Idols & Mentors

Here’s a little secret – I love Top Chef. We can get into that some other time. 😉

Anyway – I’m sitting here watching Top Chef tonight and the episode features the mentors of the finalists…and I’m profoundly jealous. Each of these amazing chefs has an amazing mentor. No wonder they are the finalists in this competition.

Like I said: Profoundly Jealous.

I don’t have a mentor. Never really have. I have peers who are further along in their career than I am, whom I am extremely thankful will allow me to bend their ear occasionally, but no one that I would look to the same way as a mentor. There is no one in my professional life that I would give the kind of authority that I see these people giving their mentors. There’s no one whose approval I would want as badly as I see here. There’s no one that means as much to me as these people’s mentors clearly do to them.

As a more developed professional, I’ve sought out mentors at various times, and ultimately been disappointed in those relationships…so what makes those relationships so powerful? Maybe it’s because I’ve never worked for any of those people. Maybe it’s because those relationships didn’t start when I was fresh and new and didn’t realize that everyone is flawed and almost everyone is full of shit.

Early in my career I had mostly negative influences, by which I mean I had a lot more people whose failures I wanted to avoid than people whose success I wanted to emulate. I didn’t want to be like the disorganized drama magnet who ran the design department at Shepherd. I didn’t want to be like my former partner who couldn’t manage his money and got himself into trouble with the IRS. I didn’t want to be like my father and work a job that he hated his whole life until he had a stroke and found himself unable to perform the job that completely defined his personality for his whole adult life.

The other thing I had was idols: Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Massimo Vignelli, Chip Kidd and Roger Black among others. There are a few problems with having idols instead of mentors. Idol worship is a one way street. They don’t give you the validation, the feedback, the insight that a mentor will. When you need a voice in your head besides your own, you don’t have one based on real understanding, you just have your made up crap.

So, when I have a tough problem to solve, whose voice do I hear in my head? What do I ask myself? What would Massimo Vignelli do? Probably put on some black pajamas and lay stuff out in Helvetica on his gigantic desk that has a pyramid for a leg.

I need a mentor. And some black pajamas. 😉