At 22 and on my fourth day in New York, I was lucky enough to meet my mentor. I'll never forget what she said to me as I sat sweating in my too-hot-for-the-city sweater: New York is different. I'll tell you what I mean.
And she did.
We never used the word "mentor," but the relationship progressed to mean exactly that. I began working for her. She'd call me on weekends to check in. I ran both personal and professional decisions by her. We met weekly to discuss how things were going, what my biggest hurdles were, how my dreams were evolving and changing. Three years ago, when I made the incredibly large leap of becoming a full-time novelist, the decision was reached in her living room. "I trust your instincts," I remember her saying. "You know what's right for you." I wasn't so sure, but, like many times before, she ended up being right.
Very early on in our relationship, she told me that I had one job -- to pay it forward. "It's going to be your responsibility to be there for other young women," she said. It was clear from the start that every piece of advice, every conversation, would someday need to be shared. That was my end of the bargain. Was I willing to hold it up?
In her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg talks about the mentor/mentee relationship--and how it needs to be organic. She goes on to explain how important it is for men and women to step into mentoring roles. I would argue that not only is it important--- but it's important far earlier than we think.
I have noticed many young women of my generation are hesitant to give advice or offer council. What do we really, still solidly in our 20s, have to pass on to women only four years our juniors? What information has we amassed in that short period of time that could be of any value? My answer? An infinite amount.
Not only do we change and evolve dramatically from our early to late 20s, but the mere fact that we are still close in age can work to our benefit as mentors. We understand the struggles. We are not that far removed. When an aspiring novelist or editor emails me asking for advice I see myself just a few short years ago. I am able to empathize with the situation, yet illuminate a possible solution -- something women (and men) ten years down the road might have a harder time doing.
Do I think, at 28, I have all the answers? I sure hope not. That would make me a class-A fool. In fact, I still very much rely on the mentors in my life. But information, wisdom, experience, is far more fluid than we think, and we have a lot of it to offer. So why are we waiting so long to pay it forward?
Sandberg asserts that women are held back by fear -- fear of not being enough, fear of not being able to cut it, fear of not having the right answer, fear of being seen as too ambitions. It is this same fear that holds us back from offering council. Who am I, a woman still at the beginning of life, to tell someone else what to do? Who am I to think I have the answers? Who am I to make a difference?
Who are you not to?
By refusing to lend a hand we are not only robbing our colleagues and peers of the opportunity to gain guidance, but we are also robbing ourselves of the opportunity to lead.
I want to challenge women of my generation to start paying it forward -- early. Do it now. If you see someone struggling, offer input. If someone comes to you with a question, don't assume they should seek a higher up for the answer.
Step up. Lean in. You're ready -- I promise.