Job hunt tip: The mentor matters more than the company

I noticed in the New York Times Book Review last week, there was a nice review of Jim Krusoe’s new book, Girl Factory. I was happy to see that, because Jim Krusoe was my first—and most influential—writing teacher.

Jim teaches creative writing at Santa Monica College, (and his faculty page reveals so much about him). He lets anyone join the class, but you have to read your writing out loud. This weeds out almost everyone. Because first you have to write something. And then you have to let everyone rip it to shreds. In front of you.

But wait. It gets worse. Because Jim edits. He slashes most of the writing he reads. And then, if you’re new to the class, you assume he’s wrong, so you read out loud what he has cut and you hear it fall flat as soon as it leaves your lips.

Try it. Read something you wrote out loud to a friend. If it’s bad, you’ll feel right away that boredom has overcome the room. If you have even one flat sentence, you hear it when you read it out loud.

The first time Jim heard me read my writing, he said it was the best he'd heard anyone read in his class in a long time. Then he slashed everything I wrote for the next six years. Sometimes I’d hand in three pages of writing and he’d leave only five sentences.

But this is the thing about those five sentences: they were great. And here’s why I became a dedicated follower: Because I felt like he understood my compulsive need to write my life. And I understood his goal, which was to have interesting sentences. So when he cut full paragraphs that I thought were important because my sentences were boring, I felt grateful that he saved me from banality.

And I channel him every day that I write a post. I think to myself: Is this sentence one that Jim would cut?

I am not so arrogant as to think that Jim would even bother to read any of my sentences today. But I do know that the lessons I learned from Jim are the essence of good blogging. You can't be boring on a blog. People will stop reading.

So if you want to know how to write interesting paragraphs, read the authors who are famous for their ability to stun sentence by sentence. Try Jim Krusoe. Try literary types who sacrifice plot for prose: Ken Sparling, Martin Amis, Ann Beattie. (And, when you are feeling ambitious, Marcel Proust.)

I tell people all the time to pick a mentor rather than picking a job. Jim Krusoe is my first experience with this. He didn’t teach at a college I had ever heard of. And he didn’t even write books that I understood. But he is legendary for churning out well-respected writers, year after year.

Find a mentor with this reputation, and then work hard to make sure you each understand each others’ goals. What you’ll get out of this relationship is a new way to be more of your true self. And this is the best kind of job we can ask for.

We don’t have to find our true calling from a mentor. In fact, what I found from Jim was confidence to think that I should keep writing and see what happens. A good mentor opens doors, in our minds, and you can find that at any job, any company, anyplace your connection with someone is strong.

Posted in How to blog, Job hunt, Mentoring, No image
36 comments on “Job hunt tip: The mentor matters more than the company
  1. Neil says:

    Just last week I visited my mentor, I traveled 1000 km to see him and it was worth it. Spending 1 hour with him is worth every cent spent traveling, I see it as an investment in my intellectual property. Penelope, it’s great to see even successful people like you have mentors. Surrounding yourself with successful and intelligent people is key to achieving one’s career goals. It seems you did that pretty well… ; )

  2. Chris Gammell says:

    I actually gained something from a mentor that I never really thought that I would appreciate: cynicism. He taught me that in engineering and in life there are a lot of people that are willing to help you out, but most of the time your company is not. While I still trust my company (and would tell anyone I’m mentoring to do the same), I always hear him telling me to keep reading and learning and increasing my skills just in case. Even if nothing ever happens to me, the preparations he taught me to make help me in my everyday life.

    I could use a good writing mentor though. I’ll check out the pages you link above. Thanks!

    ~Chris

  3. Mark W. says:

    I have read from you about having a great voice. Writing and speaking your own words in front of an audience to get their true feedback (body language, verbal, or written) gives ‘great voice’ new meaning to me. I’ll have to try and imagine this scenario while writing because you just don’t get that kind of feedback when you’re putting words down on a piece of paper.
    You say Jim Krusoe saved you from banality. That’s true and hats off to him and people like him who teach and mentor. It’s also true you saved yourself from banality by sticking with him and following his lead. It’s the relationship and purposeful effort exerted by both the mentor and protege that determines the final outcome.

  4. prklypr says:

    I have never heard of Jim Krusoe, or for that matter, the creative writing program at Santa Monica College, but hands down he has the best faculty page for a writing teacher I have ever seen.

  5. rennie says:

    I looked Jim Kruscoe up on RateMyProfessors.com and found it interesting to note that those who rated him poorly were bad writers:-) Typos, poor grammar, wrong use of there/their, to/too, its/it’s, etc.

    We’ve fallen away from our writing skills, and that’s unfortunate. Writing is like speaking. Often our first impressions of a person are formed by by what they write or say.

    I’d like to take Kruscoe’s class. Anyone know if he offers an online version?

  6. Ed F. says:

    It also helps if you post more than once a week, that will keep readers too dear. ;)

  7. Maggie says:

    I remember those days! I majored in creative writing and what you describe here was basically my entire college experience: handing out copies of my stories or poems to the entire class then having to read them aloud and have the professor–and the students–rip them. But hey–not only did it make me a better writer, it prepared me for the reality that good writing is subjective. No matter how good or bad I think something is there’s always going to be someone who hates it or loves it.

    My mentor was Vanessa Haley (http://www.amazon.com/dp/1932339086/?tag=brazecaree-20) and she introduced me to my favorite writing concept: “turn of phrase”–as in “this is an interesting turn of phrase.” She taught me it’s not just about telling a story or getting a point across, it’s about doing it artfully.

    Anyway, I digress…suffice it to say that, unfortunately, I have never been lucky enough to find an equivalent mentor in the business world.

  8. The Office Newb says:

    I absolutely agree that blogging forces you to be interesting. Blogging has made me become a fantastic self editor (something I used to be really terrible at). Sometimes I’ll be going off on some really brilliant (in my mind at least) tangent for several paragraphs, but will have to force myself to cut it all out because it isn’t relevant to my post and doesn’t strengthen the point I’m trying to make–no matter how great the content is.

  9. sifi says:

    My most significant mentor has been, by far, Maureen Bloomfield, now editor of the Artists Magazine. Their blog is at http://artistsblog.artistsnetwork.com/
    This magazine’s focus is on assisting artists with finding and using the tools to successfully realize their artistic goals, both in the studio and in the business of being a self-supporting artist.
    A brilliant writer, Bloomfield has continued to bring the best of these things to the magazine while introducing the readership to international artists such as Spain’s Anonio Lopez Garcia.
    I met her many years ago, when she taught creative writing. Like all skilled mentors, she had the double-edged gift of calling out your nascent gifts and then gently but forcibly skimming away the dross to find the gold beneath. I’ll always be grateful to her.

  10. Mark Freedman says:

    Having great mentors leads to the best education you could get, professionally or otherwise. I truly try to be one, in every interaction I have with the people who are looking for guidance. Most likely, the best mentors are those who’ve had great mentors themselves.

    I love the idea of getting three pages down to five sentences. It’s refreshing. Every writer should be forced to read everything they write out loud. I automatically do that most of the time. I don’t remember who got me into the habit, but I’m grateful.

    A classic book on writing is “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, and may have mentioned it before.

  11. prklypr says:

    This actually relates well to point #3 in your previous post on bad career questions – brevity is a skill! Getting three pages down to 5 sentences requires the writer to examine the essence of what they are really trying to say – whether it be a short story, blog post or resume cover letter.

  12. Jon S says:

    PT,

    This article is worthless. You need to write the good old ridiculous ones to keep us entertained, such as the one you wrote about how women shouldn’t report sexual harassment. If you can’t make your posts intelligent and meaningful, at least make them laughable.

  13. Barchbo says:

    While I enjoy reading your actual posts, what rivets me are the people who return again and again to write what appear to be intentionally unkind remarks. I think that is fascinating. And weird. Any thoughts?!

  14. Dale says:

    How do I find a mentor when I don’t even understand who I really am, and what I want from life or a career?

  15. Mark Freedman says:

    Yep, Barchbo, the more interesting the blog, the more we see these types of comments. She definitely hits a nerve. If you’re loved or hated, it’s definitely better than being ignored. If nothing else, if you’re open and honest about your thoughts and feelings in your writing, you’ll attract both.

    I definitely enjoy Penelope’s posts, no matter if I agree or not. She’s never malicious. She’s just very honest. I’m sometimes tempted to jump to her defense, but I see she never reacts to those comments, so I just chuckle and move on.

  16. Mark Freedman says:

    Dale, I’d recommend finding someone you look up to who has been in your situation in the past, and did finally get through what you’re struggling with to become successful and passionate about something. It doesn’t have to be in a field you’re interested in. There are common stories no matter where you came from or where you’re going, that you could learn from.

  17. Marsha Keeffer says:

    I majored in English and it’s helped me every step of the way. My writing mentors – from Carolyn See to Don Asher to poet Stellasue Lee – have all changed my life. My writing at http://tonehall.typepad.com is a reflection of my work with all my writing teachers.

    * * * * * *
    I’m so touched that the comments section became a place to pay homage to mentors. I like that people are posting links to mentors. It’s a testament to how much gratitude and connection people feel from a positive mentoring process. These comments inspire me to be better, more active mentor myself.

    –Penelope

  18. Tiffany Monhollon says:

    What is interesting is that research on the flipside backs this statement up – the #1 reason most people leave a job is that they have a bad relationship with their immediate supervisor. On the other hand, people who have a mentor are willing to stay often even if it means less money or benefits than somewhere else.

    Personally, I tend to think of my career experience in terms of people along the way. Not jobs. The mentor-turned-boss who told me one summer of searching that if writing was what I loved, to make it work in my career. I interned for him the next summer. On the other side, the jobs I hated were the ones where no one cared about my success at all – or even cared enough to use me to my full potential – and those two things are linked.

  19. Liz says:

    Penelope, your blog is interesting, well-written, entertaining and thoughtful. I don’t agree with everything you write, but I like the way you approach problems and I appreciate the service you provide.

    Please, as a favor for me and everyone else who enjoys the blog, delete the troll comments. They detract from the discussion. They are meaningless noise. There is absolutely no value in leaving up something that is merely snarky and personally critical of you. I have criticized opinions and articles before. We all do it. But the comments on here are way out of bounds.

    Thank you,

    Liz

  20. Reggie Waller says:

    Penelope,

    Thank you for sharing this post. I have had many and still have great mentors and they have been very instrumental in my growth. There’s nothing wrong with having more than one mentor for various areas you’re looking to focus on. I think a majority of people look for one mentor to know everything and it should be the other way around.

    Regards,
    Reggie

  21. Jessica Bond says:

    You are correct! A great mentor will open your mind to possibilities that you would have never considered before and push you to explore new heights of personal potential.

  22. Alexis says:

    Classes start August 26. I’m considering finding a way to make it happen this Fall. Am I ready to have someone else put my kids to bed every Monday?

    I’d have to miss class once every month for a business trip I take.

    Are these just excuses to avoid confronting my writing?

    @Ed F., I’d keep reading Penelope even if she only posted once a month, a year or a lifetme.

    Thanks so much for the connection to your teacher PT.

    Alexis

  23. Monique says:

    I find it interesting that so few of the posts and comments on mentoring refer to FEMALE mentors. I had a discussion about this recently with some female academic types, and after dancing around the matter for a while, they finally acknowledged that they don’t know many women who are willing to share what they know, because they are afraid of being outdone — particularly by younger women. It’s sad that so many women have to rely only on male mentors ….

    * * * * * * *

    I’m glad you brought this up. It’s a topic that comes up often in conversations I have, but not many people are willing to talk on record. I think it’s true that men are more giving of their time and advice than women are. I’m not sure if it’s cultural — there’s definitely a boys club in corporate life and boys are used to hobnobbing in it. But I have found that in my own career, men have been very very generous with their time and advice. I wonder if maybe there are not as many women at the top of the corporate ladder so there are not as many giving advice. I’m not sure why there is a gap between male and female mentors. But I hear it a lot. I’m curious to know what other people think about this.

    -Penelope

  24. Ardith says:

    Cheers Penelope,

    Thank you for raising this topic and the opportunity to pay homage to my one and only mentor, Fred Garcia. I met him, of all places, at a Fortune 500 company. He is truly one of a kind; brilliant marketer, leader, teacher, rebel – all rolled up in a feisty yet humane package of courage, honor, wicked sense of humor, and the most creative, hysterical "isms" I've ever heard.

    I am forever in your debt, Fred.

  25. Ardith says:

    OK Penelope and Monique,

    Here is my experience when it comes to female mentors. I find that women entrepreneurs share their invaluable help and support willingly and with compassion. Female corporate executives (at the HQ level in particular) on the other hand, more often then not behave as though every other female on the planet is gunning for them/their position/their power, so they share little to nothing, or worse. And the unflattering truth may be that they have much less of value to offer than their entrepreneurial counterparts.

    Let the retort games begin.

    * * * * * *

    Well, I wouldn’t have come right out and said this. But I’m glad you did, because in general, that’s been my experience as well.

    -Penelope

  26. Shawn says:

    Mentors give me the perspective I lack from being to close to the situation. They see things from an outsider's perspective and that can be invaluable.

    And the funny thing is, I don't think we've ever had the formal "will you be my mentor?" discussion. I just adopted them over time.

  27. Christine says:

    The relationship that you describe with Jim is one that I envy. In my professional life, I’ve been blessed with finding great mentors. And their feedback and support has been invaluable. Like Shawn in his post, I haven’t ever formally asked them to be my mentor. They just are.

    In my writing life, I’ve had the exact opposite experience. I’ve looked for a mentor and nothing has panned out. I want/need to find someone who challenges me. Any advice on where to look?

    * * * * *

    Christine, the sidebar of the blog has a mentoring category, and there’s a lot of advice on where to look in there. But, I have to say that in areas where I have tried hard to find a mentor and have basically failed, in hindsight I see that I wasn’t so gifted in that area. And mentors gravitate to people they think are gifted in the area they are asking for mentoring in.

    So I guess one piece of advice for getting a mentor is to expose yourself as gifted.

    -Penelope

  28. prklypr says:

    I didn’t think I had had a mentor until someone mentioned that it does not need to be someone you formally ask – I realized that I had one all along! I guess that’s a trait of a good mentor: supportive in a non-invasive way

  29. Monique says:

    Penelope, thanks for the comment about the absence of female mentors. I think Ardith made a compelling point. Actually, I have struggled to find female mentors in academia and the business world. But female entrepreneurs have surprised me with their openness — and even willingness to share information that might have give me some sort of competitive edge. Maybe the problem is not women, but is systemic? When women break out of the system and go on their own, they don’t have that same feeling of desperation that makes them feel they need to guard what they know. Any thoughts out there?

  30. Bud Bilanich says:

    This is a great post. You cannot overestimate the power of a good mentor. Self confidence is one the five keys to success that I discuss in my book “Straight Talk for Success.” I suggest that there are three keys to self confidence: optimism, facing your fears and acting, and surrounding yourself with positive people.

    Mentors, by definition, are positive people because they are willing to give of themselves to help others learn and grow.

    The idea of identifying a mentor with whom you want to work as you look for a job and evaluate opportunities is simply brilliant.

    Thanks for this interesting and enlightening post.

    Bud Bilanich

  31. Ardith says:

    Good morning Penelope and Monique,

    Monique, you raise very thought-provoking questions I will consider. And as I love research, I’ll see if I can find any studies along these lines.

    Have a great weekend all,

    Ardith

  32. blandspace says:

    best blog in my greader period. i like tim ferris and his 4hour work

  33. JC says:

    It is a shame I was on vacation and did not see this post earlier; it’s a crime you didn’t mention Amy Hempel as an example of making every word of a written piece count. Everyone should have to read her in lit/creative writing courses in college.

    * * * * *

    Not too late to mention Amy Hempel. Love her. And she’s a great example of stellar sentence structure.

    -Penelope

  34. czen says:

    Well, if you don’t have a mentor you are lost in this world. The best thing is top become a mentor as there are a lot of people who seem to be lost.

  35. Gayle Karen Young says:

    First, loved the post – it’s right on track with what I’ve done well in my career that has worked for me.

    Second, you’re right – Jim Krusoe’s page was indeed enormously illuminating. :)

  36. Chris Benassi says:

    Great advice. I have worked for companies on both ends of the spectrum. The first was a small company in which I was mentored and it mostly worked out great. Now I work for a Fortune 500 company where I have mastered my job and feel absolutely stuck and isolated.

    Thats why I am looking to make another move.

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