Think Hard

How to talk to your heroes (and why it’s a good idea)

Written by joelsnape

 

They say you should never meet your heroes. Maybe this is true, if your heroes are embittered rockstars or reclusive authors or just really good sportsmen who’ve spent more time on their game than on their philosophy and social skills. On the other hand, maybe it isn’t.

When I look back, certain things that I now take for granted about my life seem faintly ridiculous – like, for instance, just how many people I’ve respected or admired from afar I’ve eventually been able to talk to. Some (Jet Li, Reinhold Messner, Mark Twight) I’ve talked to through work, where having a ‘brand’ behind you can help – but certainly doesn’t offer any guarantees. Others (Andrew WK, Georges St Pierre) I’ve organised through avenues that are open to almost anyone. A few (adventurer Alastair Humphreys, UFC veteran Rosi Sexton and the like), I’ve ended up chatting to through the sort of osmosis that happens when you have similar interests and ideas of what constitutes ‘fun.’ Probably none of these people would be comfortable with the ‘hero’ tag (except for possibly Mr Messner) but they’re definitely people worth listening to. The main point is: you’d probably be very surprised how easy it is to meet/interview/get advice from people you respect. Here are two simple rules I’d suggest for actually doing that:

1. Be sincere

2. Don’t be a dick

Not helpful? Okay, let’s break it down a bit further.

1. Be sincere

Most people who genuinely care passionately about a thing: be it training, fighting, writing, or self-improvement (that last one covers a lot of things) will respond well to other people who care passionately about the same thing. ‘Passion’ is a misused word thanks to reality TV and job interviews, so to clarify: this probably means you’ve already invested time and effort (if not money) in whatever the ‘thing’ is already. If, when you approach someone, you can say, ‘Look, this is what I’ve already done, on my own,’ they’ll know you aren’t just some dude who’s got into the thing in the last ten minutes, looking for a quick fix. Show that you’re inquisitive and committed and not just looking for a handout, and you improve your chances enormously. Or, to steal a quote from Ravi Mohan (which I was introduced to via the aforementioned Mark Twight):

“If you claim to be “very passionate about X” but have never done anything concrete in X I find it difficult to take you seriously. People who are really passionate about anything don’t wait for “leaders” or “mentors” before doing *concrete* work in the area of their passion, however limited.”

How do you apply this? Well, when I first met Mark Twight, for example, I’d already spent three months training and working on the Gym Jones methodology, so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself – and so that I’d be able to discuss it effectively. Or, by way of an example that isn’t about training, here’s a chunk of the email I sent to Andrew WK. Let’s be honest: this website doesn’t do the kind of traffic that would make it worth his while to talk to me, and he didn’t have an album to plug, so something about this worked, and led to one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had.

‘I run a website called Live Hard, which is about working, living, drinking and partying…as hard as possible. I don’t make any money from it – it’s mainly a way to try and inspire people to actually live harder, and it works for at least a few people. One girl emailed me to tell me she’d taken up Roller Derby because of it. Another guy told me he’d lost 4 stone and met a nice lady. Well done that man. 
As you can probably guess, I’m hoping you’ll agree to an interview – in many ways, you’re the inspiration behind the site. Hope it sounds interesting, although I understand if it doesn’t. Either way, all the best.’

Maybe Andrew’s just a nice guy, and wanted to help. But anyway, this leads us nicely on to:

2. Don’t be a dick

This is really a continuation of point one, but it is still pretty hard for some people to grasp. To flip things around for a minute, I am no kind of celebrity, and even I get an unbelievable amount of questions/requests from people that basically amount to: ‘Please give up your time and mental energy, to me, a man you have never met before, for no reason that I’m prepared to outline, and for free.’ I can only imagine how much that gets amplified if you’re a guy who is actually even semi-famous.

There’s a better way to approach this.

First, recognise that there are basically three ways you can approach people you haven’t met before, whether they’re world-renowned, moderately well-known or just someone you’d like to talk to – for the sake of clarity and because I’ve already got a numbered list going, let’s call them A, B and C:

A) Please give me what I want (time/advice/expertise/quotes) for basically nothing in return.

B) Here’s why you should give me what I want: this could be ‘I’ve already done this much on my own and now I need help’ or ‘I can help you in return’ or something similar.

C) I don’t want anything: but here’s something that might help you out.

Obviously, your approach should be either B or C – and the internet has made C far, far easier. If you want to chat to someone, then chat to them – don’t ask them for stuff straight out of the gate, just interact with them like you would (hopefully) any other human. This could be anything: from a link to something they might find interesting (not your stuff, unless it’s super-relevant) to an area of expertise you can help them with (for instance, a well known-ish adventurer recently asked me for some bench-press tips). You aren’t Hannibal Lecter, and not everything has to be quid-pro-quo. This can be simple, or complicated: comment on someone’s blogposts, letting them know which ones you like (and why). Drop them a Tweet about something they might find interesting. Be sincere – people can (in my experience) tell when you’re doing it.

Here’s Ravi again:

‘Once upon a time I was in a situation where I thought I could contribute to something one of the best programmers in the world was working on so I sent an email (I got the address from his webpage) and said something to the effect of ” you say on this webpage you need this code and I have been working on something similair in my spare time and I could write the rest for you over the next few months because I am interested in what you are doing” and I got a 2 line reply which said (paraphrased) ” A lot of people write to me saying they’ll do this , but I’ve never seen any code yet so I am a little skeptical. Don’t take it personally. Thanks. bye.”.

So in the next email I sent him a zipped file of code with an explanation that “this is what I’ve done so far which is about 70% of what you want” and he immediately replied saying “Whoa you are serious. That is refreshing .. ‘ and opened up completely, giving me a lot of useful feedback and very specific advice. He is a (very valued) mentor to this day.’

How do you talk to people you respect? The same as you (hopefully) talk to anyone else: be friendly, and helpful, and non-dickish and anyone decent will do the same.

About the author

joelsnape

Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.

6 Comments

  • I’ve been on both sides of this situation and your advice is spot on. But I’ve had some bad experiences when getting to talk with “heroes” who are men. Some seem to equate “a woman taking an interest in their achievements” with “a woman who wants to sleep with them” (and this assumption seems to be more likely the bigger the age gap). That gets a bit … awkward, or sometimes worse. I guess “don’t be a dick” needs to work both ways.

  • I do agree with your post. Giving back can be very rewarding and in times, work in your favor. As long as people don’t try to take the piss trying to get to much free information. Great blog by the way.

  • In the mid 80’s I worked in a video store right in the heart of Soho. Above us were the offices of Palace Pictures who were responsible for some of the best art house movies of the time. Downstairs we held the largest collection of video tapes in the UK ans as a consequence, along with our big city location we found our selves face to face with the rich and famous. Year on, I have wonderful stories but not a single photograph. In the rarefied atmosphere of Video Palace we’d chat with Richard Dreyfuss, talk Kurosawa movies with David Bowie, meet legends like Ingrid Pitt and Ken Russell. I realise now that it was a pretty magical time. We never hassled anyone, we didn’t ask for autographs, there were no camera phones. They were people, dropping by to pick up a film and in the process we got to speak to them about their lives, their movies and their art.

    One afternoon we got a call from Alice Coopers tour manager. He asked if we could possibly let Mr Cooper come by the shop after hours. We shut up as usual and half an hour or so later a limousine pulled up outside. Out got Alice and couple of band members. He hung out for an hour or so, talking B Movies with our resident horror film geek and left with a bunch of tapes.

    That became routine when Alice was in town, in turn we got tickets and back stage passes.

    It’s funny how these things play out. A few years later I was working in music publishing and had the opportunity to ask Mr Cooper for a favour, I was working with an called Donovan who had added backing vocals to Billion Dollar Babies and he wanted to see Alice’s special invitation show at the Marquee in London. Tickets and passes arrived at my office, we went to the show and the party afterwards.

    The strangest part of all this was meeting Mr Coopr once again and have him shake my hand and ask how I was doing and what had happened to the old video shop.

    Seems that those heroes are pretty much like the rest of us, especially if we treat them that way.

  • Hi Joel, thanks for this post, it’s excellent! The guys at SpeedComms recommended I check out your blog and I’m really glad they did. I will certainly run a quick “Am i being a dick?” check when sending emails out to new contacts in future. Looking forward to reading more of your posts. Thanks, Luke

  • Love this article. I have been very lucky to meet one of my sporting heroes, Mark Webber, and thankfully he lived up to all my expectations. I wasn’t a dick, well I don’t think I was. Very nervous though. In fact, my partner kindly broke the ice for me and I ended up having a great conversation with Mark. Being polite to your heroes is a great starting point.

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