Never Eat Alone: The Write Stuff

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This is the thirteenth of sixteen parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s Never Eat Alone, where this book on building a lifelong community of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth chapters – “The Write Stuff” and “Getting Close to Power” – which appear on pages 246 through 258.

neaWhen I was in high school, I had dreams of being a writer. I read prodigiously, wrote mediocre short stories, and imagined myself publishing a long line of novels when I was older.

My English teacher was surprisingly supportive of this, even though I never directly told him of my dreams. He constantly reinforced to me that I had some writing ability, but that I really needed to work at it to polish it. He would grade my papers with an extra sharp pen, taking off points for things that other students would have gotten away with.

My dream of being a writer went away for almost a decade, but I never stopped writing. I wrote something almost every day, not because I thought I was good, but because I thought it was fun. Little did I know that I was developing a personal trait that would serve me well throughout my professional life. I found myself writing reports and many other documents (things that I probably shouldn’t have been writing – they should have been the domain of my supervisor) while at my previous job, then my writing opened the door to The Simple Dollar as well.

I have little talent as a writer. Any ability I have comes from a lot of practice. However, that practice has built up a skill that’s marketable enough that I can use it to earn a living.

How to Use Writing to Build Relationships
Ferrazzi carries this idea forward on page 246:

If you have any writing skills at all – and yes, the good news is we all have some level of skill – you can get close to almost anywhere by doing a piece on them, or with them, even if it’s for your local newspaper.

Or even for your blog, provided you’re not trying to interview a mega-superstar.

Here’s how this works. Let’s say you’re trying to get to know someone. Get ahold of your local newspaper (or other media source) and suggest that you’d like to write a freelance article about this person. Explain why they’re interesting. Get permission, then call up the interesting person in question. The fact that you’re calling for a story about them will flatter them – unless, of course, they’re a major star of some sort, in which case more media requests might be annoying.

This gives you a great opportunity for a conversation with them. You can then relate to them the things you’re really working on – and you can even reveal to them that you’re only moonlighting as a journalist and your primary interests are elsewhere (if that’s the case).

Then, just translate what you know and what you learned in that conversation into a short piece and submit it. You’ll likely not get paid for it – or if you do, it’s a pittance – but that’s not the point. The reason to do it is to meet a person in the community you’ve always wanted to meet.

But I Can’t Write!
Many people believe that they can’t write. However, most people can – and they can even write well enough to be quite passable in a small newspaper. All it really takes is practice. On page 247, Ferrazzi offers some great advice on this:

First, get over all the romantic pretensions around writing. In business school, when I was dreaming about publishing an article in the Harvard Business Review, I had a wonderful encounter with a visiting professor who had written a number of high-profile articles and books. I asked her how I, too, could become a writer.

“Write,” she told me.

Brows furrowed, I nodded. When no more advice came from her esteemed mouth, I asked: “Anything else.”

“Write, then write some more. When you’re done – and here’s the kicker – keep writing.

“Look,” she said, “there is no secret. Writing is tough. But people of all talents, at all levels, do it. The onlything necessary to become a writer is a pen, some paper, and the will to express yourself.”

I have no writing talent at all. What skill I do have is built from a lot of practice. I can’t turn out much truly great prose, but I can turn out a lot of good prose fairly quickly. That’s how I can post two lengthy, meaty articles a day at The Simple Dollar.

Here’s the thing, though. Anyone can do this if they practice – perhaps not at the same volume, but anyone can write a good short article if they practice at it regularly. And the ability to write a good, short piece is endlessly useful in life, not only in the “getting to know you” method described here, but in any environment that relies on communication.

The better communicator you are – and written communication is a big part of this – the better your skill set is, no matter what you do. It doesn’t require talent. It just requires practice.

Field Mice and Antelope
Ferrazzi offers a good anecdote on page 249:

Newt Gingrich, the famous Republican politician and all-about-Washington gadfly, is known to tell a story about a lion and a field mouse. A lion, he says, can use his prodigious hunting skills to capture a field mouse with relative ease anytime he wants, but at the end of the day, no matter how many mice he’s ensnared, he’ll still be starving.

The moral of the story: Sometimes, despite the risk and work involved, it’s worth our time to go for the antelope.

It’s easy to make friends and connections with your peers and particularly with people at a level below you, but the real rewards come in building relationships with people who are above you in status at work and in society in general.

Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it takes us out of our comfort zone. But connections to the people who have found success in their life often buoy us into success as well, both directly and indirectly.

They can help with success directly by giving advice that actually works. You bear witness to their success – you identify that success with them.

They also help indirectly through association. People recognize who you’re associating with and their opinion of you goes up and down depending on who that associate is.

Isn’t That Disingenuous?
Isn’t striving to meet well-known people just for the sake of connecting with well-known people disingenuous? On page 251, Ferrazzi addresses that very point:

There are no easy answers. But if you pursue these people in a sincere manner, with good intentions, you’re not being manipulative. And if you are emboldened by a mission and you’ve put in the time and hard work to establish a web of people that count on you, then the time will come when your growing influence will put you in a place where you’ll be face-to-face with someone who can convey a lot of sparkle.

In other words, if you take the initiative to become a leader among your peers, eventually you’ll be recognized as such and the more influential people around you will be perfectly happy to meet you.

As he says, it’s not easy. It takes a lot of consistent, hard work. You need to do your work well, produce great results, and build trust with the people around you.

Over time, doing that will slowly open doors for you. And then you’ll find yourself in the same room as a legend, and it’s up to you to go over there and introduce yourself. If you don’t, you’re choosing to slam the door in your own face.

Trust
There’s one big element here that presides over everything else. From page 252:

I’ve found that trust is the essential element of mixing with powerful and famous people – trust that you’ll be discreet; trust that you have no ulterior motives behind your approach; trust that you’ll deal with them as people and not as stars; and basically trust that you feel like a peer who deserves to be engaged as such. The first few moments of an encounter is the litmus test for such a person to size up whether or not he or she can trust you in these ways or not.

To put it simply, when you approach someone purely as a fan, they don’t recognize you as a peer. Going up to someone and gushing about how incredible they are won’t make them impressed with you. It’ll make them see you as someone far down the ladder, someone to appease and then move on.

If you actually wish to know someone as a potential peer, the worst thing you can do is accost them as a fan. Instead, act as if they’re an equal, even if you’re thoroughly impressed. Offer them whatever advice and suggestions you can to improve what they do. Bounce ideas off of them.

A compliment for good work is fine. Raw adulation is rarely a good move.

What Do You Do Instead?
How do you converse instead if you’re starstruck? Ferrazzi offers up some ideas on page 253:

To assure them that you’re interested in them for themselves, rather than what the public perceives them to be, stay away from their fame and focus, instead, on their interests. You can certainly let them know that you respect their work, but don’t dwell. Take them away from what they are normally barraged with.

Once upon a time, I was lucky enough to have a very casual breakfast with a Nobel Prize winner. I could have been completely starstruck by spending time with this individual, but instead we spent most of our conversation talking about chicken farming.

Seriously.

Why did we talk about chicken farming? He was raised on a farm and was very particular about his eggs. He didn’t particularly like the eggs that had been served – they were prepared fine, but he thought the eggs themselves were really awful. I spoke up for the first time and simply said that when I grew up, we fed the chicken table scraps and pieces of grit and they produced wonderful eggs. This got him going down a very nostalgic path about chicken farming in his childhood.

At the end of the meal, he slapped me on the back and suggested I tag along with him, something I would have loved to have done had I not had other responsibilities that day.

That one event got me over my fear of meeting famous people. People in that situation have already heard a lifetime’s worth of adulation and simply wish to have a normal conversation with people interested in the same things they are. If you do that, you can make friends at any strata of life.

On Saturday, we’ll tackle the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth chapters – “Build It and They Will Come” and “Never Give in to Hubris.”

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9 thoughts on “Never Eat Alone: The Write Stuff

  1. If your local paper finds out that you are lobbying a source for personal advice, especially job hunting, expect that to be the last freelance assignment you ever get from them. That’s a serious breach of journalistic ethics, and even freelancers are expected to abide by the profession’s code.

    That said, it is amazing the sort of contacts you can build up in this business, incidentally. I live in a small town in the oil fields of North Dakota, and we did a special section on the oil business. One of the features was on a NASDAQ-traded exploration company, and two days after my initial call I got a returned call from their CEO, profusely apologizing for not getting back to me sooner. I almost laughed: the 27-year-old reporter making $10.80/hour is being apologized to for lack of prompt attention from the CEO who made almost $4 million in compensation in the last five years.

    Later that day, a U.S. congressman took a few minutes before attending a funeral to call me directly as well.

    It’s a heady job :)

  2. Actually, though, if you live in a rural area and like sports, that’s a *great* part-time job opportunity.

    If your small local paper covers more than two or three schools, I guarantee they need stringer help during football and basketball season, and they’d be willing to train.

    Being a good writer is far less important than being willing to take direction. As an editor, I can fix bad writing. But if I told you what information I wanted and you didn’t get it to me, I’m stuck.

    Pay would typically be $25-$50 a story.

  3. I’ve always thought I was decent at writing… I always seem to get good marks on writing assignments, and in one of my high school classes I was notorious for being an extremely harsh and brutally honest reviewer of drafts. (I had at least one guy who would seek me out to go over his writing for him, since I was so picky.) I think, perhaps, it’s more about developing a unique voice more than anything.

    Though I have often wondered what it would take to get published in a local newspaper…. Not sure what I’d write about for a paper anyhow. I’d love to write for a magazine, though. :)

  4. The biggest problem I have with writing anything is getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount or research I end up getting. I decide to write an article on a subject then the research just seems to take days with the end result of having so much information its difficult to fit it all into the article size, then half the time I end up giving up.

  5. I am really enjoying the series that you have put together on Never Eat Alone. The book itself offers a lot of food for thought. I thank you for sharing your personal experiences as you apply the lessons taught in the book. I would love to see other readers share there experiences doing the same.

    Once again, great work. I appreciate it.

  6. Good job Trent. I am thankful I read this article today. I have a new job interview. Thinking of people as your equals will ease my mind a bit.

    Being able to take text and place it into any situation in your life is one thing I do quite a bit from many of your articles. I too am a writer, have started a blog and also have hope of being published one day. I am going back to school after 20 years to finish my college degree and am teetering between Technical Communications or Organizational Communications. Reading articles like this gives me great food for thought. Thank you.

  7. You’ve convinced me to go get the book – tell Keith he could send you some royalties;-). I’ve really enjoyed this book review series and your thoughts about it. Thanks! Eileen

  8. This is an excellent article, just like all other “Never Eat Alone” articles you have written. The habit of writing could become a very useful social tool. After reading your reviews, I don’t think I would need the book. You’ve explained everything that I have to know… Thank you very much… :)

    Cheers!

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