The mentors who have provided guidance in your professional life include not only professors, advisers, consultants and others in structured arrangements, but also those "accidental" mentors who influence your thinking and your actions, perhaps without their even realizing it.

Accidental mentors are not usually mental health professionals. They might be a family member, a colleague, a neighbor, the person who cuts your hair or works on your car, a store clerk, a seatmate on an airplane, and others you encounter in your daily life. What they all have in common is that something they said or did, taught you something you needed to learn.

For example, several years ago I learned a valuable customer service lesson from a hotel clerk. My husband and I had just checked in to one of those 2-room "suites" hotels with our two young children. The sofa bed was so saggy that the mattress almost touched the floor. I angrily marched down to the front desk to complain in person, ending my tirade with "This is unacceptable!" The clerk waited until I was done, and then said sympathetically, "I'm sorry that happened. What would you like me to do?"

At that moment I realized how the clerk's question shifted my focus from the problem to the solution. And I immediately felt calmer. I replied that we would like a different room. The clerk checked his computer, but the hotel was filled up. He offered an alternative. He could get us accommodations at a neighboring hotel, at no additional cost to us. However, that hotel did not have 2-room suites. They did, however, have two adjoining rooms with a door in between that could be left open.

"Would that work for you and your family?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied, relieved and now smiling.

I have forgotten the hotel clerk's name, but not his lesson: "We agree on the problem. Now let's work together to find a solution."

This lesson has helped me in many business negotiations over the years. I have also applied it with therapy clients who get stuck in their negative narrative.

How to recognize an accidental mentor

Accidental mentors will come and go throughout your life. In order not to miss them, you just need to apply three basic skills that you already know well: listening, observing and self-reflection.

Every once in a while someone else's words or actions will strike you as thought-provoking, unexpectedly disturbing or comforting. That's your signal to reflect on what you can learn about yourself from this experience. You may not have a full-blown light bulb moment, but over time, repeatedly augmenting your self awareness in this way will ultimately help make you a better clinician. With greater self-awareness, your business decisions will also improve.