If you're a (young) student or lack social capital, reaching out to people on the internet is one of the highest ROI things you can do.
- It doesn't take a lot of time
- Can lead to cool opportunities
- And allows you to build your network with intention.
Being a student, your social circle is pre-determined by a few major institutions (i.e. your family, school, place of work, etc.) Pre-prescribed relationships with the absence of choice are often a matter of convenience; outreach allows you to regain will in who you interact with.
Actively choosing to broaden my social horizons has led to having some of the most valuable experiences and meeting some amazing, interesting people I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. I strongly believe more young people (13-18-year-olds in particular) should put more effort into digital networking, as daunting as it may seem.
Networking itself is highly valuable for building personally-rewarding relationships and expediting professional advancement. Networking virtually gives you access to pretty much anyone you want to get in contact with and is more time-efficient.
One may argue that trying to develop yourself professionally as a young person isn't worthwhile. I somewhat grapple with this myself, but I've come to the consensus that it's still net positive, even if you supposedly fail.
Regardless, it's quite hypocritical of me not to acknowledge the psych barriers I've faced by taking this on myself. Here's a thought that I had frequently when starting cold outreach.
Suppose I meet someone very impressive now. Instead of them knowing me when I’ve become my most academically and socially “competent” self, they meet my young, awkward, maybe not-so-smart current self.
So now they have an everlasting (bad) impression of me, and I've now severed a relationship forever...
Although I'm still in the not-so-socially competent stage of life, I object to the thoughts above as I'm quite confident most people (even the "impressive" ones)
- Won't remember their brief (digital) interaction(s) with you
- Won't hold it against you that you weren't at 100% social competency during your first encounter.
So, I suppose if you're still reading this, you're interested in digital networking. So here's some advice . . .
Networking with Intention
Although, I generally lean toward not optimizing my social (virtual) interactions for personal gain. Sending cold-outreach messages requires succinctness that can only be found if you're pretty clear with what you hope to get out of said interaction.
How to do it
Basic Rules of Thumb (Please don't be offended if this is common sense to you)
- If you're using Linkedin, Twitter, etc. - optimize your profile. A profile picture, bio, and list of your past experiences put you in a great position for digital networking. Arguably, the bio is less critical if your past experiences point to your interests and skills and are more important if they don't.
- Have good grammar. Coming off as authentic is important - but don't sacrifice grammar in the process. Instead, get a free Grammarly account and ask someone to proofread your emails if you're especially concerned about accomplishing this.
- Express your 'want' within the first three sentences of your email - this is a general benchmark. Getting to the point helps the recipient save time learning how they can help you. Note: Be wary of asking for advice on things/seeking answers that you could easily retrieve on your own with some internet digging.
Note: Coffee chats are a highly valuable 'want', and Calendly laCCalendlyis a great scheduler for booking them!
- Reaching out to a person >>> Reaching out to an institution (find people on Twitter, About Us pages, LinkedIn, etc.)
- Send links. Links are optional but are (hopefully) highly informative and awesome. Working on a project? Create a doc outlining what you're working on - even better, make a landing page (SquarespaceSquarespace, NotionNotion, Google SitesWordPress). I would attribute most of my outreach success to sending documents alongside a message. Why?
- They show you've spent a decent amount of time thinking about stuff.
- Links are shareable and socially scalable. Your contact isn't the best person to help? Well, they can send your link to someone else who can.
- Don't Spam. If someone hasn't responded to your email, they probably haven't because they're: too busy, not interested in responding, don't check their email often or for another pragmatic reason. Depending on the basis for reaching out (i.e. for a research/internship opportunity), it may be valuable to send a follow-up email, especially if the person gets a high frequency of messages.
Here's an example follow-up message:
I'm [Y] a student at New University. I reached out to you earlier about [Z, hyperlinked] project I was working on and was wondering if you would be
interested in chatting about [M] problem I was having. I value your time and completely understand if you're too busy, however, if you knew someone else who would be helpful, please feel free to share the doc that I've attached.
Have a great rest of your week,
The worst thing that can happen is someone doesn't respond, nay, they respond with something hurtful. In that case, give yourself the benefit of the doubt that you didn't do anything wrong. The chances of this happening if you're polite are relatively low, as being mean requires more energy than people are willing to expend through email.
I would generally argue that you should lower your threshold for reaching out to people as long as your perceived expected value from each outreach attempt doesn't decrease. If you're especially young (i.e. 13-17), you should be keen to reach out to people. People tend to be generally more impressed with seemingly basic attempts at initiative within this age group - warranting kinder, more frequent responses.
Imposter syndrome can still be a barrier to cold outreach, but here's an excerpt from a blog post by Chris Olah that explains how I feel at the moment on the topic.
My personal experience is that I both get lots of blatant spam emails (eg. "do my homework for me") and find out that many people who I'd really want to email me (eg. seriously thought about one of my papers and want to talk) are hesitant to do so. I've particularly noticed that the average quality of emails from junior women is much higher than the average, and suspect that they are typically applying a much higher threshold for reaching out. I don't know how to help you adjust for this, but if you're worrying about reaching out you should probably update positively that it's more likely you should.
- If you feel like reaching out, I highly recommend that you do.
- Reach out with a purpose - the clearer your intentions, the more effective your attempt(s) will be.
- Don't take anything personally - people are busy, and chances are it's not your fault if an interaction doesn't go the way you like.
FWIW, this has worked for me too. I got hired this summer (college freshman) because I was impressed with + interested by some GPT-3 stuff that Peter Wildeford was doing on Twitter and wanted to try it myself. Those tweets got me hired!
TLDR: Tweet about interesting stuff and reply to people you think are smart!
Twitter is definitely underrated for career dev (including by me up until a few weeks ago). Perhaps someone could write a post about dynamics on the platform? I find it quite intimidating and infinite game-ish relative to emailing/DMs, and I wouldn't be surprised if others felt similarly.
I have 13 followers, and most of those are friends or coworkers, so I don’t feel qualified to be that someone. But I would also love to see this!
I like this, and think that networking as a teen is super useful and high ROI. (Maybe I'm biased because networking opened up opportunities for me.)
I really like this post as a starting guide! Thanks for writing
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I realized that I didn't want to go through with my original career plans of doing econ grad school and then becoming a developmental economist. So I felt pretty lost. I didn't really have any connections with the "nerds who want to maximally do good with their careers" movement (and have barely heard about them, mostly through Givewell). But I wanted to figure out more, so naturally I emailed Peter Singer.
He replied back with some useful tips. I think it was very helpful, and certainly very helpful in expectation even though the specific suggestions didn't pan out. I think my own journey to EA was very overdetermined, but I wouldn't be surprised if emailing Singer accelerated my trajectory by 3 months to a year. SO I'm guessing that this was a good use of time from both my end and his.
"Naturally I emailed Peter Singer", boss move lol. Jokes aside, definitely agree that sometimes the initial reason for the interaction isn't what makes reaching out worthwhile long-term. Oftentimes it's just a starting point for thinking about things differently or exploring their field of work with newfound motivation.