A great mentor is only half of what makes a successful mentorship. A mentee needs to put just as much, if not more effort to make sure that the relationship is productive and time is used efficiently and respectfully.
I’ve been fortunate to be on both sides, as both a mentor and a mentee. Through some of my own successes and failures, I’ve come up with some ideas as to how to be a good mentee and get the most out of a mentorship. These tips are coming from the perspective of a sound designer but most should work for other disciplines as well.
Find The Right Mentor
This may seem obvious but I’ve made this mistake and seen many others do the same. This can lead to a very negative and unproductive mentorship. No matter how great of a mentor someone may be, they might not be the right one for you.
Make sure they can give you the advice you are looking for
It’s easy to fall into the trap of desperately seeking mentorship from anyone that is in the industry you want to be in, but just because someone is working in audio doesn’t necessarily mean they can actually give you the advice you are looking for. For example, if you are striving to be a sound designer for film, seek mentorship from a sound designer working in film. You can totally ask for feedback or advice from a sound designer working in games, but establishing a long term mentorship with them isn’t as productive as they simply don’t have the relevant experience to give you the most useful advice for your career goals.
Have matching expectations
Are you looking for a more casual mentorship with an email here and there with some feedback or a quick answer to some questions? Or are you looking for scheduled weekly meetings and progress reports? You have to understand how much time your potential mentor can set aside for you and how that affects your preparations for that time you have with them. In my experience, if you apply to be mentored (like the Audio Mentoring Project) then that relationship will usually be more formal. If you shoot an email asking for some advice from someone you met at a conference or something similar, it will usually be more casual.
Once you have found a good match the next step is figuring out how you are going to use and maintain that mentorship.
This will vary a lot and you can establish this with your mentor. The important thing is maintaining contact of some sort. Whether that’s a Skype call every week or an email twice a year, the important thing is keeping in touch even if you aren’t actively seeking advice. It’s much easier for a mentor to give you good feedback and advice if they have a good sense of what you’ve been working on and how you’ve made progress.
Now on the other end, you have to avoiding contacting too often. Reading and responding to messages takes time; respect that time they are using to help you, especially if they are helping you for free. In my experience, once a month is a safe bet but if you follow up on a specific question then it’s usually fine to have a back and forth that spans a few days. If you ever have any doubts just ask! Most people will appreciate you being considerate of their time.
Keep messages short
Like I mentioned before, reading messages takes time. The longer your message, the less likely your mentor is going to feel motivated to sit down and read it. There are exceptions of course but as a general rule keep it as short as possible. I’ll elaborate more later on.
Don’t ask for permission
Don’t send an email asking for permission to send another email. It wastes time and it’s a really common pet peeve. If you want feedback on something just send it, if your mentor doesn’t have time to look at it they’ll just set it aside for later. The only exception is in some casual messenger apps it’s more acceptable to ask for permission especially if you were already having a conversation beforehand. This would usually only apply if you already have a casual relationship with your mentor
Ask very specific questions and give context to your questions
Don’t ever send an email like this:
How can I make my explosions sound huge?
You can ask the same question with something like this:
If you have time, I’d like some advice on designing explosion sounds.
I’ve been struggling getting my explosions to sound really huge. I’m trying to imitate the style of the explosions in [popular game] but mine always end up either sounding like a gunshot or really noise-y and undefined.
My approach has been using [sample library] and I’ll stack a few layers then process them with [effect] to try and get [result].
I attached a short video with an explosion I tried to design to give you an example. Also here is a link to an explosion from [popular game] I’m using as a reference. [link]
Thank you for your time,
That’s much easier to give feedback to right? By presenting a very specific problem you make it much easier for the mentor to come up with a good solution rather than have to make up an answer a very broad and vague question. Still try to keep things really short and don’t explain your entire sound design process, just big ideas that may help your mentor figure out how to best approach giving you feedback. Being polite is always a plus too!
Attaching some audio examples is very useful, especially in sound design where some ideas are really difficult to translate into text, and in this example it may make the problem you are having with explosions immediately obvious to your mentor.
Here’s that same email again but diluted down into a simple template I like to use when writing emails to my mentors:
[what I need advice on]
[what have I been doing to try and solve this problem on my own]
[examples/references and/or additional context]
This works for almost all contexts and usually makes giving feedback much less time consuming.
If you get no reply
Don’t freak out, your mentor is probably just busy or deals with a ton of emails and may lose track of non-work related ones. It’s alright to send a follow-up if you don’t hear back for longer than a week, just make sure to keep it polite and short. This is usually not the case, but another thing to consider is their email has maybe been deactivated. This can happen if you used a company email to contact your mentor and they changed jobs. This happened to me and I was emailing my mentor for two months at an email he no longer had access too! A quick search on Google or LinkedIn is a quick solution to the problem.
This is both the most important and most difficult part of any mentorship.
So you sent your work in to your mentor and they got back to you, totally tearing your work apart and you feel crushed because you actually thought your explosions were pretty sweet. Your hopes and dreams might look something like the above image at this point.
Don’t take it personally
This should be obvious but it’s hard to remember when you spent 30 hours on your project only to be told you basically need to start over. Don’t forget your mentor is giving you feedback because they are trying to help you improve, they would not be putting in the time and effort to mentor you if they just wanted to make you feel bad. If they are good at giving feedback they are going to be honest, and that honesty may not be what you want to hear but it’s what you need if you really want to grow. Also, another way to look at it is that those 30 hours were well spent practice and experimentation that made you a better sound designer.
Dissect your feedback
Once your existential crisis has settled down a bit, really dig into the feedback you were given. Study it, analyze it, break down every single point made and ask yourself “why?”. Really sit and think why your mentor said something, don’t just blindly start making adjustments based on what they said because that will only help you on that one project, not help you grow as a sound designer. If there is something you didn’t understand, don’t be afraid to send a follow-up email for clarification!
Actually implement the feedback you’re given
This doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same project as the one you originally received feedback on. Using the explosion as an example again, let’s say your feedback was that you need to stagger your layers so that all the transients don’t line up and your explosion can be more complex and chaotic with each layer more able to shine through. Try to use that feedback when designing a car crash in your new project and really think about it as you work.
If you decide to send your new project for feedback, it’s worth mentioning how you attempted to implement their feedback from last time! It feels good from the mentor’s side to see a mentee learn, and it also shows you take their feedback seriously.
Do keep in mind that being able to implement feedback on previously completed work is an invaluable skill and even if you don’t do it for everything, make sure you at least do it sometimes.
Become a Mentor
Just because you are being mentored does not mean you can’t be a mentor as well! Everyone is in a different point in their careers and there will be people who could really use your help and knowledge even if you think you are a beginner.
By becoming a mentor, you will have a much better understanding of what makes a mentee easy to work with and what makes one really draining. You’ll also get to appreciate how rewarding of an experience being a mentor can be!