As a writer, podcaster, and economist – not necessarily in that order – I get a lot of emails asking for advice. People ask me for my opinion not only on economic issues but also on what kind of job they should get, if they have to go back to school, if they have to marry a certain person, how to plan a wedding , what books they should read and, yes, what is the meaning of life.
I’m reluctant to give advice, if only because a) I don’t even know these people, and b) an appropriate response is usually context specific. Nonetheless, I think there are two tips that are suitable for almost anyone, answering almost any question. Here they are. Maybe I should just send all future advice requests a link to this column.
The first piece of advice stems from what has been dubbed in Silicon Valley “the small group theory”. It goes like this: When working on any type of problem, task, or question, fit into a small group of peers with broadly similar concerns.
The group will give you ideas, feedback and help you stay focused on the issue at hand. The personalities and framing of the other members of the group will make the problem more alive. Belonging to a small, informal group can also make you more willing to help its other members, which in turn can boost your morale and performance. After all, there are few issues that you are better off going through on your own.
The small group can be as formal or informal as you want: friends hanging out after high school, a formal support network that meets regularly (for example, Alcoholics Anonymous), a workplace team, or artists. sharing a studio. No, you shouldn’t ally yourself with a bunch of bank robbers, but that’s almost always good advice anyway.
If you are wondering what “small group theory” is, I would roughly define it as follows: Great accomplishments come from people working together in small groups, usually their immediate peers. The hypothesis holds true for ancient Greek philosophy, the Florentine Renaissance, German mathematics, Silicon Valley, and the Beatles, among many other success stories large and small.
Small group theory may seem trivial, but during job and fellowship interviews I often ask people what small groups they work in and what their role is in those groups. A lot of people are baffled by the question, and it seems they haven’t given it much thought as they should.
The second almost universal tip is: get mentors.
A mentor is someone who knows a lot more about an area than you do, with more real-world experience to start with, and who channels that knowledge into a leadership role.
Mentorship can be general or specialized. I had classical music mentors, art market mentors, country specific mentors when I lived in Germany and New Zealand, foreign language mentors, chess mentors, mentors in Economics, Philosophy Mentors, Writing Mentors, and Friendly Mentors to help me with basic emotional issues in life. I tried to find mentors for just about everything. Sometimes the relationship only lasts a week or a month, other times years.
In addition to providing instruction and guidance, the mentor, like the small group, helps bring a problem or idea to life – a living example of success stands in front of you. The mentor makes a discipline more real and the prospect of success more realistic.
As a corollary, in addition to trying to find mentors, you should be prepared to become a mentor yourself. Even if you don’t have advanced knowledge in a particular area, there is almost certainly someone who knows less than you and might need help. Being a mentor also helps you understand how to learn and appreciate your own mentors.
A mentor doesn’t have to be older than you, and in fact some of your mentors should probably be younger, especially as technologies start to change faster. If you’re 50, the idea of an 18-year-old crypto mentor isn’t crazy. If the Metaverse turns into reality, don’t look to Gray Beards for guardianship.
The relative dearth of mentoring between men and women is one of the main factors preventing women from achieving more success in their careers. This form of implicit but not necessarily intentional discrimination deserves a broader discussion.
So there you have it: small groups and mentors. And if you don’t agree, well… I know of a little counseling group that might like to talk to you.