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A Shy Person’s Guide to Getting a Mentor

3 tips for introverts looking for career counsel

(This article previously appeared on LinkedIn.com.)

My name is Paula, and I’m an introvert.

As Jonathan Rauch wrote years ago in The Atlantic, “Oh, for years I denied it. After all, I have good social skills. I am not morose or misanthropic. Usually. I am far from shy…But at last I have self-identified and come out to my friends and colleagues.”

Thanks to Susan Cain’s excellent work, introversion is much better understood, and the “Quiet revolution” has spawned some important conversations about how to build on the natural tendencies of introversion to be successful in work and in life. (Cain is the bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)

But that doesn’t mean that life is easy for introverts, especially when it comes to developing relationships that can help you get ahead.

It’s said that extroverts think by talking, while introverts think then talk. This shouldn’t stop you from asking for advice.

I was reminded of the importance of mentorships recently when my dear friend and mentor, Jim Marcus passed away. Jim was a tireless advocate and supporter of the arts and especially committed to the development of young singers. He supported me, both during our time together at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and when I joined WNET (New York’s flagship public media provider), and was always there to give advice and counsel. His many acts of kindness, most unnoticed, touched the lives of so many.

He was also a tough mentor, who had no problem telling it like it is. As warm and wonderful as Jim was, he was definitely not like the maternal figure so many people picture when they envision a “mentor.” He had no qualms about colorful, direct language, and didn’t hesitate to share his unvarnished opinion.

As I reflect on Jim’s impact on my life, I realize how lucky I’ve been along the way to find great mentors, people who have supported me throughout my career and offered welcome advice. As an introvert, I know that I’ve been especially blessed that I’ve been able to develop these relationships, because I know how overwhelming it sounds when someone advises you to “get a mentor.

For my fellow introverts, here’s my best advice for finding a mentor:

First: study people carefully, and find people whose approach and work you truly admire.

As introverts, we are especially good at watching people carefully, and analyzing a situation. Use this skill to help identify people whose advice will be truly valuable.

Second: Ask for help on a specific topic. As an introvert, it can feel like too much of an imposition to ask someone to “become your mentor.” Start small.

Someone doesn’t have to commit to being your lifelong guide in order to give you good advice that can help you navigate through a tough situation. Build slowly, and you’ll find over time that you’ve developed a deeper relationship that goes beyond one-off advice.

Finally: Realize that no one has all the answers, so don’t be timid in identifying where you need help.

It’s said that extroverts think by talking, while introverts think then talk. This shouldn’t stop you from asking for advice. Asking questions is a signal of strength, not weakness. Don’t let your desire to be 100 percent sure of yourself stop you from getting valuable insight from others.

This advice might sound obvious to the extroverts of the world. But if you’re a fellow introvert, I hope it gives you some practical steps to build your professional and personal network.

I know that my life has been so much more full and rewarding because of the input and friendship of the many people who’ve taken time to mentor me along the way.

And as Susan Cain said in her TED talk, “I wish you the best of all possible journeys and the courage to speak softly.”

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