On September 25, Frank Moss, the author of The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, successful entrepreneur, and the former director of the MIT Media Lab, participated in a live Jewish-ed event in suburban Boston. Moss, an expert in creating cultures of innovation, offered up some terrific lessons about work, school, and life—and we were thrilled that he schlepped out to Newton.
At one point, an attendee came over and asked, sotto voce, “How did you get him to do this?”
“I wrote him an email,” I said.
Her immediate response was a look that said You can just write to someone like Frank Moss?
That expression of worried wonder reminded me of what I see so often in my work with Jewish day schools: The JDS inferiority complex.
Let’s be honest: We day school professionals don’t esteem ourselves enough. Why? It could be that some non-communal workers think that we—no matter how necessary we are to the day school environment—are people who couldn’t make it in the real world. Lacking the chutzpah or brains to duke it out in the grownup marketplace, we instead stay in the professional shtetl, earning minor money and engaging in the less-than-essential “Jewish” tasks of the world. I fear that we sometimes believe that ourselves.
And so we wouldn’t dare dream of writing to an important entrepreneur/author/academic such as Moss.
Which is sad and wrong.
We should contact whomever we wish. Period. Moreover, I believe we should be audacious in our choices of correspondents—and not just to spite those people who look down on our professional choices. The parameters of our conversations shouldn’t be set by the layout of our cubicles. Instead, let’s choose to engage great thinkers, great doers, and in the process make our communities, and ourselves, greater. We can do so, easily, via email, Twitter, or any of our ubiquitous online communications. You just need to ask. Such conversations can be responsible for great leaps in professional development; in bringing great speakers, programs, and ideas to our networks; in making our work environments more engaging and fun.
You’d be amazed, for instance, at how effective a tool email is, when you give yourself permission to use it the right way. As a journalist, I’ve found that smart people, even world-famous ones, are often happy to respond when they receive an email written with sufficient care and maturity. Email can put you in direct contact with all kinds of important and influential people who, in all other eras, would be insulated from you by thick doors, loyal assistants, annoying layers of bureaucracy, the U.S. Postal Service, social convention, wealth, snobbery, hierarchical thinking, various old boys’ clubs, and a variety of other impediments. Email can leap over all of them at the touch of the Send button.
Of course, it’s not as simple as pushing Send. The correspondence of which I speak requires quite a bit on your part. For instance:
1. Diligence. You may have to dig to find the necessary email address. But the great thing about writers and experts: they either have their own websites—with easy-to-find contact information—or they work at a university or some other org, and these typically set up emails as firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Start by engaging in the requisite Google work.
2. Understanding. You must demonstrate that you get what your expert really is all about. It’s a terrific idea to show, by quotation, that you’ve read his books, and that you can intelligently talk about them. Don’t just quote chapter two, page 63: Ask a smart, detailed question about the passage in question, based on your professional experience. Most writers spend a great deal of time typing away by themselves. It can be enormously gratifying for them to meet someone who has paid real attention to their work. We’re not talking about a fan letter but about making a real connection. No fawning.
3. Equanimity. The busy person you’re addressing has the option of not answering you immediately, or at all. You cannot demand a response; you can only put yourself in the position to receive one. Don’t get impatient. Don’t follow up with a hurt email—Why didn’t you get back to me immediately?—or hurt second, third, or fourth emails, for that matter.
4. Professionalism. Proofread your stuff until you can proof no more. Make sure you’ve got your facts correct. You are the unknown quantity in this equation. If you want to person at the other end of your correspondence to respond positively, you must show that you’re a pro. One way to do so: produce clean copy.
5. Patience. When you’re first getting to know someone via email, what you want to do is create an exchange. You’re not there to do business. Maybe somewhere down the line you will want to, say, bring this person to speak at your org—but it would be a mistake to lead with that (unless you already have budget approval and aren’t really interested in improving your mind, organization, or professional standing).
6. Restraint. Write when there’s a legitimate reason to write. If your VIP is interviewed by the Forward and her responses provoke you to write, go for it. If, however, you are bored and watching Parks and Recreation, don’t suddenly write to your professional pen pal and ask, “What’s up?”
Strategically written communications can go a long way to making your professional vision into a reality. If you want to write to Frank Moss, write to Frank Moss. Don’t wait for an invitation. Start the dialogue right away. Right now.