This article originally appeared online in Forbes.
If you’re pursuing a career path that didn’t exist a few years ago, who do you turn to for guidance?
It can be a problem for young developers like Kemel McKenzie, who works as a freelancer in proprietary technology for corporate giants like YouTube, Tinder and Universal Music Group. McKenzie, 22, spends most of his time creating new social media concepts and apps, writing and rewriting code, playing with and pushing the limits of virtual and augmented reality.
“I originally got into tech working as a hobby just building computers, working on small applications. I was about 14 years old,” McKenzie recalled. “When you’re young your opportunity is very limited because people take into account factors that don’t have anything to do with your fundamentals or performance.”
McKenzie, initially on track to pursue a degree in computer science, left Columbia University as a sophomore because he’d started to bring in work for himself. He is not alone in this; the economy continues to make room for non-traditional workers like McKenzie as businesses hire record numbers of freelancers and consultants, according to an analysis of gig economy work by the Pew Research Center. But as these conventional career paths are overturned and new courses are charted, who is there to provide guidance?
Finding a mentor, even in an emerging industry, doesn’t have to be overly complex, said National Mentoring Partnership (MENTOR) executive director David Shapiro.
“There’s not necessarily a Match.com for finding your mentor in life,” Shapiro said. “It’s less important to find people whose title you aspire to be than people who behave the way you want to behave in the professional world.”
It can sometimes be difficult to identify who that person might be, particularly without a privileged background in which adults taught you how to build social capital. In fact, according to MENTOR, one in three young people grow up without this critical support. But no matter what your experience is in the area, there are tools you can use to help identify who the right person will be. After finding someone you admire, Shapiro said that it’s vital to let the connection be authentic.
“I think that you should look for people who seemingly empower other people, take an interest in other people. People who seem helpful, people who seem motivated by the energy of others,” Shapiro said. “You also have to decide what your own currency and values are, and what you need. Do you need somebody who comes from where you come from, culturally, ethnically, generationally?”
Even if you work in new technology like McKenzie does, the benefits of mentoring relationships still apply to mentees: higher self-esteem and self-confidence, increased motivation, a more competitive salary and better job satisfaction overall. Empirical research on the subject has been publicized for several decades, with many experts noting that having a mentor is one of the most important experiences in young adulthood.
“He very much exposed me to business development in the technology realm,” Kemel said. “From there I had the opportunity to work with people that would typically take on freelancers or independent contractors with college degrees or backgrounds within a field within five to six years, so it helped me see the challenges that one would face between starting off without a network and with a network.”
The benefits of the relationship aren’t limited to the mentee, either. In a recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, researchers found that mentors who had served within their workplace actually reported greater job satisfaction and commitment to the organization than those who had not.
“The mentor should want to get something out of this too…there’s nothing wrong with that,” Shapiro said, noting that it’s important to clearly outline expectations of the mentor/mentee relationship from the start.
“I think the number one thing people do that’s a mistake is lean too heavy on a traditional power dynamic…I think it’s a better relationship when power is shared,” Shapiro explained.
And no matter what non-traditional or emerging field you may be pursuing, a mentor with any background can still help you get a major leg up. “You’re using a person to be a sounding board and guide for you,” Shapiro said. “That person doesn’t need to come from your industry.”