Getting There: A Book of Mentors is a collection of stories and advice from 30 leaders across a wide range of professions. Included are famous billionaires like Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg, while many are people you’ve probably never heard of. While not every story was riveting, there was plenty to learn and appreciate from this book. Here are the key things I took away from it.
People are terrible at giving advice
The most beneficial things to read about in Getting There were the mentors’ stories. Hearing the details of their journeys and struggles was insightful and humanizing. But intertwined in their stories were attempts at giving specific advice. After hearing from 30 mentors, you understand that people can be terrible at giving useful advice. Here’s what I’m talking about:
Ian Schrager, a successful real estate developer, said, “Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams.” His very next piece of advice was to “stick with what you do well.” OK? What if my dream is to do something I don’t do well? Schrager goes on to share his story of serving a stint in prison for tax evasion. He says, “I don’t recommend prison to anyone, but I am certainly living proof that the system works.” While not exactly advice, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
Warren Buffett tries to persuade young people to start taking care of their bodies at an early age. That’s ironic since he is known for “eating like a six-year-old” and saying it is likely that his body is one quarter Coke. Somehow he is still kicking it in his late eighties.
One person would say to follow your passion no matter what, then the next would be happy they gave up on something so quickly. Other times the advice was just vague and generic like “try new things.” Like, seriously? That’s the best you can do?
Much of the guidance given was solid. But it shows that you have to be careful about which advice you follow, especially when people don’t follow their own advice. The problem is that people often look for something easily visible in their memory as the thing that caused their success. When in reality, there could have been a number of other factors that were more important. Or maybe they were just lucky. The best thing you can do is observe their actions and try to deduce for yourself what actually caused their success. Luckily there are many detailed stories for you to do so in Getting There.
You don’t need a plan
While many of the mentors in more creative fields seemed to have found their passion at an early age, most of the rest didn’t. In fact, it was the norm to have tried many things before ending up where they are now. Almost everyone had a story that was not a linear path up the ladder of success and involved at least one failure.
Many mentioned that despite their wandering or unglamorous work of the past, they learned from and highlighted the benefits of those experiences. They often prepared them to capitalize on future opportunities. Jillian Michaels hated working at a talent agency, but her contacts there ended up recommending her to be a trainer on The Biggest Loser.
Many success stories happened by accident or snowballed from little bets. Craig Newmark didn’t start with the idea of building Craigslist. It started as a chain email to friends about fun things to do in San Francisco.
You can’t plan everything about your life. There are opportunities that will come your way that you will never foresee. There are almost certainly benefits to every venture you try. They just might not be apparent at the time. Focus on building up skills so that you will be ready when an opportunity arises.
Just do it
Anderson Cooper failed for years to get a gig as a foreign correspondent at any news outlet. He spent some time as a fact-checker, but felt pigeon holed.
When you work at a company, people there tend to see you a certain way. In my case, they viewed me as a fact-checker – so the notion that I could be a reporter didn’t occur to anybody. Had I asked, they would have probably said no because I wasn’t on the right career path.
Cooper quit his job, grabbed a camera, and flew overseas to be a reporter by himself. He purposefully got himself into dangerous situations to film them, and sold his work for so cheap, someone would have to buy it. Eventually CNN hired him. He skipped the entire ladder he would have had to climb had he gotten in the front door.
This was a powerful story for me. Cooper could have stuck his tail between his legs and cursed the world for not giving him what he wanted. But he made his own way. He had no clue what he was doing, but he learned as he went along.
If you want something in your career, don’t ask for permission. Just do it. You decide what your job is. Just because your title is X doesn’t mean you can’t do something else in your current role. You can create the job you want. If you want to have a blog, start writing. If you want to be a filmmaker, make films. If you want a promotion, do what the people above you do. Even if you think you’re not ready. You’ll learn as you go and if you get good enough, someone will notice eventually.
Success is on your terms
Every one of the mentors has achieved an enviable amount of what the average person would consider success. But after reading their stores, you realize it’s not always how much they have in the bank that makes them successful. They’re not all billionaires to remind you. Instead, they were true to themselves and crafted a life that made them happy.
Craig Newmark handed over the reigns at Craigslist and passed on becoming another Silicon Valley icon. He wasn’t interested in chasing massive wealth. Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, easily could have become a full time author. Yet he keeps a regular, corporate day job because he enjoys it. Stacey Snider gave up her position as Chairman of Universal to spend more time with her family. It wasn’t all relentless ambition that drove these people.
The lesson? You define what success means to you. It’s okay to have a regular day job or a side gig that will never pay off. It’s okay to not want to be rich and famous. Plenty of people spend their lives chasing wealth and status and are miserable because of it. You get one shot at life. Don’t go wasting it living the life you’re supposed to live.
Getting There is worth a read no matter what stage of life you’re in.