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.
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.