May 012011
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DURING MY FIRST internship after college, at The Village Voice, an editor named Laura took me under her wing. She was tough and cool. She gave me great reporting advice, such as “Always take care of your bad guy.” She had my back when I messed up. She sent me out to report on the Republican National Convention from the streets of New York and on Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath from New Orleans — real newspaper work, despite my inexperience.

She also conceived of a yearlong feature series, which she called “Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young,” and asked me to be one of several writers on it. After I’d published two stories in the series, a book editor contacted me and proposed that I write Generation Debt. That I co-opt Laura’s idea and turn it into a tome with my name.

Long story short: I did. Laura and I had an incredibly awkward conversation, where she acknowledged that she wasn’t in a position to write the book herself, and I apologized, futilely, for seizing this huge opportunity. We continued to work together, and she continued to offer great guidance. When she moved on to produce radio and TV, she even recommended me as a guest. But our relationship was never quite the same.

That’s when I first understood that the old-school idea of having your boss as your mentor isn’t always ideal. Office politics can compromise your loyalty, and loyalty can compromise your career. What happens when your mentor gets fired, or when you get promoted over him? What happens if your mentor finds your work subpar, or even thinks of firing you? There’s no easy answer.

We need a new model of mentorship. We’re living in an age of networks, not hierarchies; knowledge and wisdom is distributed, rather than concentrated among the gray hairs. Moreover, we’re bringing more of ourselves to work and we’re often chasing meaning over profit. The new model has to be more flexible and forgiving, to allow for the fact that mentorships, like any relationship, come in different flavors and change over time.

These days, I keep in touch with my mentors via email, Facebook, and Twitter, with the occasional lunch thrown in when we happen to be in the same physical place. I don’t work directly with any of them. Some of these connections have extended over the years, and I hope they’ll continue many more. But I’m always alert to the opportunity to get valuable advice in just one meeting. And I’m prepared to help my mentors just as they help me. In a business world characterized by endless flux, smarts can come from young folks as well as from older ones.

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