Next Stop: Your Magazine Dream Job

How Writing Thank You Notes to Mentors Can Advance Your Career

By Gina Hamadey

For fifteen years, I climbed the glossy ladder of my magazine career. Sure, the perks were great—the travel opportunities, the restaurant opening parties, the beauty closet sales where Chanel makeup went for $1. But what I loved best was collaborating with uncommonly talented writers, art directors, publishers, and fellow editors on a product we all cared deeply about.

That collaboration was what I missed the most since leaving my job at Food & Wine. After surviving two rounds of layoffs, I was felled by a third. As I walked out the revolving door into the bright sunlight on Sixth Avenue, awkwardly clutching a serving platter that was too delicate to messenger to my house, I recalled sauntering into the building through those doors on my first day, feeling giddy that I had finally landed my dream job. And I wondered, what was my new dream?

I was still trying to answer that question three years later. Working for myself —I’ve learned that the term sounds less frivolous than “freelancing”—had its your-time-is-yours advantages, but there were plenty of disadvantages, too, the primary one being that there was no ladder. It was just me, floundering, trying to find purchase in a world that no longer paid writers a premium for reporting or editing articles. I’d enjoyed some wins—working with national brands like Boll & Branch, publishing a stylish cookbook about nachos—and some major losses, like pulling in a third of my magazine editor salary the previous year. As a part of my year-long project to write handwritten thank you notes to people in my life, I prepared for my next month of notes: I wrote “Career Mentors” at the top of the page.

When writing to a neighbor or a doctor, two or three detailed and heartfelt sentences felt just right. With mentors, though, I wanted to share more—why I was writing now (often a decade or more after we shared office space), what I remembered from our time together, how they had influenced me. These would be more like letters, and some would need to be outlined beforehand. And they would take longer to compose than four or five minutes each. But, as I soon came to learn, that time and effort paid back tenfold.

Turns out, writing letters to mentors had clear, immediate benefits—more, perhaps, than any other month so far. It led to conversations, not only with my twenty-four-year-old self but also with former bosses and colleagues. I stumbled upon the most authentic, generous method of networking. Why aren’t more of us doing this? Is it because of the perceived awkwardness?

Thank you note etiquette rule number one almost always involves timing—that notes should be sent out within a week or two, and always within a month. And for a standard thank-you-for-the-gift note, or a more formal thanks-for-the-interview note, a quick turn-around makes sense. But a full nine months in, I understood that what worked for those transactional notes didn’t apply to more enduring expressions of gratitude. For those thank yous, a delayed letter means more. “That’s what made the note stand out, how out of the blue it was,” said Chandra Turner, a recruiter and career coach and the founder of media networking site Ed2010, to whom I’d written: “You’ve spent so much of your time trying to connect and help people in our industry—while it was thriving and once it was tanking.”

Because Chandra helps so many people land jobs, she has “a giant basket of thank you notes,” she told me, but, “no one writes to you years later to give an update.”

That’s a missed opportunity, according to the organizational psychologist and bestselling author Adam Grant. “The impact of mentorship is hard to see in the moment,” Grant has said. “It only unfolds over time.” In a tweet from 2018, his advice is explicit: “When you receive great advice from a mentor, don’t just send a thank you note the next day. Send another the following month or the following year. The passage of time shows deeper gratitude and more lasting impact.”

More than just four-by-six proof that your mom taught you manners, a delayed acknowledgment shows that this person’s words and deeds not only resonated in the moment but also continued to influence your life. The delay turns the card into a surprise, a little gift unto itself.

It’s also the most generous and authentic way to network. What are you waiting for? Here are my tips for writing gratitude letters to mentors: 

  1. Think before you write. While I generally advise a loose approach to thank you notes, letters to mentors (who might have helped you in many ways, at different times of your life) often call for a little more planning. In the words of one of my mentors, the editor Susan Chumsky, “The most important part of writing is thinking.”
  2. Explain why you’re writing. A good way to start is to explain in brief why you’re reaching out now, perhaps years later. Here are some of the ways I started my letters: “Maybe it’s because I’m approaching 40, or because I’ve transitioned out of magazines—in any case I’ve been looking back to the earlier part of my career and thinking about you,” “I’ve hit a little milestone—four years since I left my last desk job—and I’ve been looking back and thinking about the people who’ve helped along the way.”
  3. Recall how the person helped you. This could be advice they gave, introductions they made, or the example they modeled. As always, the more specific the better.
  4. Mention their long-term impact. Perhaps they changed the course of your career or said something that you think about nearly every day. Bring their long-ago mentoring into the present.

Excerpted from I Want to Thank You, by Gina Hamadey, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Gina Hamadey.

 

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