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.
Here’s how normal people build supernormal networks…
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.
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:
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!