I’ve been thinking about deliberate practice a lot lately.

In The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, he tells the story of a girl learning to play an instrument. She’s an average student, right in the middle of the pack.

Her class was asked to video themselves practicing as part of an experiment, and what they found her do was breathtaking. She played through the music, and then soon as she stuffed up, she stopped, went back, hummed the correct tune to herself, then started again and went until she got a note wrong again and repeated the process.

That’s deliberate practice. Most students learning music tend to skip over the part they don’t know how to play to get to the next part they can.

They said that in that hour of work she did, she developed in terms of months. Unfortunately for her, she went back to practicing the parts she was good at later in the video, halting her progress.

Naturally, this got me thinking about instant feedback and deliberate practice in design.

This line of thought reminded me of the luck I had in having found a couple of mentor’s very early in my design career. Hell, it was before I even had a career, when I was still a student. At different times, these two people would push me to be better, guiding me in the right direction, giving direct, and practically instant (a day or so at most) feedback.

I found them with some luck, almost accidentally.

So how do you find mentors on purpose? How do you get someone to help and guide your work and development?

What a Mentor Does.

A mentor is just someone who you respect and admire, who has travelled the same path you have.

It’s someone who can look over your shoulder and guide you in what direction to take, helping you see mistakes in your routine and process, sometimes letting you fall into them a few times so you learn what they’re like, but then guides you on how to get out of them.

They’re not always going to be nice about it – and that’s the point. They’re not there to tell you you’re amazing and the work you’re doing is great, call your folks for that.

They’re there to kick your ass and push you to the next level. You’re an investment to them. You’re someone into whom they’re putting in energy because they want to see a good outcome.

It’s a Lot of Work.

Clearly being a mentor is a lot of work. It’s like being a teacher, a coach, and a psychologist. Without getting paid.

Asking someone to be your mentor is a huge request, and one that I’m not sure many people actively ask for – even those with mentors.

It can often happen quite naturally.

By all means, ask, but you’re going to mostly get “no, haven’t got the time.” Chances are if they’re someone you admire it’s because they get good work done regularly. That means they’re busy.

So how does it happen naturally? Oftentimes by starting off with an informal mentorship program, so to speak. Some people call it email.

– Aim small, just ask a couple of direct questions.
Rather than drop the ten-tonne question of “Will you be my mentor? Please? Pretty, pretty please?”, just send a small email, with one or two very direct questions, and a lot of courtesy.

Most people are going to be too busy to help, so give them that out in the most comfortable way you can.

“I completely understand that you’re probably far too busy to answer my questions, so please feel free to disregard this email if that’s the case.”

That’d keep me happy.

Notice I said “answer my questions”? That’s the important part.

Have a few very direct questions that will give you some very direct feedback. It makes your request smaller and easier to deal with quickly.

“Is this a good typeface?”

“Do these colors work?”

Then, after these, maybe drop a more generic “is there anything else that you think I should have another look at?”.

I’d keep it to no more than two or three questions, and keep them small.

Don’t talk about mentors, don’t talk about anything that sounds like you’re going to be coming to them for more input soon.

If a mentor is someone who guides your work, answering all your questions, then an informal mentor is someone who might answer one or two.

Should you get a response, reply with courtesy, perhaps asking them if they’d like to see the next version to see how you implemented their ideas.

Should they say “sure”, then you’ve got a conversation starting. It could become an ongoing thing, and you’ll have yourself an informal mentor.

How Do I Find Informal Mentors?

Ask your friends to look at your work.

Ask people you’ve spoken to regularly on Twitter or Facebook.

Email a designer you admire.

You’ll mostly get “no, sorry”; sometimes way less polite than that.

It’s actually not that hard to find someone to look at your work once, but you need to be a normal human being about it. Don’t bombard them with emails – be nice, and kind about it. And if they have a blog, comment on their articles. Respond to them on Twitter and Facebook, email them when they launch a great new project.

“Hey, I loved that website you did, the grid was wonderfully clever, I’m learning a lot as I really look at it bit by bit.” Damn, that’s enough. Short and sweet, and it means the next time you ask for a small question kindly, if you’ve read the relationship you’re building properly, they’ll be more inclined to help out.

I Did This Last Night

I actually did something like this last night.

I asked on Twitter if anyone would be interested in looking over an idea I have for the future of Retinart.

Several people responded, and I’m not surprised to see that a few of them are confidants of mine. People who I’ve shared ideas with the past, and they’ve done the same with me. I’ll also be emailing a couple of other web friends who I’ve spoken to the past to get their feedback.

It’s no more complicated than that. Some will be able to help me out, some won’t. I won’t take it personally if they can’t, because I know they’re busy.

But those who do help out will be, for a few minutes, for the time it takes to read my ideas and write a response, my informal mentors.