James Hoffmann’s articles are always worth their weight in gold, but this little meditation is especially valuable to young coffee pros seeking to make a career in coffee.
I was moved to add my own thoughts to the thread, and knowing that James invites blog-responses to his articles, I thought I’d add a little to his thoughts.
A preface: I was a young and enthusiastic coffee bar manager and aspiring trainer when I heard about an organization called SCAA which was teaching coffee classes at their headquarters, about 1.5 hours away from my house. In retrospect, deciding to attend that class was probably the turning point in my coffee career. Although learning the material itself was a big deal (it was my first exposure to the brewing chart) it was life-changing for another reason. The teachers became two of the most important coffee mentors for me. Through my activity with the association, I met other mentors, and these people became my teachers, my allies, my coaches, my friends, and they helped build the foundation of my coffee career.
The Importance of Mentorship
The only thing i have to add to James’ article is an extension of his third and fourth points. Once an aspiring coffee professional becomes active in the coffee community, they gain access to other coffee people. Ideally, the young professional might establish a relationship with more experienced coffee pros, and a mentorship can take root. These relationships are a significant way knowledge, wisdom, and values are passed from one coffee generation to another. Mentorships are a key element of a healthy community, and they can be hugely valuable to the individuals involved. In order to encourage and maximize the quality of these, I offer some advice- based on my own experience and observation- to young coffee professionals seeking to engage with mentors.
1. Don’t expect to be spoonfed knowledge.
I might’ve worded this a slightly different way, but I went with James’ phrasing for emphasis’ sake. The important thing to remember here is that mentorship is a two way street. The mentor provides time, information, caring, and advice to the mentee. But what does the mentee provide? One very important element is commitment. Commitment means taking the advice on offer seriously (you shouldn’t always follow the advice, just listen to it). It also means staying engaged with the process. It is quite commonplace for a mentee to disengage accidentally from a mentor, effectively stopping “showing up” for the relationship. In exchange for the wisdom and advice of a mentor, the least you can do is remain engaged and available. Cultivating these relationships is probably the best investment you can make in your career. In addition to commitment, a mentee can contribute to their mentor’s work through volunteering to help (if the mentor is working on a project). Often a good mentor is a leader, and leaders always need people to help achieve their vision. Sign up and help your mentor achieve their vision, and it will pay off in a multitude of ways: you’ll learn a ton in the process, you’ll be a part of something cool, and you’ll earn the right to ask for support when it’s time to execute your vision.
2. Ask for advice, then consider it.
I mentioned this above, but the powerful element here is to ask. This is hard to do, because our culture for some reason conditions us to be embarrassed about asking advice. There is no more powerful act in the world than to ask a question and listen to the answer. The “listen” part is important.
3. Practice humility.
One of the great things about coffee is the youthful energy that permeates our culture. One of the classic companions to youthful energy, however, is arrogance. Here’s a personal reflection. Pretty much every “original idea” I ever had as a young gun in the coffee industry, I later learned had been thought of and acted upon long before I ever got to the scene. Innovation is not an individual act, it is the slow, progressive building of intention and experiment. The energy that fills young coffee pros emboldened by their fresh ideas is amazing and powerful. It’s important for them to realize that the idea is 98% inherited. Don’t go around talking like a trailblazer, because it’s likely that those with more wisdom than you will find that comical. A little humility will make you much more available and welcoming to those who have critical information to share with you.
4. Your best mentor might not be who you expect.
I had a chat with a respected third wave coffee retailer recently, and he told me that he had developed a strong mentor relationship with a second waver in a nearby city. These two people have much different approaches to coffee and retail and service, but it’s a hugely valuable relationship for the third wave mentee. Part of the idea should be to seek out people with different perspectives than you, to challenge your beliefs and sharpen your ideas.
5. Repay the generosity.
Part of being in a community is giving back to that community. My rule of thumb is that I try to put back 2x what I take out of any activity. If a mentor gives me an hour of her time, I try to give away two of my hours to them or to someone else or the community. This can take the form of in-turn mentorship, or better yet selfless, quiet acts of contribution. I observed a long-term specialty coffee leader doing dishes at a barista competition one time. I asked what was up, and he said “these dishes needed doing.” That was it. I understood.
This is probably to be continued, as it’s something that I’m really passionate about. So, more to come.