How to be an accidental mentee
February 27, 2012 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Being the receiver in one-sided relationships and how best to handle that. Are there things I can do to balance it out? Make it less selfish and more friendly?

So, I'm acquaintances with an older girl - I know her, but not well, through our families being friends. I have essentially followed the exact same educational/career path as her so far, except she has always been two years ahead of me. At every obstacle I have gone to her for advice, and she has always thoughtfully helped me - having passed through the same steps before me. I always feel really apprehensive about asking her for help and procrastinate at length. Mainly I feel bad for not contacting her unless I need her help, like I'm using her (which I suppose I am).

I wish there was something that she could ask me for help with, so I could give back to her. And normally I'm pretty good at getting along with people and being friendly with them, but with her, I'm kinda scared to contact her ever because I feel like she'll immediately think I need some sort of favour.

I'm staying an hour away from her for a few weeks and I think it would be really helpful to meet up and chat with her, since I am interested in the very competitive field that she's in. But I still feel as though just by meeting up with me I'd be wasting her time, since she is busy and probably has better things to do. And it'll be especially weird since I haven't seen her for about three years, given that we were never close in the first place.

In general I hate asking people for help. And to be honest, we're not very similar - if it weren't for her "insider knowledge", I wouldn't be motivated to keep in touch at all. I guess my question is, how do I make this relationship better for the both of us, both short-term and for the long-term? And how do I ask to meet up with her in a non-awkward way?
posted by mossicle to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Being openly and sincerely thankful goes a really long way here. Do whatever you can in return, try not to keep score.
posted by milqman at 6:53 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: Well, you are giving her something in return. You're listening to her advice, you're taking advantage of her experience, and you're doing something with it. She's a mentor of sorts. If you always thank her warmly and genuinely whenever she assists you, I don't think you should beat yourself up over the relationship. This is how networking and mentorship works.

If you're still concerned, why not ask her out for coffee and just tell her you'd like to thank her for all the guidance she's provided?

And FWIW... It's taken me a long time to realize this, but most people, unless they are assholes, aren't offended when you treat them with respect and ask for their help. It's a compliment in every way. Shoot, I wish I had somebody like that in my life right now, and I hope someday I can be that person for somebody else.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:55 PM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree that you shouldn't keep score.

Also, Are you absolutely certain that she doesn't enjoy helping you? Some people glean a lot of satisfaction from helping others, especially people who are slightly younger and/or who follow in their footsteps.

I think that you should meet with her, but follow it up with a handwritten letter thanking her for her time.
posted by oxfordcomma at 6:57 PM on February 27, 2012

She sounds a little bit like a mentor. I think normally mentors are much older and more experienced, but I think this is pretty similar. Mentors tend to love being mentors; it makes you feel so important and necessary! Send her flowers (or something else, if you think that's inappropriate) when she helps you! That's what I'd do, anyway.
posted by two lights above the sea at 6:59 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you should call her up and ask if you can buy her lunch. Tell her you want to catch up (it has been so long!) and pay her back for all her indispensable wisdom she has been so generous to bestow upon you.
posted by Sweetmag at 7:00 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't worry about this so much. Be appreciative and give a small gift of some sort and a nice note. Or, buying her lunch would be a nice gesture too.

Some day she might be steering her daughter or niece to talk to you and it will all even out.
posted by bunderful at 7:07 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Aristotle has a good take on unequal friendships. Basically, it is appropriate for her to give what she can--which is to say, advice and mentorship--and you give what you can--respect and gratitude.

Don't try to equalize it. Think about it this way: The time will come when you can do the same for someone else, and you'll be happy and honored when it happens.

Pay for lunch, and good luck!
posted by elizeh at 7:14 PM on February 27, 2012 [7 favorites]

This is a mentor relationship. It's fine.

People love to give advice and to be able to help people that way. Say thank you, be appreciative, and do your best to pass it on when you're in a position to do so.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:18 PM on February 27, 2012

I don't think you have much to worry about. I bet she is flattered that you are asking her advice, and glad to help. It doesn't sound like you are bugging her too much. I enjoy being a mentor to others and when others ask my advice it also helps me to feel good about my own path in life.

You can always invite her to lunch or coffee, or give her a small gift.
posted by bearette at 7:46 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: Agree that this is more mentor-y than one sided friendship. Keep in mind that she probably has also had some sort of mentor(s) helping her along on her way, and she's probably happy to be helping you. I needed a LOT of help in my own educational/ career path and many people really threw themselves into helping me. It was one-sided. Since there's really nothing I can do to repay them in an equal way, what I do instead is try to pay it forward by being there for other people. Now that I'm more established in my path, I love it when I have the opportunity to help people out who are new to it in any way I can. And I can tell that the people I help feel the same way you do, and I did- really grateful, and possibly not even quite sure why I'm being so "selfless" in helping them. But to me, it's how I'm thanking the people that helped me along my way. And I know that once the people I've helped become more established, they'll probably remember how influential I was in their life and want to be that to someone else, and they will! That's how mentor-y relationships go. It's lovely and fantastic and rewarding. She probably really likes helping you. Just continue to thank her sincerely and if you want to give small gifts, lunch, coffee, whatever- go for it.

And really, don't feel too bad about asking her questions. I used to feel that way, but now that I'm the one getting asked, I like it. I really do. The best thing you can do to repay her is to really excel, and when she sees how she's helped you succeed it will make her feel really good. I was so excited when my "mentee" got into the school she loved, with my help, and it still makes me warm and fuzzy to think of it. So do your best, and if you get opportunities to help others who are a couple years behind you- do it.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 8:06 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: Also a good way to thank her might be to follow up with her after she gives you advice- really, just a quick email or something. "Thanks for your insight about [subject]. Once I understood [point] I was able to ace the exam, which I never thought I'd be able to do!" She'll probably be more excited about continuing to give you advice if she knows you're listening to it and it's effective.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 8:12 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do something that shows you recognize that she is going out of her way for you and that you appreciate it. I'd find out what her liquor/wine/chocolate of choice is and send her a bottle with a little note thanking her for taking time to mentor you. Since you can't give anything back to her in kind (i.e., you have no advice to give) a small gesture like that will demonstrate that you know this.

It's also a friendly enough thing to do that she will probably be glad to help you in the future. Like J. Wilson said above, people like to give advice.
posted by spaltavian at 8:34 PM on February 27, 2012

"Hey OlderGirl, I'm going to be in your area for a few weeks and I would love to take you out to lunch as a thank you for all the help you've given me in our field."
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:29 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Everyone's right, this is pretty much the nature of a mentor-mentee relationship, and that the one great thing you can do is be thankful, be sincere, and do things like make it as convenient as possible for her to help you.

One thing I would say, though, is that maybe you could make an effort to reach out not just when you need something - but also when you can share your successes with her too, or a moment when her advice stood out as being helpful to you in your day to day situation, etc.

I personally love helping younger people out, but I remember some cases where I *only* heard from them if they were in a sudden existential crisis about their career or whatever. I take these requests and worries seriously, and I would try to write them back a really thoughtful response or talk to them on the phone or whatever, and then months and months would go by in silence until the next crisis. In the meantime, what were they up to? What was going well for them? Did my advice even help? They had switched industries entirely? They had moved to Bulgaria? Who knew? If she is important enough to share your anguish with, she is important enough to share your triumphs with.

Along these same lines, the other thing I would suggest is that yes, asking for help is hard and it's totally understandable to procrastinate and put it off. But if that means that you basically wait until you are desperate for an answer, then that is kind of putting an onus on her that is unfair. If you talk to her earlier, she can be more consultative along the way and she can help you solve your own problems instead of solving them for you. "Hey - I have been considering these things plans down the line, what do you think?" is potentially more helpful to you both than "I REAAAALLLY NEED AN ANSWER PLEASE HELP ASAP OMG I HAVE TWO HOURS TO DECIDE THE COURSE OF MY ENTIRE LIFE WHAT DO I DOOO."

She is your mentor, and that is great. Just keep in mind that she is not your career therapist. The first can be a really great and rewarding relationship that you can pay forward - the latter is exhausting.
posted by sestaaak at 7:00 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Great answers, thank you! Especially sestaaak - your answer is exactly what I was looking for. I contacted her and hopefully we'll get to meet up this weekend! And I'll make an effort to hear more about what's going on in her life, rather than peppering her with questions about my worries and needs.
posted by mossicle at 1:40 PM on February 28, 2012

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