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The Magic of a Mentor

YodaI used to believe that I had do everything on my own. If I didn’t, then I couldn’t take credit for the results. Luckily, I met someone who clued me in on an insider secret of the successful:

If you want to be successful at anything, apprentice yourself to someone who’s mastered the art.

Kind of like Yoda, the little green guy from Stars Wars with the pointy ears. Without Yoda mentoring him, Luke Skywalker never would’ve become a Jedi.

I’ll be straight up honest. I didn’t go looking for a mentor. I kinda sorta just bumped into him. By accident. It was one of those serendipitous meetings that changed your life. I wish I could say  that over a few short months I became a shining success in my area of study. But that would be a flat out lie.

The reality took a whole lot longer, and turned out to be better than anything I ever could have imagined. At the time, I wanted to become a computer animator—back when the industry was in its infancy. Along the way, I discovered my passion for writing for young people. Sometimes the wrong path brings you to the right place. And it was my mentor who paved the way for that transition through the (snail mail) letters we exchanged over the years.

The magic of the written word ~ Letters from Frank

I met my mentor, Frank Thomas, in 1983 at a glitzy computer graphics symposium at UCLA. I wandered up to the tradeshow area after one of the panel discussions, and ended up standing next to an old man. I overheard him telling the young woman demonstrating one product that he’d worked at Walt Disney Studios as an animator. He looked pretty old (ancient to a twenty-something-year-old), so I asked, “Did you know Walt?”

“Yes,” he replied. “If he were alive today this is where he’d be”

Me, to myself: You’re my new best friend.

At the time, I didn’t know that Frank Thomas had joined The Walt Disney Company in 1934 as employee number 224. Or that he had animated dozens of animated Frank and Jeanette Thomasfeatures and shorts, including The Brave Little Taylor, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, to name a few. I knew he worked with Walt, and that was good enough for me. Our 21 year conversation started with a single handwritten letter that I sent to Frank, care of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.

Over the years, I continued to pursue computer animation, and worked on projects with Silicon Graphics and Dreamworks. Through it all, I  exchanged letters with Frank, and came to  meet his lovely, and amazing wife Jeanette. In a sense, they became like family.

Frank was generous in his letters with his expertise in traditional animation, as well as what he was learning about applying that knowledge to new technology. But it was the “storytelling style” of Frank’s letters that made the biggest impact on me. Early on, I realized I couldn’t write just anything in a letter to him. I had to write a story. I worked to make my letters as entertaining as the ones Frank always sent. He was teaching me about story structure and humor, without realizing it.

Tips on stalking a mentor

If you think “a successful person would never want to help me”, you’re wrong. Not everyone may be as accommodating as Frank Thomas, but if you have a genuine passion for their field and show an enthusiasm for learning, your mentor-of-choice will most likely take you under their wing.

FACT: People like to talk about their passion with others who share their enthusiasm.

Here are a few guidelines you might want to follow:

  • Call to ask for an “informational interview”. This works especially well for high school and college students.
  • Or, write a letter (yes, on paper) stating your purpose and why you chose them a your hero. You can include an email address as a convenience for a return reply.
  • Always be polite and courteous of their time.
  • Be professional (in accordance with industry standards) in dress and speech.
  • If they do meet with you, follow-up with a thank you letter (on paper) expressing an appreciation for their time.
  • If you want to continue working with a mentor, always bring something of interest, such as information about the industry they might not know. Anything that *shows them* you are actively working toward attaining your goal.

Have you Ever worked with a mentor?