How do you talk to a Nobelprize winners like Daniel Kahneman, write emails with presidents, share a pizza with Martin Seligman or interview Paul Ekman and discuss coaching techniques with Europe’s best-paid coach? In this article I show you my favorite techniques to get in touch, hangout and learn from the superstars in your field.
Early on in life I learned that if you want to become really good at something, you have to learn from the best. But “the best” are often hard to reach, super expensive and super busy. So you need to develop some methods to get in touch with them and eventually learn from them. Here are my four favorite and extensively field-tested approaches:
1. The Quick-and-Dirty
At least twice a week I reach out to ueber-successful entrepreneurs, famous psychologists and other possible superstar mentors. Nowadays you can find almost everybody’s email address somewhere in the web. So sending your role-model a short email is an easy way to start an interaction.
Most of the time I use exactly the same email structure for all approaches and simply adapt it to the specific person. The mail should be as short as possible, concise and straight-to-the point.
This my typical 4 sentences email:
Dear Prof. Kaslow,
My name is Till and I’m a 22-year old psychology student (entrepreneur, TEDx speaker, author, blogger – whatever fits the occasion). I got asked to give a talk at the European Congress of Psychology, where I will give a talk on the topic of self-education (the reason why I am writing).
Since you are one of the most accomplished psychologists in the world right now, president of the APA, editor of journals, board member and have numerous other responsibilities (I show that I know who she is and what she is doing; and I flatter her), I have one quick question for you.
How important is it to have a good mentor? (a small, easy to answer question)
75% of the people actually answer. Though their answer is often a one-liner like “A mentor is important, but not essential”. The magic lies in keeping the conversation going and creating a stimulating interaction, which is not an easy task.
Using this structure I reached out and got answers from Nobel-Prize Winners, successful CEOs, MIT-professors, star psychologists and presidents of organizations. It is easy, quick and you have a huge success rate, but the hard part is to build a relationship from there.
2. Creativity & Courage
The best thing you can do is to make a possible mentor actually interested in you. Obviously this is not an easy task but it can be a lot of fun and the benefits are definitely worth the struggle. Also, the only limits you have are your own creativity and courage.
Simply being creative and courageous is sometimes enough to catch the attention of a possible mentor. Your creative act can be completely unrelated to your mentor’s profession or your field of interest. A great example is Jerome Jarre. I met the vine guy at a TEDx event two years ago. One of his strategies to connect with business leaders, was to walk up to, for example, the CFO of Facebook and ask him to play rock, paper, scissors with him. If he wins he gets a meeting with him. This is completely unrelated to their profession but it is definitely creative.
Another method is to display your skill in a creative way. I did this when I tried to contact Roman Braun, the best-paid coach in Europe. I knew he worked with clinical hypnosis. So after a couple of failed attempts to get his attention I wrote him a letter that was actually a hypnotic trance induction. The letter read like this:
“…and while your eyes glide over the lines, you can notice how your breath goes in and out completely unconsciously and pleasantly relaxing and becoming aware of what will only put you in the nice and sound state of enjoyable comfort….”
This continued over the next 6-pages. After ignoring my prior mails he actually answered to this letter and I got a 3,500 € scholarship for his next seminar.
So summon all your creative spirits and just go out there and try it.
3. For the Long Haul aka Hustle
Let’s face it, some of the people I contacted charge up to 1,500$ per hour and are continuously surrounded by some of the smartest and most creative minds of our planet. So I could be as creative as I want and it still took me nowhere and I failed to make an impression on the person. But there is one-method that is almost fool-proof. When I started reaching out to people I focused extensively on this method and it worked almost every time. I recently found out that Charlie Hoehn actually mastered this technique to incredible high degree.
What I would do is, I would approach famous therapists or coaches and tell them I wanted to attend their workshops but I don’t have the money, still I am incredibly motivated and willing to work off the costs. So basically I offered them free work (as Charlie Hoehn would call it).
Almost every single time the person agreed and they let me work for them. So I did stuff like selling their books, doing marketing, promoting their workshops, working in their office and other small tasks. In return I would get a spot in their workshops.
But here is the important thing: Not just do the job but actually dazzle them with your effort. One time a well-known German therapist was kind of skeptical and told me I should prove how motivated I am. To prove it I should sell some of his books over the next month. Within the next 24 hours I sold almost all of them. He was so intrigued by my effort that he invited me over, let me attend his seminar and even gave me a real job. Half-a-year later he took it a step further and I was travelling through whole Germany giving talks in his name in front of hundreds of people at the age of 19.
Everybody loves good work and if it is for free they love it even more. Offer them a clear idea of what you can do for them and then exceed their expectations. Free work is your foot in the door and then you can easily work your way up.
4. Leveraging existing structures
All of the prior methods rely on your ability to contact stars of a field and enchant them one way or the other. It also means that you need to work your way up all by yourself. This can take time and a lot of effort, but it creates a stronger bond and a solid mentor-mentee relationship. By using existing structures you can meet the luminary of your field with less effort. However, when you do this it is very important to create a situation where you are not just a fan but rather a colleague or somebody else with a certain status or position.
My two favorite ways to easily meet and talk to an important person at almost equal footing is by volunteering at conferences or interviewing them.
When you volunteer at a conference always try to be responsible for the speakers. This way you get a lot of opportunities to interact with your hero on a more personal basis.
The other method is to ask a big magazine if they are interested in an interview with a certain person. Nowadays everybody is looking for quality content so they are very likely to say yes. Then just reach out to the person and interview him. This is a great way to have a chat and even build some sort of connection. (Tim Ferriss actually gave me this idea to approach stars like this)
Two recent examples of how I did it:
Two weeks ago I was in Berlin at the International Positive Psychology Congress where I worked as a translator for the German speakers. How did I get this chance? I just wrote the organizer an email and hustled for a spot in the team. I never did translation work before. Being part of the team I got the chance to go to lunch with guys like Martin Seligman and Robert Biswas-Diener or chat casually with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who are the stars at the positive psychology sky
The chance to talk to Paul Ekman came up by interviewing him for lifehack. So I used the prestige and structure of the lifehack magazine to talk to one of the greatest psychologists of our time and ask him a bunch of questions.
I continuously hone my skills in finding mentors and getting in touch with important persons, because I noticed how it contributed to my own development. I think there is hardly anything more valuable than directly learning from the greatest minds of our time. So go out and reach for the stars. Literally.
Featured photo credit: seeveeaar via flickr.com