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The chief executive officer of the genealogy company,, had the great fortune to have strong, kind and steadfast mentors in her life. These days the focus for gaining career advancement has been on the advantages sponsors offer over mentors, actively opening doors, but she stresses great mentors can be vital.

“Their wisdom has been transformative because they were able to give me important insight at pivotal moments in my life, just when I needed it most,” Deb Liu wrote on her blog.

One was her high school chemistry teacher, who told her: “Your biggest challenge is having too many options. You will be great at whatever you choose, but you have to choose.” The advice came when Ms. Liu was applying to college and was undecided as to where she should go.

Throughout the years, those words have helped at career crossroads, when there is no one perfect answer.

“Crossroads can be frustrating, especially when all we want is for someone to tell us what to do. But rather than allowing the weight of the decision to cripple us, we can instead see it as a good problem. Every option is good, and every potential path is a chance to excel differently,” Ms. Liu wrote.

A one-time boyfriend supplied this piece of advice when she was trying to decide on her post-graduate education: “Don’t go with the easy choice just because it is there. Go with the right one for you, even if it is harder.” Yale University had accepted her for law school. But in the end she pushed beyond her comfort zone to gain entry for an MBA at Stanford University.

Applying for a product manager early in PayPal’s life, Ms. Liu was stymied by the fact she had no idea what it involved. But the interviewer didn’t seem to care, focusing on her grades. The lesson: “You don’t have to know what you are doing. You just have to be willing to learn.”

Being smart, however, is not enough – at least that’s what entrepreneur Ben Casnocha was told when he was 15 years old.

“Ben, people in Silicon Valley are ridiculously smart. Super, super smart,” Salesforce founder Marc Benioff advised over breakfast, after being cold e-mailed by the brash youngster. “You’re not going to be able to out-smart people. You have to figure out how to win in some other way.”

At first, Mr. Casnocha figured he could outwork other people. But the same is true for hard work: Many people could outwork him. Over time, he realized he should become good at facilitating the intelligences of other smart people.

Later, he added the importance of synthesizing a number of skills in a unique way: Very strong – even if not truly world-class – abilities in entrepreneurship and written/oral communication, which could produce some interesting career opportunities.

“Like a lot of important wisdom, Marc’s comment to me at breakfast in San Francisco all those years ago sounded simple. The depth of its truth took years for me to appreciate,” Mr. Casnocha wrote on his blog.

The father of leadership consultant Wally Bock, a Lutheran minister, taught him a lesson by each week asking the family – and taking notes – about specific things that could have been stronger in that week’s sermon. Lesson: “You can always get better.”

When he entered Bronx High School of Science, after years of being told how smart he was, it was a blow to his ego to find he was not the smartest person in his class. The lesson: There’s always someone smarter.

“That was a tough lesson, and I haven’t learned it as well as I should. But things go better for me when I tamp down my ego and pay attention to how the other people around me are smart,” he wrote on his blog.

Four other lessons he learned while growing up:

  • Hard work can often overcome a lack of talent.
  • Questions will get you farther than showing off.
  • Good manners smooth out many a situation.
  • Conversation is not a blood sport, it’s the way we build relationships.

Lessons sometimes are usually directed or taken in by one person, but apply to all of us.

Quick hits

  • In a world of continual context-switching and distraction, James Stanier, director of engineering at Shopify, says you must make it easy for others to understand what you want, the next steps and whether you have a strong preference. When interacting, make it clear what you want from the other person.
  • The primary reason you forget is because you weren’t paying attention in the first place, advises author Eric Barker, surveying the research literature. When trying to make a deposit in your memory bank, don’t multitask. Focus, instead.
  • When preparing a speech or writing a message, consultant Julie Zhuo suggests aiming for the people who know the least in your target audience. That allows you to set the context for all, including those who have forgotten relevant facts.
  • Patience only works if you do, according to Atomic Habits author James Clear. If you plan to work and are patient you’re just waiting.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.