Writer Frederick Buechner once wrote, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.” We are inevitably shaped by our community, but few people offer something so profound that it transforms our lives. Today, we’re sharing examples of encouragement or helpful correction we’ve received from a mentor or role model, because we’re grateful for the people we’ve admired—and for their help along the way.
Jesse Bryan, executive creative director: Cathy Allen is a mentor who has modeled a centered emotional presence for me. She would take something ethereal like my nervous feelings, validate them, and offer a concrete step to take—because feelings can immobilize you. If things were going bad, Cathy would tell me, “You need to slow down, think clearly, and understand nothing is fatal. Focus on taking care of your clients, taking care of others, and taking care of yourself. Do great work, and things will eventually work out.” What she was getting at is that we have to take a breath in moments of perceived crisis, because people make bad decisions when they hurry. It’s more about small corrections instead of yanking the steering wheel when you feel the panic take over. Cathy helped me see the long view: Whatever you’re worried about today probably won’t even be on your mind a year from now.
Heather Croteau, copy director: A former boss, whom I very much admired for her grace, talent, and impeccable style, once told me, “You should always look your best when you feel your worst.” At the time, it was kind of an offhand comment—I’d expressed surprise that she looked so pulled together (in heels, no less!) on a day she was really sick. But over time, her words stuck with me, and I think it’s because they reflect a universal truth. The way you present yourself is the way you perceive yourself, and an outward display of confidence (whether it’s your favorite shoes or improved posture) goes a long way towards positively affecting your sense of self.
Víctor Meléndez, art director: Throughout my career as a designer I’ve looked up to many people in the industry, ranging from illustrators and graphic designers to fine artists and typographers. However, one of the most influential people in my life has been Robynne Raye. I met Robynne while showing my work at a portfolio day in Seattle. After looking at some school projects and my sketchbook, Robynne encouraged me to apply at Cornish College of the Arts—and I got accepted. Besides being my teacher, she offered critiques, encouragement, and advice, including this one: “You have to be able to handle criticism.” My work is heavily influenced by the Seattle design scene, but without a doubt, Robynne (and the rest of the Modern Dog Design Co. family) has had the most impact on it.
Don Bryan, controller: The man I most admire is Mahatma Gandhi. His wisdom was comparable to Solomon. Among my favorites truths are: An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind; no one can hurt you without your permission; I will never let someone walk through my mind with their dirty feet; the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.
Hannah Gilman, senior copywriter: When I was a junior in college, my journalism professor Deb Gibson encouraged me to apply for an apprenticeship at Meredith Corporation—the nation’s top magazine publisher that just so happened to be headquartered a 40-minute drive from campus. Applying hadn’t even crossed my mind because it was a gig generally reserved for seniors, but she saw something in me that I hadn’t yet seen in myself. Anyway, I got it, and had many a byline in Better Homes & Gardens publications before I’d even graduated. That job no doubt led to my dream internship at Teen Vogue, which led to even more opportunities down the line. If Deb hadn’t acknowledged my capabilities and encouraged me to go for something I thought was out of my reach, I’d likely be somewhere very different today—and I’d be lacking a hugely influential example of what it looks like to be a good leader.
Brian McDonald, chief storyteller: Bruce Walters was my mentor. Bruce gave me my first job in the film industry when I was just 13 years old. I was a dyslexic kid who felt worthless in school, and Bruce gave me a place to feel safe and smart. I worked with him doing animation and motion graphics for six years and developed all kinds of useful skills that I still use every day. Bruce continues to shape the lives of young people as a Master of Fine Arts instructor at Academy of Art University.
Daniel Haugen, digital marketing specialist: The individual I look up to is Kristin Ebeling. As executive director of Skate Like a Girl, Kristin continues to take tremendous strides in making the local skate community more inclusive to non-male skaters. Kristin is highly observant, seeks out opportunity for change, and works quickly towards solutions to build a more open and accepting community. My time volunteering with the organization has allowed me to witness how her can-do attitude and encouraging leadership can direct a team to produce community events that are truly memorable. After witnessing the results of her work ethic, I realized I too am capable of producing such change!
Rachelle Cummings, creative director: In high school, I had an amazing mentor named Tiara who taught me two things that have shaped the way I pursue relationships to this day. First, she said you should always have three types of relationships: a mentor, a peer (someone who is in the same place that you can share life with and offer mutual encouragement), and someone you are mentoring. Second, she said, “Don’t be afraid to ask someone to mentor you. Know they might say no.” Oftentimes, we think a mentor will fall into our lap, that it will just happen organically if it’s supposed to happen. The truth is, sometimes you have to seek out a mentor. It can feel awkward, but if you’re hoping to learn from someone—you just have to ask. When seeking a mentor, be clear in your ask by stating why you’d like them to mentor you, and help them know what you’re hoping to learn. Be respectful of their time. They’ve likely got a lot going on, so don’t expect weekly one-on-ones. Finally, let them know who you’re mentoring. It’s a lot easier for someone to give their time to you when they know that information is being put to good use. So who are you mentoring? Who’s your peer? Got those two? Now go find a mentor.
Cali Pitchel Schmidt, creative director: This is going to sound a bit saccharine, but the person I admire most is my husband, Chris. He is thoughtful, deliberate, and whip-smart. I’m so inspired by his curiosity, and I’m continually stunned by his graciousness (especially when we disagree). I learn most about myself when I am with him, and I am certainly a better, kinder, and gentler human because of his influence on my life.
Ian Ebright, publishing manager: Thirteen years ago, a produced screenwriter took me on to develop his concept into a feature screenplay. After I had done a few rounds of pages, he invited me to stay at his guest house in L.A. and spend time with him and his family. I was naive enough to believe the goodwill meant I was ascending as a filmmaker. But at the end of the trip, he ended our story session by saying, “You’re a nice guy, but you have exhausted me!” He was trying to tell me that I had been doing my own thing and not listening to him or producing what he wanted. I was too hurt to receive it at the time and was tired of trying, so I gave up filmmaking for six years and learned some painful truths about myself in that span. I’ve since made consideration and clarity a goal and a focus in my adult life, because he woke me up to the fact that we can’t rely on what makes us feel good and expect that to be helpful for others. Sometimes we take a big hit and need to go wander in the desert for a while, so to speak. The challenge is to reflect honestly so we learn the right lessons while we’re away. If your passion for something remains (or returns) and continues to stir you up, make sure you come back to it.
Hannah Lofgren, director of production: My mentor is my career coach, who Belief Agency graciously set me up with to better myself as a leader. One of the things I wanted to work on was stress management, so my coach taught me this technique: Take time to express gratitude and appreciation for the resources that help you throughout the day—including those that are giving you stress—along with any positive things that are present in your life. For me, this usually consists of my team, my production crew, our clients, or a sunny day outside. It’s helped keep me in a mindset that there are more positive things going on than not. The key is to focus on what you do have, and to be grateful for yourself for the desire to do the best you can. No one expects you to know everything or do everything, so don’t put that burden on yourself, either. There is only so much you have control over. This technique has really helped in managing my stress around others, especially when I’m producing on set.
Oleg Masnyy, senior designer: When trying to think of a single mentor or an “aha moment” in my life, I found it rather difficult. Life is not a movie—it does not have three distinct acts, and the search for the act one curtain often turns up empty. Instead, I found that I’ve had a series of moments in my life that helped guide me professionally. It started in early high school with a film and photography teacher who let me diverge from the standard curriculum and really explore my creative thinking. Up until that point, I thought being “creative” or “artistic” meant being good at figure drawing or still-life painting. Making fun videos helped me realize that I could pump my creativity into something I was actually decent at. Later in college, I took a motion design class that exposed me to a discipline I didn’t even know existed. My teacher introduced me to title sequences, network bumpers, and dozens of other ways I could apply my design learning and put it in motion. In a funny way, it helped bridge the gap between design and the videos I enjoyed making in high school. Many similar moments have contributed to what can collectively be considered my aha moment, and various people have acted as mentors for short periods of time. I look forward to meeting more along the way.
Brendan McDonnell, associate producer: I tend to be a perfectionist and I also really enjoy planning fun surprises for my now-wife, so my mind was spinning like crazy when we were talking about getting engaged last year. She insisted that I didn’t have to do anything elaborate, but I kept spending all of my free time trying to pull off the perfect plan. After I postponed proposing to her because I was worried about not having enough time to prepare everything I wanted to do, a close friend called me out by telling me, “You are making this all about you when it should be about her. She just wants you to ask.” Once I heard that, I put as many of the canceled plans as I could back on the books and asked her to marry me that evening. It was a humbling experience and the most perfectly imperfect proposal ever.
Jenna Shin, project coordinator: I have a very special group of women who have made—and continue to make—an impact on my life. Shout out to my nasty gals! These former coworkers have become some of my dearest friends and greatest champions. Despite my own insecurities and a world that seems to constantly stress that I could do or be better, they act as a mirror to my actual self, which is often better than I allow myself to see. They inspire me, bring me joy, and show me how to find joy in myself. Thank you Beth B., Beth M., Cat, Maria, Sarah, and Steph!
Kristine Manalo, account manager:Not too long ago, I worked for a manager who I not only looked up to as a subject matter expert, but as a mentor, too. I’m not sure he knew that or not, but I always felt that he was a living, breathing example of patience, accountability, and above all else, selflessness. He always kept an open-door policy and really never turned away a question or quick chat that then easily turned into a 30-minute one-on-one about professional and personal matters. What mattered most to me was that he always listened, asked, and then advised. For that, I am forever grateful to having such a patient person in my life and for showing me how I could be a good mentor too one day.
Jonathan Dunn, director of accounts: The person who made the most impact on my life was my high school guidance counselor MaryAnn Gambill. I had a bit of a troublemaking streak through middle school and high school and found myself close to being expelled a few times more than I would like to admit. However, MaryAnn saw something in me that most people couldn’t (including myself), and often went out on a limb to keep me in school. This included threatening to quit her job as the school counselor if they expelled me by explaining, “If I can’t help someone like Jonathan, then there is no reason I would be employed here.” I owe a great deal of my direction in life with MaryAnn. Her patience, grace, and encouragement helped me become something I couldn’t visualize. Rest in peace, MaryAnn.
Keelan Hooper, senior project manager: When I left college, I joined a small group of entrepreneurs looking to start a restaurant chain in the then-booming fast-casual genre. I worked on the restaurant’s operations and had the amazing fortune of collaborating with a former vice president of operations at Starbucks, who served on our board. He introduced me to concepts such as lean processing, and got me thinking about the concept of waste as an operational metric. He used to say, “If you want to be worth anything, you need to become an astute observer.” In work and in life, learning to see and listen are under-appreciated skills that can solve many of the world’s biggest problems.
Wesley Anderson, UX/UI designer: For me, a lot of credit goes back to my time at my last studio Flint (now called Parker) and the team we had there: Tyler, Jesse, Blake, and Brooke. They all pushed me to expand my visual taste and to think about color, typography, spacial design, and composition in new ways. But the most important thing I feel like I took away from my time at Flint is how to be a better communicator. They taught me the importance of being thoughtful in not just what to create, but in how to guide and lead your client and fellow team members to a meaningful conclusion.
Dave Powell, digital marketing manager: I consider all the guys in my band Emery to be mentors and role models. I’m between six to 10 years younger than everyone else, so it was nice joining at 19 and being around older, responsible guys. They’ve transformed my life. The biggest takeaway was understanding and experiencing camaraderie and true friendship.
Andy Maier, post-production supervisor: Mentorship in my 30s comes from different areas. Brian McDonald changed my life when he taught me story: “All you need is a character, a goal, and an obstacle. How your character overcomes that obstacle is the story.” Close friends Alex and Jana have been mentoring my wife and I on friendship with their life quote: “Our wealth is in our friendships.” Another friend (the lead singer of a band) mentored me in self-confidence at a show with this quote: “Dude, no one likes their voice in the beginning—you’ve just gotta do it.” I have a band now. Another mentor of mine named Joe tutored me in business about how to grow a team by saying, “Who are three people (at the moment) who can do something half as proficient as you can? Together, they can do 50 percent more than you on day one.” Joe taught me that growing is a constant process of letting go. Finally, Jesse Bryan (Belief Agency’s executive creative director) taught me about fear by always posing the question, “What would you do if fear weren’t involved?”
Tracey Shrier, project manager: The person who stands out as one of the most amazing souls I’ve worked with was my boss and friend at Dances With Films film festival. When I first moved to L.A., it was a hard adjustment to get used to meeting fake people left and right. You could never trust a person to follow through with what they said or promised. I learned quickly to get contracts in place and became very untrusting of people. During this period, I was jumping around from gig to gig until I landed a spot working as the theater manager for Dances With Films. During that time, I got to know the festival director, Leslee, and found out she was from Oregon, so we bonded over being Pacific Northwest girls. We started chatting after the festival and were riffing on where it was going and how to improve it. By the end of the festival, she asked me to be her full-time assistant, which I happily accepted. I quickly learned what a powerful human being she was—watching her be a single mom and run a business at the same time was truly inspirational to witness. She taught me that you can make anything happen with perseverance.
Sarah Xanthakis, designer: When I was putting together my senior project in college, I interviewed an older German woman named Elfi Rahr who lives on Phantom Lake in Bellevue. She collected all kinds of plants, kept honey bees, and always kept herself busy with new projects. I was referred to her specifically for her knowledge in growing hellebores, but our interview ended up lasting hours and we talked about all kinds of subjects, including her experience hunting for mushrooms in Nazi Germany and her abstract painting experiments using kitchen spices. She must have been in her mid-80s, and she was still coming up with creative projects. She said, “I try to teach myself something new every day.” Simple advice, but important to remember to keep your mind open and learn constantly.