How to Repay Your Mentors

How do you for people who have done so much for you? How do you thank them?

Well, first let’s get something out of the way. Very rarely does anyone else help anyone else out for genuinely altruistic reasons. Unless your mentors were blood relatives, they took an interest in you in large part because there was an interest in it for them. Having a whiz kid or a protege around is good for business, that’s why they’re doing it.

So deliver. Have your shit together. Want it more than they want it for you. Don’t be crazy. Spot new opportunities, never care about credit. All the “Advice to a Young Man” stuff.

But after that, when it comes to all the intangibles–everything they gave you that extends way past any reasonable definition of “work obligation”–there is only one thing you can do: earn it. They invested time in you, they gave you a bit of their truly non-renewable resource. You can’t pay them back. You can only make it have been worth it. Validate the investment and make it clear that you appreciate it. Be a good person; do what you love.

Without being cheesy, I also have to discuss the final step: paying it forward. The people who gave you your first job, showed you their secrets, picked up the check when you couldn’t afford to? They don’t want that stuff back. They want you to see you learn from their example. I’m not saying it’s good karma, but think about it like this: the stuff they gave you, that wasn’t a gift. It was given to you in trust. You don’t exclusively own that knowledge, you aren’t entitled to profit from the advice, you didn’t get some free ride. No, you just got access to it for a while, access that was contingent on you referring other deserving people to it down the line. Got it?

As we get older and more successful, we find ourselves in the position to help people. We were once in their shoes, and we know how we got from there to here. We find meaning in that journey and want other to experience it. At the same time, success makes us soft. It alienates us, makes us a little less hungry. But our experience makes us smarter–we know that our skill combined with someone else’s inefficient but fresh energy would be potent. More potent than either attribute in isolation. Which is why both parties seek each other out and benefit from it.

Just remember that that’s what mentorship is. And that whatever role you play in that equation at whatever time, you better fulfill it completely. It’s what you owe.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.