Thursday, September 28, 2017

First Subscriber Submitted Article!

Find a Mentor!
By John McMenamin

The goal of any do-it-yourselfer, maker, homesteader, or artist is achieving independence or self-sufficiency through the skills we possess. Do-it-yourselfers gain skills so they can fix things without calling and paying for a professional. Homesteaders learn how to grow food and generate power so they can be off-grid and independent from big agriculture. Artists develop material and technical know-how so they can uniquely express their aesthetic vision. In all these examples it is the acquisition of skills that enable us to develop personal, creative, or financial independence and freedom. But what is the best way to gain these skills?
Welding a sculpture.
Learning new skills and acquiring information has been made significantly easier with the internet. However, as makers, the best way to acquire new skills is still through trial and error with hands-on practice. You’ve got to get your hands dirty and get in the shop! And who better to guide you through those trials and errors than a trusted mentor? By aligning yourself with a mentor, you avail yourself to a fountain of information. A good mentor will help you learn your craft more deliberately by steering you clear of pitfalls and giving you access to their network. Finding a trusted advisor is not always easy, but these ideas may help.

To acquire new skills we have to surround ourselves with people who will teach us and put ourselves in situations where we are bound to grow. The first step towards doing this is asking for help! Figure out who the experts are in your field of interest and reach out. Set up a meeting with them, shoot them an email, or see if they are presenting in your area. It is amazing how generous people are with their time when you reach out in a courteous, concise manner. Another way to find mentors is to search out places where experienced teachers might congregate. Visit your local makerspace, technical college, or hardware store. Insert yourself into communities where you are likely to find mentors. Be sure to talk to people and keep your eyes and ears peeled for opportunities. Remember, mentors can be any age!
Mentor Paul at work.
One of my most influential mentors is named Paul, and he is only four years my senior. He taught me how to use an Oxy-propane torch and how to weld, run small equipment, and rig heavy objects. He also reinforced less tangible skills, like the importance of anticipating the needs of a crewmember on the job site. He’d say, “always pass a brush,” meaning, never just stand around on the job, always find a way to help out, even if it just means passing a tool or sweeping the job site. Sustaining a productive relationship with your mentor is crucial to your success as a student.
The mentor-mentee relationship can be a rewarding experience built on the joy of sharing knowledge and learning together. Build this relationship on a solid foundation! Here are five tips for sustaining a good working relationship with your mentor.

5 tips for a successful mentorship!

  1. Close your mouth and open your ears! Careful and patient listening skills are vital to being a good mentee. You’ll probably get to hear some cool stories too!
  2. Be humble. Remember, hubris always leads to embarrassment.
  3. Be respectful of the teacher’s experience and knowledge - regardless of their age.
  4. Be open to learning lessons that aren’t directly related to the skill you are pursuing. A thoughtful and observant mentee will build his character and work ethic based on the example of the teacher.
  5. Pay it forward! Be sure to use your skills and become a mentor to someone else.

A large sculpture by artist and mentor Jim that I helped build.

Mentor Timeline

Thus far I’ve urged readers to find a mentor, offered tips for finding one, and given advice for sustaining a strong relationship. Below I’d like to offer my own story as an example of how I found mentors, learned desired skills, and discuss some of the lessons I learned. Think of this as my “mentor timeline.”

Age: 26
Education: Bachelor of Arts: Painting and Drawing
Goal: Learn hands-on skills so I can earn money and be self-sufficient as a car-owner, future home-owner, and human.
Fall 2014 - Spring 2015
Valvoline Instant Oil Change

I wanted to learn more about cars and how to change oil, so I got a job at Valvoline with zero experience. As a national company, Valvoline had the resources and training system to teach me basic car maintenance. Through their online training course, I learned about different parts of the car and what they do. I also learned a lot from the guys in the shop. They taught me how to work efficiently and how to perform various auto maintenance services. In five months I serviced around 930 vehicles. It was a grueling, fast-paced job with a steep learning curve, but I learned my way around a car and gained a massive amount of respect for anyone who works in the service or retail industry.
Spring 2015 - Spring 2016
Franconia Sculpture Park

Through a series of serendipitous circumstances, I was invited to be an artist-in-residence at Franconia Sculpture Park outside of Minneapolis, MN. Over the course of a year, I lived at the Park for four months and built a 17’ steel sculpture. Mind you, I had never made a sculpture before and had never worked with metal. But the collaborative and creative community at the Sculpture Park nurtured me. I asked wood sculptors to take me into the woodshop and show me how to use the table saw. My friend Kelly gave me an hour-long demo on angle grinders, and in return, I taught a class on changing oil. This is also where I met my mentor Paul, who took me under his wing. When teaching me how to stick weld, he showed me the basics and then said, “get to practicing!” It was this combination of giving me initial guidance followed with a hands-off approach that gave me the confidence to experiment and learn on my own.
Summer 2015 - Fall 2016
Fine Art Preparator

Erecting mentor Jim's massive sculpture.
Through the network I built at Franconia, I became involved with the art community in Minneapolis and found work as a fine art preparator. As an independent contractor, I worked with many private clients, contractors, and museums. It was a great lesson in what it takes to work for yourself and manage everything from scheduling, billing, and taxes. During this time I found three mentors, James, Andrew, and Joel. James was a sculptor who taught me about different metal working tools and rigging. I also learned more about what it takes to make a living as a working artist. Next was Andrew, a master rigger, and art transporter. He taught me how to rig heavy objects and drive a forklift. Lastly, Joel was an art preparator and a carpenter. He showed me how to use a router and many other woodworking tools. Most importantly, he modeled professionalism on the jobsite and when interfacing with clients.
Fall 2016 - Current
Maintenance Man

Learning my way around a forklift.
After living in Minneapolis for two years, I was eager to get back to a Summer Camp in Wisconsin that I had gone to as a kid and worked at throughout college. I leveraged the skills I learned at Valvoline, the Sculpture Park, and as an art preparator to get a part-time job in the maintenance department. This camp is where I currently work and have learned so much from my co-workers. Most of all, I’ve learned the importance of patience in the mentor-mentee relationship. I am grateful for the patience they show me as I master new skills and I try to be patient with myself too.
2017 and Onward

I still have a lot I want to learn! Luckily I have built up a community of mentors who teach me things every day, and I always keep my ears open for new opportunities to learn.

Take Action

Our thirst for self-sufficiency drives us to seek out knowledge and gain new skills. How we do this is what makes our stories unique. While the path we take varies from one person to the next, what seems to be a similarity across the board is we need others to pour time and knowledge into us. This person is who you are looking for, the mentor. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity of working with many influential mentors in my life; I can only hope that I too will have an equal impact on others, as a mentor, in the future. My suggestion is this, don’t waste time, find a mentor.

John McMenamin

September 28, 2017

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  1. One thing that struck me reading this is the importance of "paying your dues." Historically, mentors or masters of a craft would require prospective apprentices to sweep the shop, clean the brushes, put away the tools, categorize, organize, and any number of other menial tasks. Graduate students are famously "slave labor" in colleges. I think many young people see these things as pointless or just free labor in exchange for skills and knowledge.

    But these basic skills, like respecting a clean workplace, knowing the tools intimately, managing the shop, and understanding the support systems that are required to be successful in any endeavor are priceless. I'm loving the internet revolution. I can learn anything I want anytime now. I can listen and watch people of all ages explain and demonstrate their hard earned skills ... for free! But this freedom, like most things, is partially illusion. The "cost" that is missing is the experience of the basic structures required to START doing the amazing and creative parts.

    I'm not saying there is no other way, just that it is important to consider what is missing when we "learn" a skill on the internet. A quick search for "mirror neurons" will offer a glimpse of problems that can occur when someone mirrors a master and has this illusion of expertise based on our brain's ability to categorize experiences based on senses. We can fool ourselves into thinking we are experienced just because we saw someone or heard a story, then try to actually do it and fail miserably. Just worth considering!

    Great article!

    1. Wow, that was a great response to kick things off in the comments. I'm sure everyone is guilty of thinking they know more about what they are talking about than they do at some point or another so I definitely know what your talking about. The internet has certainly created a lot of "know just enough to be dangerous" people. I'll have a look at "mirror neurons" sounds interesting and I have a friend that really likes to get into topics like'll make for some good conversation I'm sure. Thanks for reading.

    2. Skeptycal -- Thanks for your response! You made some excellent points. Indeed, the internet is a great tool for learning, but nothing beats hands on experience!

    3. Nothing beats actually "doing something" - something we have less and less time for as more people talk and watch. When I'm learning something new and feeling confident, I try to stop once in a while and do something to make sure I'm not fooling myself - and it is usually good exercise =)

  2. Liked your article. What sticks out in my experience is "desire" 1st &"openness to opportunity knocking".

    I've always felt that my level of desire was so,I was open,would recognize & have the courage to risk rejection or humiliation

    My first job was catching baby turtles & selling them to the school kids. It was a dirty,muddy,exciting but dangerous type of self employment. Many could make fun of me jumping in a lake full of muddy water,snakes & filth for something as little as .25,.50 or so,(candy money) Those whom weren't interested in purchasing them would certainly do that. But,my persistence & courage didn't allow me to quit or even slow the "word of mouth" growth of my business,once people knew I serious. It actually became a fad buying turtles from Steph

    My second job was making sno-cones at 11 yrs old. I had to harass the owner for a full year at 10 to get him to say yes the next year. My desire got me the job & my openness (trusting my owner, keeping my mouth closed 'except to say yes' & my ears open)allowed him to mentor me,while getting paid. There were others whom started working there,but the next year,the owner had no time to run it and was going to sell it,if,I wouldn't run it myself for him. Well,after running a couple of miles home to tell my Pop & a chat between he & the owner,I was allowed to run it,if the owner would close every night. My Pop didn't want me to close up w/ $1000.00 by myself

    I hired,fired,made work schedules,paid the employees,dealt w/ vendors & made sno-cones. Management at 12yrs old. All because I was open & had desire. He was a mentor even though he was a boss.

    At 23 I actually got my first real "mentor". I was w/ a friend who had to talk to a guy,so I just milled around in his garage shop looking at all the beautiful tools, wood projects & books while they talked. Later,the guy walked over,introduced himself & asked if I were a wood worker. I told him I at a fastener warehouse,selling nuts & bolts,but that I designed & built decks & fences on the side & made more money on the weekends,than I did all week at my job. I told him that I always thought it would be nice to have a shop like his or when I retired though. Well,he told me he plays every night after work & I could come play any time I like. That was all I needed,as I had the desire & could not help but open that door when opportunity knocked. I was there 1-1/2yrs,every night after my job. Then the company I worked at got sold & all of us were let go, so I became a high end, cabinet installer as a career for over 30yrs

    He(Tim)basically told me to do what I wanted, look through the woodworking books & make anything I like. If I had a question, he usually asked me back, a # of questions, in the line of different choices & what I thought the resolutions were. I guess he guided me into answering my own questions. A very good lesson. He did make sure I understood the pros/cons of each tool & how to be safe. He even paid me for some work I helped on if he were charging a customer. He wouldn't take money from me but told me to pay it forward & teach someone else in order to pay him back

    I mention this because,where I was willing to spend time,for no money,eager to learn a skill,...,willing to listen & trust in his advise & direction,unfortunately,I haven't found those qualities in the youth around me. I've tried to help others learn wood working but they always ask how much I will pay them or didn't hang around. Maybe it's just that I'm not a pleasant teacher

    Desire & recognizing opportunity,as well as being open to it,are paramount in finding a mentor. I commend you on your success

    1. Steph - Thanks for your response and for sharing parts of your own story. You are correct, "desire" and "openness to new opportunity" are critical.
      Take care,

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