Can You Find Your Mentor Match Between the Pages of a Business Book

By Mike BergelsonSeptember 30, 2013

What do books and mentors have in common?  Quite a bit, as it turns out. In this post, we’ll look at the ways in which great books and great mentors often perform similar functions.  We’ll also look at some of the ways in which they differ, and what a real-life mentor can offer that a book can’t.

Sharing Knowledge

We like to define mentoring as “a process of connecting with one or more people to share knowledge.”

Can books provide that connection too? When we read, after all, we are accessing the thoughts and ideas of the author, and knowledge is definitely being shared. So in a way, great books can certainly act as mentors.

On the other hand, another key feature of mentoring relationships is that they are two-way streets. After that initial definition, we added: “When it’s done right, both mentor and protégé become better people as a result of the interaction.” (“Protégé” is Everwise’s word for the person being mentored.)

Clearly that’s not the case with books. There’s no real contact between author and reader (although a book can sometimes spark a real-life relationship, as we’ll see later on). 

Also, real-life mentoring relationships can deal with practical issues as they come up in the life of the protégé. Mentors can give specific help and advice aimed at the protégé’s particular situation, something a book written for a general audience can never achieve.  

Nevertheless, there are plenty of cases in which books have fulfilled at least some of the criteria to be counted as “mentors.” Let’s look at some of them. 

Mentoring At Scale

In Sonia Sotomayor’s recent memoir My Beloved World, she directly acknowledges the mentoring she has received and describes her efforts to mentor others.

But she also mentors indirectly in the book itself. The story of her rise from a difficult childhood in the Bronx to becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice can inspire readers with its example of courage and determination, and teach valuable lessons about forging a successful career in tough circumstances.

A Forbes article made the point that Sotomayor’s book “can serve as a literary form of mentorship for the many people who will never have the opportunity to meet her but who could benefit from learning from her.”

A book, then, can mentor thousands or potentially even millions of people, far more than Sotomayor or anyone else could hope to reach in person.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg also mentors readers in her book Lean In. She gives advice to women on becoming successful leaders, and then encourages readers to form “circles” to support each other through peer mentoring. Her idea is to use the book as the center of a new community of women with the slogan “Let’s work together to change the world.”

When Life Imitates Books

Sometimes books can even spark real-life mentoring relationships. 

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett has said that it was Benjamin Graham’s book The Intelligent Investor that changed his life when he discovered it as a college student. Buffett still follows many of its precepts today, and recently called it “by far the best book about investing ever written.”

He was so inspired by the book that he decided to meet the author in the flesh, and eventually became his protégé. But even if he hadn’t met the real Graham, he would still have been mentored in some way by his book, as many budding investors are still mentored by it today.

From The Bible to Jane Austen

We’ve looked at business books so far, but many others kinds of book can mentor you. Millions of people rely on The Bible, The Koran and other religious texts in their daily lives, for example. These books provide guidance, inspiration and personal development, the very things that a good mentor provides. 

Others find guidance in anything from self-help books to works of philosophy, sociology or psychology. Most of us have a book we turn to regularly, a book that resonates with us and helps us through life. 

And while non-fiction provides the most obvious mentoring parallels, let’s not forget about fiction. Studies have found that reading fiction makes us better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. A great novel can inspire, guide and teach a reader just as much as a work of non-fiction.

None of that can truly replicate the deep human connection that comes with a successful real-life mentoring relationship. We’re not suggesting that books can replace human mentors. But books are certainly a good addition to more traditional mentoring, and can bring the benefits of a mentor’s expertise to much larger audiences. 

What’s the book you turn to for advice, guidance or “mentoring”? Let us know in the comments!

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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