reading biographies of your favorite figures to gain insight on exactly what made them successful, what made them fail, and what made them tick. Apply those learnings to your own life. Steve Jobs may have been a questionable individual, but as a CEO had some amazing principles and ideas. Understand his story, and you’ll understand how to use what he did right to your advantage, and (arguably most importantly) avoid what made him fail. (Among my favorite biographies: Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney.)
Ask them a question (a really good one!)
We’ll get into this more in the following pages, but ask a mentor a question via email (or another social media platform). Chances are high that whoever you’d like to mentor you has an email address. Use tools like The Harvester or Interseller, or simply sniff around their website to find an email address and shoot them an email. You may not get responses immediately, or even at all, but you’ll be surprised at how often you do succeed in getting a response.
Below is the exact email I sent to famous designer and Pentagram partner Paula Scher that was met with a cheerful and enthusiastic response:
Paula, I’d start by saying I’m quite a fan of your work, but let’s be honest: I think just about everyone is! Count me in on that list. I’ve listened to a bunch of your talks and presentations to gain insight and I’m never disappointed to hear what you have to say. You’re a thought leader in the graphic design community at the highest level.
Which leads me to a question I have:
How did you internally develop into a thought leader (or whatever you may call your celebrity-like status) and how did you have to grow as a person as you became more and more widely known?
I’d love to hear your insight on this, as it’s rare to hear from the actual thought leaders that seem so far away sometimes. Thank you Paula and keep up your great work across the board.
I’ve used similar messages to get in touch with Ryan Holiday, Aaron Draplin, Michael Bierut, countless CEOs, some of my favorite authors and many, many more. It works for a variety of reasons, but in essence it’s because I had the audacity to show up in their inbox and ask a question. Why do I need to go to a conference to meet any of these people? I don’t!
If you want business mentors, email is the promised land. Maybe your favorite author/artist/businessperson has a manager or assistant of some sorts: try emailing them and asking your questions. Make sure it’s a good one, too: if it’s interesting and new, it shows that you’ve already exhausted your resources and didn’t just come up with an interview question so that you could talk to them. Be genuinely curious, and when you need advice or help, be honest and ask. You’ll be surprised how often people will help you out.
In sum: Put yourself around the best influences that you possibly can, and you will start to be like them, just like you would if your influences were negative. Pay attention to who you spend time around and listen to. Hijack your mentors. Read from them. Read about them. Listen to them. Talk to them. Above all, learn from them.