How to Get George Bush or the CEO of Google on the Phone

110 Comments

The below article, titled “Fail Better” and written by Adam Gottesfeld, explores how I teach Princeton students to connect with luminary-level business mentors and celebrities of various types. I’ve edited it to be shorter and clearer in a few places.

People are fond of using the “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” adage as an excuse for inaction, as if all successful people are born with powerful friends.

Nonsense.

Here’s how normal people build supernormal networks…

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Most Princeton students love to procrastinate in writing their dean’s date [term] papers. Ryan Marrinan ’07, from Los Angeles, was no exception. But while the majority of undergraduates fill their time by updating their Facebook profiles or watching videos on YouTube, Marrinan was discussing Soto Zen Buddhism via e-mail with Randy Komisar, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, and asking Google CEO Eric Schmidt ’76 via e-mail when he had been happiest in his life. (Schmidt’s answer: “Tomorrow.”)

Prior to his e-mail, Marrinan had never contacted Komisar. He had met Schmidt, at Princeton University trustee, only briefly at an academic affairs meeting of the trustees in November. A self-described “naturally shy kind,” Marrinan said he would never have dared to randomly e-mail two of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley if it weren’t for Tim Ferriss ’00, who offered a guest lecture in Professor Ed Zschau ’61’s ELE 491 “High-Tech Entrepreneurship” class. Ferriss challenged Marrinan and his fellow seniors in the class to contact high-profile celebrities and CEOs and get their answers to questions they have always wanted to ask.

For extra incentive, Ferriss promised the student who could contact the most hard-to-reach name and ask the most intriguing question a round-trip plane ticket anywhere in the world.

“I believe that success can be measured in the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have. I felt that if I could help students overcome the fear of rejection with cold-calling and cold e-mail, it would serve them forever,” Ferriss said. “It’s easy to sell yourself short, but when you see classmates getting responses from people like [former president] George Bush, the CEOs of Disney, Comcast, Google, and HP, and dozens of other impossible-to-reach people, it forces you to reconsider your self-set limitations.”… Ferriss lectures to the students of “High-Tech Entrepreneurship” each semester about creating a startup and designing the ideal lifestyle.

“I participate in this contest every day,” said Ferriss. “I do what I always do: find a personal e-mail if possible, often through their little-known personal blogs, send a two- to three-paragraph e-mail which explains that you are familiar with their work, and ask one simple-to-answer but thought-provoking question in that e-mail related to their work or life philosophies. The goal is to start a dialogue so they take the time to answer future e-mails – not to ask for help. That can only come after at least three or four genuine e-mail exchanges.”

With “textbook execution of the Tim Ferriss Technique,” as he put it, Marrinan was able to strike up a bond with Komisar. In his initial e-mail, he talked about reading one of Komisar’s Harvard Business Review articles and feeling inspired to ask him, “When were you happiest in your life?” After Komisar replied with references to Tibetan Buddhism, Marrinan responded, “Just as words are inadequate to explain true happiness, so too are words inadequate to express my thanks.” His e-mail included his personal translation of a French poem by Taisen Deshimaru, the former European head of Soto Zen. An e-mail relationship was formed, and Komisar even e-mailed Marrinan a few days later with a link to a New York Times article on happiness.

Contacting Schmidt proved more challenging. For Marrinan, the toughest part was getting Schmidt’s personal e-mail address. He e-mailed a Princeton dean asking for it. No response. Two weeks later, he e-mailed the same dean again, defending his request by reminding her that he had previously met Schmidt. The dean said no, but Marrinan refused to give up. He e-mailed her a third time. “Have you ever made an exception?” he asked. The dean finally gave in, he said, and provided him with Schmidt’s e-mail.

“I know some of my classmates pursued the alternative scattershot technique with some success, but that’s not my bag,” Marrinan said, explaining his perseverance. “I deal with rejection by persisting, not by taking my business elsewhere. My maxim comes from Samuel Beckett, a personal hero of mine: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ You won’t believe what you can accomplish by attempting the impossible with the courage to repeatedly fail better.”

Nathan Kaplan ’07, another participant in the contest. was most proud of the way that he was able to contact former Newark mayor Sharpe James. Because James had made a campaign contribution to Al Sharpton, the website www.fundrace.org listed James’ homes address. Kaplan then input James’ address into an online search-by-address phone directory, through which he received the former mayor’s phone number. Kaplan left a message for James, and a few days later finally got to ask him about childhood education.

Ferriss is proud of the effort students have put into his contest. “Most people can do absolutely awe-inspiring things,” he said. “Sometimes they just need a little nudge.”

Adam Gottesfeld ’07, a Woodrow Wilson School major, is from Los Angeles.

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Here’s how impressive networks are built: one superstar at a time.

It’s another case of working smarter and not harder. Readers will recognize that I discuss this topic of contacting mentors at some length in The 4-Hour Workweek, using John Grisham as an example.

Forget about your 500+ connections on LinkedIn. More is often less.

If you could choose only five people in the world to get to know in the 2008, who would they be?

Here are a few I’d enjoy meeting, among others:

The Crystal Method band members
Rick Rubin
Jeff Corwin
Jamiroquai
Francis Ford-Coppola
Hayao Miyazaki

Do you know them? If you do and think a meeting might be fun, please e-mail me via my assistant at amy-at-fourhourworkweek.com Danke!

Posted on: December 10, 2007.

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110 comments on “How to Get George Bush or the CEO of Google on the Phone

  1. Hi Timothy,

    vielen Dank für den sehr interessanten Artikel. Er verstärkt nocheinmal das, was Du bereits in Deinem Buch geschrieben hast.
    Viel Erfolg bei Kontakten Deiner “band members”.
    Jörg

    PS: Ich habe diesen Kommentar auf Deutsch geschrieben, weil ich hoffe, damit die einen oder anderen Deiner Leser zu motivieren, sich etwas verstärkt auch in anderen Sprachen auszudrücken. Du hast dazu ja ebenfalls bereits sehr gute Tipps gegeben.

    ###

    Thanks, Jorg! I’m confident I’ll meet at least Crystal Method — those guys rock, and I bboyed (breakdanced) to them for about 4 years. Thanks for the German comment and keep an eye on the blog for my upcoming visit to Germany in 2008 :)

    Viel Spass,

    Tim

    Like

  2. In no significant order:

    1. Christopher Nolan
    2. John Carmack
    3. General Petraeus
    4. Peter Thiel
    5. Javier Bardem

    Someone drop me a line if you know any of these guys

    Like

  3. The people I’d always want to meet would be less about establishing a commodity for my own network and more about a genuine interest in where thoughts come from. I’d like to be able to bounce a new idea off a bright mind, or to ask about their own thoughts on a matter. For this, I’d love to be able to offer a cup of tea to Stephen Fry, or meet for a beer with Simon Schama or Rory Stewart. Also, though I’ve only recently been introduced to this blog and have yet to read your book, I wouldn’t mind being able to ask a question or two to Tim Ferris.

    Like

  4. Wow Tim, you never cease to impress…you’ve got some awesome taste in pop culture! What got you into TCM? I love those guys too — Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland.

    Thanks for your encouraging article…I’ve been thinking of writing something about networking and your thoughts reflect my own philosophy spot on. I can’t say how much blogging–and the willingness to *just do it* and send an email/initiate a conversation–has increased my network and my business. I’ve got some great mentors and great acquaintances. But, the key is to always seek out people whom you share a sincere common interest with.

    Great question about who we *most* want to meet in ’08. I’ll have to get started on my NY resolutions!

    Like

  5. Great article, especially the examples of getting personal contact info. It’s inspiring, but you have to admit that people are usually more receptive to students and view others as business competitors (not always, and it depends on the approach, but it happens.)

    Like

  6. Good article, but it’s odd that of all the people in the world, the person chose to contact Sharpe James, the long-corrupt former mayor of Newark currently under indictment for corruption charges.

    Like

  7. I met Rick Rubin at a Weezer/Foo Fighters concert at Oakland Arena. On reflection, it made sense he was there because he just produced Weezer’s ‘Make Believe’ during which Rivers Cuomo spent some time living at his house.

    Anyway, the crowd was mostly teenyboppers, as arena crowds tend to be. So, I think I may have been the only one to notice the Yeti that is Rick Rubin standing near the sound board.

    To your point of saying something interesting, I told him I was interested in hearing his upcoming work with Neil Diamond, with whom he did a Johnny-Cash-American-style-voice-and-guitar album. I must have hit the mark in being obscure enough to show real interest, because Rick gave me a nice handshake, raised his eyebrows, and left me with a few nuggets of wisdom.

    He didn’t stay for the Foos.

    Like

  8. TIm,

    Kick a$$ article. I have recently started compiling a list of people whom I would like to meet or ask questions to. I was fortunate enough to have a 20 minute conversation with one of these people recenlty!! It is very important to surround yourself with people whom either have more experience or have a different outlook that you admire. I am committed to getting myself more in the loop, this is out of deep fascination with what has made people happy and successful.

    Buena Suerte!!!!!!

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

    Like

  9. Great observations! Networking smart is a rainmaker skill and can be learned and taught. Perhaps another title for this post could be “The art of the ice-breaker” I agree that every great introduction should be a reciprocal win-win exchange. Nobody (especially the super busy, hard to reach)likes the Gim-me rants or “can you help me” from strangers, but after receiving a gift or an interesting dialog, the dynamics often quickly change.

    example, I once sent an article out of the economist to a busy broker whom I barely knew, he sent me an in-depth research report ($1000 subscription) and put me on the mailing list for future market updates, then we shared baby pictures! Similar things happen all the time. Keep it up and you realize why they say Network=Net Worth.

    Thanks Tim for keeping life inspiring! And keep dreaming BIG!

    Nate

    Like

  10. Nate,

    Thanks for sharing that bit of information. I liked your story, its inspiring to hear about people actually getting results.

    Have a great day

    Jose Castro Frenzel

    Like

  11. Tim –

    I love the round-trip ticket challenge. Here’s a suggestion for an additional prize: Offer a round-trip bus ticket (anywhere in the US or Mexico) to the person who receives the rudest rejection email from a high-profile target. Could be a nice way to teach people not to take rejections too seriously/personally.

    Finally, when you get through to Jamiroquai, do me a favor and ask him if he felt slighted my the music media when the members of OK Go were labled as “visionaries” for their “Here is goes again” treadmill video (when in fact, one could make the argument that the “Here it goes” video was just a low-budget basement knockoff of “Virtual Insanity”, Jamiroquai’s pioneering treadmill video)

    Have a good one,

    Jake Greene

    Like

  12. Sean, I’ve met Richard Branson and he is one nice fellow! I loved your article Tim, it just goes to show how you can really go beyond your comfort zone, do what few people do and achieve results. My family came to New Zealand as foreigners from a poorish background so I wasn’t born into a well connected family, I’m trying to make my own network.

    I met RB at Christhcurch, New Zealand airport earlier this year as he was coming in for a Virgin staff celebration. I waited at the airport for him all day when all my friends and co-workers at the time said I was crazy and wasting my time. Lo and behold when he stepped off the plane I was one of the first people to greet him and in thus secured and invitation from him to the private party (I set myself a personal challenge I was not to ask anything of him). Not only that but I have a nice signed photo of me and him together on my wall.

    In brief, boldness pays off. (and don’t listen to the naysayers all the time)

    I would love to meet the Google guys, Martha Stewart, and Oprah for a start.

    Like

  13. I’m satisfied about breaking the patterns. Thinking and acting out of the box. Makes a start for a paradigm shift. I’ve had several trainings from Anthony Robbins himself. I attended UPW in 1996 and learned to think out of the box. Sociaty doesn’t understand what you do, let them. I’ve read the 4-hour working week and I’m amazed of the bright ideas. I’m aplying them step by step.

    I wish you all the luck in the world.

    Kind regards

    Peter Wijn.

    Like

  14. Wow! That’s a great story. The five people I would like to meet are (similar to Sean) Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Zach Braff and Tim Ferriss. I know. I know. But I seriously think Tim would be a neat guy to get to know. He definitely has a lot of interesting stories.

    Like