Herding Fish

coaching for artists and makers

Should I choose coaching or mentoring?

17 July 2021

People have been asking me about whether to choose coaching or mentoring. The definitions I use are:

  • a COACH works with their clients by helping them identify and achieve their own goals (internal answers)
  • a MENTOR shares their own experience so the other person can benefit from knowing how the mentor’s career unfolded (external answers)

In reality, these meanings aren’t fixed. People use the two words in different ways, and some people blend them into their own unique style. If you’re looking for support, the key difference is whether you want someone to review your work to date and steer to you towards possible next steps (external answers). Or you may want to work on your personal connection with your work and as you deepen your understanding of your process, identify your own next steps (internal answers). If you’re considering how to choose coaching or mentoring, I’d suggest you look for whichever is right for you at that time, regardless of what the coach/mentor calls themselves.

Both approaches are useful of course. There are times when it’s really valuable to sit down with someone who can view your work in a wider context and suggest directions, opportunities and resources that might be relevant for you. And there are other times when it’s important to reflect on what your work means to you as a person and how your practice reflects your overall values and intentions.

Knowing yourself

Most artists and makers have an awareness of all sorts of things we should do to promote ourselves and push our work out into the world. There are lots ways to find out about current opportunities and our social media feeds are full of other people sharing their successes. But what if that all feels a bit too much? If it’s just another round of comparing ourselves to other people. What if we just stop for a minute and think about what we really want. I love this quote from Annie Dillard:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

I passionately believe that when you really understand the core of your work, and what makes it uniquely yours, the next steps become much more obvious. When we stop thinking about what we should do and start doing work that really resonates with who we are, all the external stuff falls into place much more easily.

Coaching uses goals

A key feature of coaching is the idea of a ‘goal’, that there is something you want to ‘achieve’. This can be uncomfortable for a lot of artists and makers, but all it really means is that you know there’s something you want to change. So initially it might just be that you want to ‘feel better about your work’. As the coaching process unfolds, it will likely reveal other ‘goals’ such as: researching a new material, technique or concept; setting up an online shop; re-defining your working hours; making a specific application; developing a new body of work; reviewing existing work; a collaboration…there really are no right or wrong answers. It’s like setting up a satnav, you need to have some idea of where you want to go before the journey can start.

I used to work in arts organisations as a consultant. I’ve delivered training to artists and makers in courses and workshops, and facilitated training by others. It’s great to show people what they could do to develop their work, and it’s really satisfying to present new options. But there are still only 24 hours in a day, and adding more and more possibilities sometime just creates even more things to think about.


It makes a huge difference to get really clear about what you do, and why it’s uniquely yours. Because then the focus and energy to work on that comes much more easily. James Clear says that nothing gets done more quickly than the thing you don’t do at all. When we have that understanding of what we want, it gets much easier to stop being distracted by all the ‘maybes’, and that’s where coaching can help. So if you’re trying to choose coaching or mentoring, think about whether you want to access internal or external answers.