Having a mentor can make it easier to navigate your career. This could mean a formal relationship organized by your company, but generally, it's a sort of unofficial relationship.

Maybe it's someone you met through work or a boss who takes a special interest in your career. Sometimes it's a friend who offers good advice even if his or her work experience is a little different than your own.

One woman shows another something on a computer.

Mentoring can be formal or casual. Image source: Getty Images.

A mentor is someone you look up to, someone whose advice you trust. It's a person who can offer guidance when you're unsure or be honest in telling you where you went wrong.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a mentor, but our panel of Motley Fool writers has benefited from that type of relationship. Here are the critical things each of us has learned from a mentor (though in one case, the mentor does not know the influence he has).

Trust your gut

Maurie Backman: When I worked for an online marketing company, I had a great boss who also acted as a mentor to me, and one of the most valuable lessons she taught me was to have a little faith in myself. It's advice that has since served me well through various stages of my career.

As a personal finance writer, it's my job to determine which stories to share with the public and what sort of advice to dish out. There have been times when I've questioned whether a story is really worth writing or whether I have the ability to do it justice. But most of the time, I find that when I follow my gut, things work out relatively well in the end.

Case in point: There was a story I started writing about a month ago that I decided to kill halfway through. A week later, I went to revisit it and opted to finish it. Though it wasn't the type of story I'd usually write, I just had a feeling it would be well received. Sure enough, it was a top-performing article that week, even though I'd never really written one like it before.

I'm glad my mentor conveyed the importance of trusting my own instincts. Had she not, I probably would've avoided certain risks that ultimately paid off well.

Think about your audience

Selena Maranjian: Superinvestor Warren Buffett is, in many ways, my mentor -- not formally, but because I've read so much of what he has written about investing and have listened to him answer questions about investing and life for hours at many of his annual meetings. Perhaps obviously, I've taken most or all of his investing guidance to heart -- such as seeking good values when investing, favoring companies I understand, and aiming to hold for the long term.

But I make my living as a writer, and he's a prodigious writer. His approach when writing his highly anticipated annual letter is instructive to me and to other writers, and here's how he described it to some MBA students recently:

I try to think of my shareholders as my partners. I try to think of the information I would want them to send me if they were running the place, and I was the shareholder. What would I want to know? This is what I tell them.  In my first draft, I address it to my sisters who don't know a lot about finance. "Dear sisters" -- I explain to them what they would want to know in their position.

My takeaway from that is to always think about my audience. If I'm writing about investing or retirement, for example, I want to reach a wide range of people, so I aim to avoid jargon and to keep my prose engaging and easy to read. Buffett's advice applies to nonwriters, too. If you're writing to your boss to ask for a raise, think about what he or she would want or need to see in your missive. If you're writing a cover letter for a job, think about what the hirer needs and wants for the open position and aim to make it clear how you fit.

Put yourself and your family first

Daniel B. Kline: I used to live in Connecticut, and whenever I go back to visit, I have coffee with my friend Dennis. He's older than me and has kids my age, but we've always gotten along, and he has been a sounding board for my career decisions for about the last 10 years.

In the first few years I knew Dennis, my career was in a state of flux. I had been working for my family business, left that to run a toy store, and, having moved on from that, was trying to make my way back into journalism.

As opportunities arose, I would tell Dennis what my choices were, how much money was being offered, and the upside of many potential new jobs. He acknowledged those things but always brought me back to reality by making me explore what the jobs would mean to my life.

He made me think about my needs as well as the needs of my wife and son, not just the opportunity. In one situation, his advice stopped me from taking a very good job that involved significant unpleasant travel. It was a job I wanted with people I enjoyed that would have required that I spend half my time in a city I could not easily fly to from my home airport (meaning I'd often have to drive two hours or more to Boston or New York to fly).

It was the best job I was being offered but not the best situation for me or my family. Dennis didn't directly tell me to say no. He never does. Instead, as we talked it out, he helped me get there on my own. 

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