Tyler Cowen recently offered two pieces of advice on how to achieve anything:
1. When working on any kind of problem, task or question, embed yourself in a small group of peers with broadly similar concerns.
2. Get mentors.
These are extremely common pieces of wisdom tossed around in our age, and on a personal level I find them both very mysterious.
I have learned a lot from older people, but I am not sure that anyone was my "mentor." I suppose this is partly because of the zig-zagging nature of my career. As an undergraduate I studied mostly modern history, switched to medieval and early modern Europe in graduate school, and now I make my living studying North America. I keep having to pick up new subjects on the fly. Anyway I think that since I graduated from college I have learned more from peers and books than from teachers.
Lately I have been trying to publish novels, and so far as I know I have never met a single person who has written the kind of book I am trying to write. I have gotten a lot of help on my books from my friends but they are not novelists themselves so I don't think they can really be called mentors.
As for small groups, I don't think I have ever been part of a group working together on a problem. I have a few times stumbled across an area of scholarship that seems to have been mainly generated by a small group who knew each other, for example studies of colonial probate inventories; but though I drew on the research I never interacted with any of the people who produced it. All archaeological projects are team endeavors, but mostly these are the sort of teams where each person does his or her job, not the kind where people make a collective effort to answer one question. It does happen sometimes but it is not central to what I do.
Here is more Cowen on small groups, in response to the question of what to read about them:
I suggest reading about musical groups and sports teams and revolutions in the visual arts, as I have mentioned before, taking care you are familiar with and indeed care passionately about the underlying area in question. . . .
I have a few observations on what I call “small group theory”:
1. If you are seeking to understand a person you meet, or might be hiring, ask what was the dominant small group that shaped the thinking and ideas of that person, typically (but not always) at a young age. . . .
2. If you are seeking to foment change, take care to bring together people who have a relatively good chance of forming a small group together. Perhaps small groups of this kind are the fundamental units of social change. . . .
3. Small groups (potentially) have the speed and power to learn from members and to iterate quickly and improve their ideas and base all of those processes upon trust. These groups also have low overhead and low communications overhead. Small groups also insulate their members sufficiently from a possibly stifling mainstream consensus, while the multiplicity of group members simultaneously boosts the chances of drawing in potential ideas and corrections from the broader social milieu.
4. The bizarre and the offensive have a chance to flourish in small groups. . . .
9. What does your small group have to say about this?
This makes me feel strange and lonely. I have heard other people bewail the lack of mentoring in their lives, and I imagine that some people, reading this, would think, "Where can I find a small group to join, one where we learn from each other and bring about change?" But this is so foreign to me that I cannot even imagine what it would be like.
I don't mean to say that I am alone or lonely, but as it happens my friends mostly don't work in my field, and even the ones in my field are mostly doing their own things. Honestly the mix of things I do in my job is quite strange and idiosyncratic – archaeology of everything in Eastern North America, colonial history, Civil War history, African American history, project management, coping with mergers and corporate reorganizations, cultural resource management, National Park Service policy, etc., that I would find it really weird to meet anyone who does the same thing. I suppose one could belong to a bunch of different groups focusing on each one of those things, but on the other hand each of them is such a small part of my work that I don't think it would add up to what Cowen envisages.
So I am wondering, is my rather lonely, self-directed path through my career the more normal kind, and the sort of connectivity Cowen describes unusual? Or the reverse?